There were many reasons to feel bemused by the novelist Colm Tóibín’s recent dismissal of all genre writing as “blank, nothing”: its joylessness; the narrowness of Tóibín’s purview; the absence of critical and intellectual rigour in his central thesis; and, perhaps most of all, the peculiar sense of anger underpinning the assertion.
As I finished reading To Be Taught, If Fortunate, the latest work by the young American science fiction novelist Becky Chambers, I felt Tóibín might have found much to admire in her books, if he could only have brought himself to pick one up: their fascination with disparate sexual and gender paradigms; their exploration of alternative physical and non-physical forms of existence; their passionate advocacy of equality; and most of all, their hopefulness.
In a world in which intolerance seems to be implacably on the rise, the fundamental decency at the heart of Chambers’s narratives, her depiction of a post-dystopian humanity attempting to construct a better version of itself while encountering new worlds and species, begins to seem quietly, gently radical.
But then the California-born Chambers is not a typical science-fiction writer, or certainly not the type that until lately formed the backbone of the genre. She is female, not male; gay, not straight. She is, admittedly, white, but otherwise fails to fit the template for the majority of novelists in her field.
Sad Puppies attempted to hijack the annual Hugo awards in an effort to halt the rise of female and non-white writers
She is also distinctly clever – which may not be entirely surprising for the progeny of an aeronautical engineer and a teacher of astrobiology – and just eccentric enough: a conversation about pets leads her to produce pictures of her bees, the worms that once kept them company now tunnelling away elsewhere.
Influenced by writers such as Carl Sagan, Ursula Le Guin and Octavia Butler, Chambers used Kickstarter to fund the writing of her first novel, 2014’s The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet.
Set against the backdrop of conflict in a distant galaxy, it follows the crew of the Wayfarer, a multi-species company comprising various gender and sexual identities, employed to dig a wormhole to Hedra Ka, the fraught world of the title.
The book is a space opera, but one in which the focus is on the micro level: the experiences, hopes and desires of a set of characters that would usually be defined as “minor” – if they were to be written about at all, non-white, non-heterosexual characters being less than omnipresent for much of the history of science fiction.
”I can’t divorce myself from the fact that I am a gay woman and that’s the only experience I can write from, the only thing I know,” Chambers explains.
“When people ask why is it important for me to write diverse characters, I reply that I’m not going to write a future that doesn’t have me or my friends in it. That’s it – that’s as complicated as it is. We exist, therefore I’m going to write about us. It would have had to be an extremely conscious choice to not talk about sexuality, to not include varied sexualities and genders and types of families.
“That would have been dishonest and so unnatural to me. Why would I cut myself off not only from my own life, but from all of the most important people in my life?”
For many years, the answer would have been that such people were not important at all, or not where science fiction was concerned. The genre has long been bedevilled by prejudice – a “perfect baboon patriarchy”, as Ursula Le Guin described it as late as 1975.
In 1967, Samuel R Delany, one of the first major black figures in the genre, and also a gay writer, had his novel Nova rejected for serialisation by John W Campbell, the hugely influential editor of Analog magazine, on the grounds that readers were not ready for black main characters.
Chambers is drinking water, but later she'll move on to wine, and talk happily about her Icelandic wife
The stated reason for the rejection should be placed in the context of Campbell’s enthusiastic support for the segregationist presidential candidate, and governor of Alabama, George Wallace.
More recently, Orson Scott Card, the writer of Ender’s Game, wrote an essay (sorry, an “experiment in fictional thinking”) comparing Barack Obama to Hitler, and in 2004 opined that the “dark secret of homosexual society – the one that dares not speak its name – is how many homosexuals first entered into that world through a disturbing seduction or rape or molestation or abuse, and how many of them yearn to get out of the homosexual community and live normally.”
Then, in 2013, the Sad Puppies, disgruntled right-wing science fiction authors and fans incensed at the growing diversity in the genre, attempted to hijack the annual Hugo awards in an effort to halt the rise of female and non-white writers; and in the closely linked online gaming community, 2014’s Gamergate controversy saw female game developers and commentators subjected to severe online harassment.
For a seemingly progressive genre, science fiction does appear to attract its share of regressive individuals.
“As with any subculture, the problems we have here are just reflections of what we’re dealing with on a larger systemic level,” says Chambers. “Anytime you challenge the status quo, there’s pushback and resistance, and in broad strokes that’s what’s driving much of the ugliness we see in the Western world right now.
“But I think it’s particularly loud and unavoidable in genre fiction because of the core nature of what we’re doing. We’re a group of people who are passionate about imagining alternate realities.
“So when you have those who want to exclude women or queer people or people of colour from sci-fi and fantasy, that’s not truly about books or games or what have you. That’s a declaration about the type of world they’d prefer to live in.”
Two further books, A Closed and Common Orbit and Record of a Spaceborn Few, have since followed in the Wayfarers series, but To Be Taught, If Fortunate represents a temporary departure.
The novella, near perfect in its execution, describes a human mission to explore four distant planets in the 22nd century. Largely cut off from an increasingly imperilled Earth, the crew is under strict orders only to observe, categorise and understand. They are not settlers but voyagers, and they may never be able to return home.
What is most interesting about To Be Taught is the faWct that the mission is crowdfunded. The reason for the trip is not nationalistic conquest, or private gain by corporations or wealthy individuals, but a desire on the part of ordinary people to learn more about the universe.
“All our stories about space – be they real or fictional – are about the elite: the scientific elite, the military elite, the intellectual elite,” Chambers explains. “We don’t see real people. To Be Taught came out of that. Here’s how we could do this differently; here’s a different option. What if we got back to exploration for exploration’s sake?”
Chambers is drinking water, but later she’ll move on to wine, and talk happily about her Icelandic wife (they met on a Star Trek forum), the mechanics of shark fermentation, and the sleeping habits of bees. Early the following morning, I find a message in my inbox carefully clarifying and expanding upon some of her answers from the night before.
“Ultimately we share this planet with countless other species that all have their own dramas and their own lives and are nothing like us, be it physically, how they have sex, how they reproduce, or how they raise their families. So, given the incredible variety we have here, why would we expect anything different elsewhere? It just doesn’t make sense.
“I think,” she concludes, “the more varied life is, the more beautiful it is . . .”
To Be Taught, If Fortunate (Hodder & Stoughton) is available now