This is the third in a series (but not necessarily a sequence) of novels about humans who fled a dying Earth and lived for centuries in their spaceships, looking for a new home. The first novel, The Long Way to A Small, Angry Planet, takes place on a spaceship, and the second, A Closed and Common Orbit, is set on a planet. To understand 2, you definitely have to read 1. I bought 2 first, by accident, and hung onto it – after realising it was a sequel – because the quality of the emotion and the world-building was so strong, I absolutely had to find my way into the story by reading 1 (it took me a year to find it). This novel can be read before or after 1 and 2 without problems, and is just as good and strong and true.
Emotion is again very important in Spaceborn Few. The narrative explores the life of the people on the great Exodan Fleet of ships that left Earth, who now constitute a nation, a tribe and a unity of custom and culture. They could also do with being an economy, but the Exodans are the very poor newcomers in a long-established Galactic Council. They can trade very little in return for the freely offered gifts of decent communications, fuel and energy. They are even in orbit around an unplaneted star that the Council don’t need at the moment. In fact, they are a curiosity, a remarkable anthropological learning experience, and are about to be visited by an over-enthusiastic (and slightly condescending?) Harmagian, and her essays about her long stay on the Asteria and her observations about human life there will thrill and fascinate the scientists and sociologists in the galaxy.
This is such a clever reversal of the colonial trope that appears whenever humans in science fiction set foot on non-Earth planets. It’s rare for humans to be considered as inferior, lacking and inadequate, in galactic terms, quite so forensically. The novel unfolds through the perspectives of five Exodans on the Asteria: Isabel, an ageing archivist; Eyas, a caretaker who takes care of the dead; Kip, a rebellious sixteen-year old who doesn’t know what he wants or where to go, as long as it’s not home; Sawyer, a lost and rather hapless man who comes to Fleet to find a home; and Tessa, the salvage clerk and harrassed mother, wife, sister and daughter. These Fleet people live their lives and show us how its marvellously complex systems work in practice, through disaster, grief and recovery. Eyas, the careteker, is the key perspective for exploring how the cycle of life and death makes humans utterly special: the human body is nurtured by plants that grow in earth, and returns into a state of earth as composted human remains after death. Even in space, earth is central to human existence.
I loved this book, as passionately as I enjoyed the drama and humour of Small Angry Planet, and as joyously as I worked through the identity politics of Closed and Common Orbit. The strength of Spaceborn Few is its emotional integrity, which rings true as a bell, a perfect antidote to a day of bickering and stress, a truly excellent restorative for the mind and heart.