Archives in Fiction: Record of a Spaceborn Few
Updated: Dec 9, 2020
When humans begin to traverse the cosmos there are fundamental questions we ask of ourselves. Where is home and how are we connected? Are we a civilization, a people, destined to scatter among the stars or are we bound together by our shared humanity? Does that bond defy time and space? What is our obligation to one another? What is our obligation to those who have strayed and returned? Becky Chambers ruminates on such questions in Record of a Spaceborn Few, the third novel in her Wayfarers series. Told from the perspective of several characters aboard the Asteria within the Exodus fleet, Spaceborn Few puts the existential crisis front and center. Key to understanding the past and future of humans on the Asteria and among the stars is the archives.
One of the point-of-view characters in the novel is Isabel, the Asteria's head archivist and the Exodus fleet's oldest living archivist. The primary focus of Isabel's story are her interactions with an ethnographic researcher, Ghuh'loloan Mok Chutp, who has come to the Asteria to study the Fleet. Her wife, Tamsin, isn't as enthusiastic about the alien's visit. Through their conversations, however, the reader learns about the Fleet and how humans have developed and maintained their own unique culture through necessity, adaptation, and tradition. As the head archivist, Isabel is not only the purveyor of knowledge she also presides over the most important milestones in a person's life and death.
Prior to Ghuh'loloan's visit, Isabel leads the ceremony of entering an infant girl's name, birth date, and footprint into the Asteria's database. The scene mirrors a baptism with the archive serving as the church and the archivist as priest. The congregation brings food for the potluck and recites an affirmation of their history, uniting in their bond as humans and as Exodans. Isabel takes pride in her position, stating:
The person being honoured there would not remember any of it, but the others present would, and they would tell the story one day. That, in a nutshell, was what Isabel's profession was for. Making sure everybody was a link in a chain. Making sure they remembered (p.33).
Later on, after the unfortunate death of a young man searching for a connection with his human brethren, Isabel presides over his funeral, entering his name into the database and finding the family from which he descended within the Fleet. It's an event that puts Isabel in the position of advisor to other point-of-view characters as they wrestle with their complicity in the deceased's downfall and how they can honor his passing going forward.
Through it all, Isabel never pretends to have all of the answers. She struggles with her own feelings of age and relevance, but she's adamant about the importance of the archives in giving humans living on or descended from the Fleet a sense of community. History isn't something to be observed from a distance, it's active and a vital part of Exodan culture. Everyone works, everyone shares, everyone is a link in the chain.
Also, Isabel and Tamsin are an adorable couple and I would read an entire book about their life together! Pages 140-149 are, by far, my favorite vignette of the whole book!