‘Wayfarers’ and beyond, a talk with Becky Chambers

Matthew Brockmeyer

Becky Chambers is the author of the award-nominated science fiction novel The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and its stand-alone sequel, A Closed and Common Orbit.  She also writes nonfiction essays and short stories, which can be found in various places around the internet. 

In addition to writing, Becky has a background in performing arts, and grew up in a family heavily involved in space science. She’s worked as a technical writer, a bartender, and a production assistant, among other things. Having lived in Scotland and Iceland, she is currently back in her home state of California.

Matthew Brockmeyer : Just to start out on a light note, what’s your favorite sci-fi movie and why?

Becky Chambers : Just one? Oh boy. For nostalgia’s sake, I’m going to go with Contact. I was eleven when I saw it, and I devoured the book immediately after. It was a huge influence on me, and the first time I’d seen a story about aliens that took place on modern-day earth. Plus, I wanted to be Ellie Arroway when I grew up. You can absolutely blame the wormholes in my books on this story.

M B : What authors have had the biggest influence on you and your work?

B C : Ursula K. Le Guin’s work got me interested in science fiction literature in the first place. She showed me that sci-fi could be so much more than laser guns and space battles (though I love those things, too, don’t get me wrong). And though this is going in a radically different direction than what I write, I fell in love with Tolkien at an early age. I took such comfort in his descriptions of homes, food, and new places, and that made me love writing about those things. I also really enjoy John Scalzi, who does a wonderful job of writing engaging stories that appeal to both sci-fi veterans and newcomers. That’s a quality I aim for, too.

M B : The way you are able to get into the “mind” of an AI is simply incredible, describing their angst and emotions with plausible technical descriptions. Do you really believe that computers are capable of becoming the sentient beings you describe in your work?

B C : At the very least, I think it’s within the realm of possibility. Purely conceptually, it’s not much of a stretch to say that if simple organisms with simple thoughts suited for simple tasks eventually led to species with complex, sentient minds (not just humans, mind you), the same could be true for software. Now, we’re nowhere close to that yet, not by a long shot. But it could happen.

M B : I understand your mother was an astrobiologist. Did this spark an interest in space and science in you as a child and how has it influenced your writing?

B C : My mom’s an astrobiology educator, and her passion for science absolutely rubbed off on me. I was always encouraged to find my own path, and she exposed me to every interest under the sun: art, music, sports, and so on. But doing sciencey stuff with her was always my favorite. We spent my summer vacations at museums and zoos. Watching nature shows on PBS was presented as a treat. She took me to the library, she bought me chemistry sets and magnifying glasses, she put up with all my weird pets. When I started showing interest in astronomy — because I was going to be Ellie Arroway, remember — she took me to a monthly meeting of a local amateur astronomer club, where I was the youngest person by about, oh, forty years. My mom sees wonder and beauty in everything, and her endless enthusiasm for the natural world is something I’m very happy to have inherited. I write science fiction in large part because the genre plays such a big role in getting people interested in real science and exploration. I picked up that torch from her, no question.

M B : Why did you choose the science-fiction genre as a means of telling your stories and how does the genre help and hinder you as you delve into some of the deeper themes of your work, such as the nature of love and friendship what it means to be a living being?

B C : I can’t imagine not writing science fiction. It’s just where my brain hangs out. The beauty of science fiction is that it’s a blank slate, especially if you’re writing far-future stuff. The minute you start talking about the real world, everybody’s biases kick in instantly. Bring up real politics, real cultures, real places of origin, and most readers are going to make knee-jerk judgments before you say anything further.On the other hand, when you write about aliens or people living off Earth, everybody goes in with a clean, open mind. You can actually get to the heart of things, rather than getting tangled up in shallow preconceptions. That’s valuable regardless of whether you’re writing about wide-reaching politics or interpersonal relationships. It’s a cleaner way of exploring those things, in my opinion. Now, the challenge there is you’ve got to make characters relatable without any cultural shorthand to fall back on, and depending on how far you’ve strayed from humanity, that can be hard to do. But that’s the fun part.

M B : While most science fiction is written with a very masculine point of view, I found A Closed and Common Orbit to be very much a story of womanhood. Nearly all of the characters are female, even the AIs are embodied with a sense of femininity, and one alien creature actually changes gender throughout the narrative. Could you expand on this decision and tell us what you feel your role is as a woman writer of contemporary science fiction is?

B C : It wasn’t a decision, really. Closed and Common just kind of happened that way. Those were the characters I wanted to talk about, pure and simple. Granted, gender representation is something I think about a lot from a critical standpoint, and I’ve written plenty about it elsewhere. The imbalance in whose stories are being told is something that deeply bothers me, and it is something that our creative culture needs to consciously work at. But when I sat down to write Closed and Common, it’s not like I slammed my fist in my hand and said, “I’m gonna write a book that’s mostly women, dammit.” I wanted to write a book about intelligence and personhood before everything else. I came up with the best characters to tell that through, and when they were mostly women, I never had cause to second-guess that.

Now, as for things like changing gender, that is a more mindful decision. I want the biology of my galaxy to be as varied as life here on planet Earth. A hard lined sexual binary is not the default (it’s not even the case for our species), and it’s definitely not the most common configuration. I don’t have to go further than my backyard to be surrounded by countless species whose anatomy and sexual behaviors are vastly different from mine. So, yeah, I’m going to have aliens that lay eggs or spawn or change their reproductive roles. Anything else would be boring.

To your final question: As a woman writer of contemporary science fiction, my role is to help get us to a place where we don’t have to point out women writers of contemporary science fiction anymore.

M B : Is there a movie deal in the works yet? And what actors would you like to see in the roles of Sidra, Owl, Pepper and Blue?

B C : Here’s where you learn that I’m garbage when it comes to knowing actors’ names. The only one I can say without having to think about it at all is Janelle Monae for Sidra. Aside from looking the part, she understands androids better than anybody, so she’d be perfect. Beyond that, I’ll tell you what’d be on my casting sheet. You’d need a damn fine voice actor for Owl, somebody with a smooth, calming voice you trust at the first syllable. Blue would have to be a striking, unusual kind of handsome, but with a genuinely approachable presence. Pepper would be hard. You need someone very slight, for starters, and who doesn’t mind shaving her head and eyebrows. But within that physique, she’s got to be able to command a mix of incredible confidence and a lot of inner demons she has no problem wrangling. You’d also need a series of young actors for Jane. That would be the toughest call of all. That kid who plays Lyanna Mormont on Game of Thrones could play little Jane. She’d rock that, now that I’m thinking about it.

M B : Have you started on the next installment of the Wayfarers saga and, if so, can you give us a few hints as to what the story entails?

B C : I can’t say much, but I can tell you that I am indeed working on another Wayfarers book. It takes place somewhere I’ve mentioned in the other books but haven’t yet visited.

M B : Well, I am certainly looking forward to reading it! Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me.


14682086_1249025945138609_4584441735463449723_oMatthew Brockmeyer is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Pulp Metal Magazine, Cultured Vultures, Dark Fire Fiction, Timeless Tales Magazine, Infernal Ink, The Homeless Romantic, andThe Humboldt Independent, as well as the upcoming anthologies Let Us In by Time Alone Press, After the Happily Ever Afterby Transmundane Press, and One Hundred Voices by Centum Press. He also writes extreme horror under the pseudonym Humboldt Lycanthrope. He lives deep in the forest of Northern California with his wife and two children.

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