No Story Is Too Small: Becky Chambers In Conversation With Laura Lam

I call Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers series “queer domestic sci-fi.” All of the space opera, but all of the internal monologue too. It’s amongst my favourite book series ever, so naturally I was ecstatic when Waterstones announced a virtual talk between Becky Chambers and Laura Lam. Lam is the author of Goldilocks and the co-author of Seven Devils, and lectures on the Creative Writing Master’s course at Edinburgh Napier.

The event was primarily geared to promoting Chambers’ The Galaxy and The Ground Within. This is the last book in her Wayfarers series, which follows the experiences of the crew of the Wayfarer. This isn’t to say that every crew member is featured in all four of the books: in The Galaxy And The Ground Within they’re only referenced by the three point-of-view characters, only one of which is a returning character, Pei. Pei is one of the characters trapped due to freak technological failure at the Five-Hop-One-Stop, which Chambers describes as a “truck stop in space.” This freak technological failure forces a diverse mix of species to spend time with one another since they are unable to launch their ships. I love how Lam and Chambers characterise the species as they talk. One character, Roveg, is referred to as a “fancy lobster man,” the Laru are called “muppety,” and Lam says that she thought of Speaker, the Akarak, as “a little sloth.”

The book screamed “pandemic metaphor” to me while I was reading, and Lam affirmed my feelings. “Reading about a group of people trapped in lockdown, while trapped in lockdown is a very meta experience, and I can imagine writing it was too.” she says. Chambers admits that this “hits differently than intended.” Although she’s sure lockdown influenced the book somehow, Chambers tells us that the inspiration for the situation her characters are in actually came from the California wildfires. To prevent power lines from falling into the forest, sections of the grid were intentionally shut off, and Californians were given six hours of warning before the power was shut off for five days. “At the time,” Chambers says “that seemed like a very unique experience that I didn’t expect to have again, and certainly not over the course of a whole year.”

Lam remarks that the Wayfarers series has no straightforward antagonist. She says that she finds this really refreshing, and so do I. The absence of a villain allows the story to focus on character motivation instead of a massive space battle, and subverts the sci-fi genre into something personal and intimate. Chambers says that this is very intentional. “The whole impetus of the Wayfarers series has always been: create a big space opera-esque setting and flip the camera around to the ordinary people living within that space.” She continues, “I don’t actually know any [villains] in real life. An actual villain is a very rare thing. In keeping with these being everyday stories about everyday people, I didn’t want to go in that direction.” I hadn’t thought about this before: the struggles that everyday people go through are much more often an internal or interpersonal thing than what sci-fi and fantasy writers call “a Big Bad”. The sci-fi and fantasy that focuses on villains can be alienating, because the villain’s characterisation is so far from reality. Chambers has pinpointed this, and gotten rid of it entirely. The obstacle of a Wayfarers story is so much bigger than a fantasy villain, and in being that, the story is so much more intimate.

Telling what Chambers calls the “smallest, most relatable stories you can” really appeals to me in sci-fi, because in other sci-fi media I’ve consumed, I often don’t feel like I knew the characters at all. Female characters were especially underdeveloped in those cases, but this is wholeheartedly not the case in Chambers’ work. Most of her characters are female, and they can span from someone like Pei, a soldier separated from her lover, to Ouloo, a host and mother, to Speaker, the tribe translator. They have hugely different personalities and motivations even outside of their difference in species, a sci-fi trope that Chambers masterfully makes her own.

Lam suggests that the word that summarises Chambers’ work would be “character-driven” and she’s absolutely right. Chambers writes so much character into her alien species. There are nuances in the ways in which every two different species interact with one another, which is all to the merit of her brilliant worldbuilding. As fantastic as the Wayfarers series is as a whole, in The Galaxy And The Ground Within gets right to the heart of sapient cultural differences in a way the other books hadn’t quite done. At the Five-Hop-One-Stop, characters are constantly asking questions and finding out how drastically their way of life differs from that of another species. This is especially evident in a political discussion two characters have in the middle of the book. They are not two soldiers with weapons raised, they are people at a party whose lives have both been affected by the decisions of the Galactic Commons, but who view those decisions so differently.

Unsurprisingly, making up alien cultures is one of Chambers’ favourite things. She gives us the example of Aeluons, who communicate using colour. That single trait sparks off a chain of new things to consider, such as “How does it affect the way a room is set up? If you need to get someone’s attention across the house, how do you do that without sound? If you encounter other species who don’t associate the same meaning to colour that you do, how does it feel to walk into a very colourful space?” Most sci-fi authors I know create a species and then stop there, the amount of thought and care Chambers gives to her worldbuilding is what I’ve always wanted from sci-fi. Lam asks where Chambers would go in her own galaxy given the chance, to which she responds “I don’t think this will come as a shock to anybody, but I am extremely fond of Aandrisks. I’d love to spend a year on Hashkath and spend a year in the desert and just be extremely chill.”

In addition to her creation of alien cultures, I love the way that Chambers approaches gender and sexuality. Aandrisks, for example, have a very different view of sex than humans do, in the sense that they practice it much more socially, and there’s much less emotion attached. This is very relevant in the way they interact with their own and other species. Auleon have four distinct genders: one that can fertilise eggs, one that produces eggs, one called shon that involuntarily switches between, and one that is infertile. Tupo, a character in The Galaxy And The Ground Within, uses xe/xyr pronouns because xe is a Laru, and Laru children are considered gender-neutral until they choose a gender and tell xyr family. Neopronouns are often mocked, and Chambers’ exploration of gender and pronouns in her books is a brilliant way to have her readers think about gender outside of the binary.

Lam postulates that there is a pressure to write big epic stories in order to be marketable. “Can’t they just hang out in this University and drink tea?” she says, referring to the novel that she’s currently drafting. I’m a sucker for fluff in books, and Wayfarers fluff is so much more than story filler. The domestic is really powerful. It makes the alien species relatable and still so alien at the same time, when the characters are just chatting about their cultures and their politics and they realise how different they are in culture and background while being so similar at heart. Lam also asks “what would be your advice to a writer who worries that their story is too small?” Chambers replies that this is the exact thing that kept her from writing The Long Way To A Small Angry Planet for years, especially the idea that her story “wasn’t real science fiction.” At first, she thought she needed a “we gotta go save the galaxy” macguffin, but it never fit so she “got stubborn” and wrote The Long Way anyway. She says “Just tell what’s in your heart. If you think there’s a story worth telling, chances are there’s someone out there who’s going to want to read it.” Lam and Chambers agree wholeheartedly that quiet moments in a story actually help the reader to understand why the bigger moments are so important.

An important question from the Q&A that came up was: “What would be your biggest advice to a woman trying to break into the very male-dominated genre of sci-fi?” Chambers responds with two things that she says will sound contradictory, but are both true. “One is that women have been here forever. […] I won’t sugarcoat it, there is still a ton of sexism in this field, it’s getting better constantly, and you have so many of us who are fighting for that or just existing in it.” Lam replies that eventually you start laughing at the sexism. Chambers says that when she’s asked “what’s it like to be a woman writing science fiction” at cons, she goes “I don’t know, ask Mary Shelley.” Essentially, she tells us not to listen to pushback. “I’m like, what, I don’t type with my breasts. It would take me a very long time,” Lam says.

Holding this event on Zoom fundamentally changed how the attendees could take part. As Chambers and Lam talked, there was almost a separate conversation going on in the chat as Wayfarers fans found each other, chimed in with their opinion to Lam’s questions and Chambers’ answers, and sent questions to the Q&A chat. By the end of the event, we had created an entire Discord server, and people introduced themselves there as “I was the person who asked the question about mek!” or “I was the sword and board gal!” Although Chambers had recently quit social media, she was so proud that the Discord now existed. I’m really proud to be a part of the Wayfarers community and will keep flying the flag for queer domestic sci-fi everywhere.

Order The Galaxy and The Ground Within here.
Follow Laura Lam on Twitter @LR_Lam.

Words: Beatrix Livesey-Stephens
Image: Waterstones

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