It has been harder and harder to keep anxiety at bay these days. Sometimes, it just feels like I’m putting pretty band-aids on a gaping existential wound. And the feeling is not unique; on social media, I’ve seen a few authors wonder if their work is not akin to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.
It is not, of course. Fiction is not a frivolity, it’s a lifeline to sanity and a semblance of hope. This month of reading has proven it to me – if proof was even needed after years of picking up books to escape whatever scenarios of dread my brain can come up with.
This month, I’ve read Becky Chambers’ A Closed and Common Orbit and Record of a Spaceborn Few, books 2 and 3 of the Wayfarers series. I’ve been keeping them for rainy days after finishing the first book a year ago. If you’re not familiar with the work, it’s a more-or-less loosely connected series of standalone novels set in space, with slice of life themes.
Beyond the sheer quality and enjoyability of these stories, they are important. Their core message is one of decency, of hope. And the way this message is conveyed is a perfect answer to whatever is happening lately. This ugliness that never left, but is creeping back with more boldness now.
The Wayfarers series is not a saccharine sweet story. It wouldn’t have had the same impact if it were. The world is as messed-up as our own – if not more. Larger scale, more advanced technology, and other species that are not all less belligerent than human beings, what could go wrong? The genius in Chambers’ work is that it doesn’t erase the hardships or the cruelty, and doesn’t completely immerse the reader in an unescapable fog of gloom. Instead, the stories follow a handful of characters with their lives and their preoccupations, some small, others more difficult. And they do their best with what they’re given.
To understand how revolutionary this simple premise was to me, I should note that I grew up reading about heroic exploits, about clear-cut fights against evil. The Boy who Lived, the Girl on Fire, the Ring-bearer. The lessons taught by these stories are important as well. Stand up for what is right. Fight the baddies. But what happens when evil is systematic? What happens when evil is pettiness, myopic greed, ignorant hatred? How does one fight that evil? How does one resist an inexorable tide of general terribleness?
Becky Chambers doesn’t give direct answers. What she does give, however, are stories with people who try. Her characters aren’t perfect, nor are they all privileged enough to be shielded from the unjust laws or ethical atrocities the world inflicts on them. But their power is in understanding, reaching out, paying it forward. They don’t have the reach for the grand heroic gestures we’re accustomed to from fantasy . They are the helpers, to use that Mr Rogers quote; they protect those who need protection, they respect the boundaries and beliefs of people who are different from them, they provide guidance and solace. Resistance is in doing better, being better.
What a powerful message to get when you feel helpless while everything is on fire.
All fiction has the power to make the reader escape reality. It is, after all, part of what makes books magical. Hopeful fiction, and in this case, hopeful SFF, has an additional power – to inspire and strive for something better. It’s a bittersweet feeling: when I was reading Record of a Spaceborn Few, the story of the humans who fled a destroyed Earth in spaceships and made a life in their fleet, I kept thinking about amazing their lifestyle is. The sense of community and solidarity, the way people are taken care of. Granted, this way of life was pretty much aligned with my political beliefs, and it was almost a form of grief to close the book and get back to the news and a reality of selfishness and unabashed greed.
SFF has always challenged itself to think of new worlds, and Chambers (among other talented voices in the genre) perfectly embodies this challenge. Her world is flawed without a whiff of tiresome and lazy nihilism; it is hopeful without being twee or naive.
Becky Chambers and her stories are what we need right now.