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Sunday, March 3, 2024

Is Becky Chambers the Ultimate Hope for Science Fiction?

If you have problems, ask yourself one question: Do I drink enough tea? In the history of human civilization, boiling plants in water has probably helped more people get through their days than just about any other ritual or nontoxic consumable. Tea is a social salve, a private therapy, and the drink of choice for the clearest-headed among us, from mothers to mountain monks. For reasons less scientific than simply understood by all, tea slows existence—calms it—considerably down.

Becky Chambers is a lifelong lover of tea. She is also a writer of hip, very-now science fiction books, most of which feature scenes of various life-forms de-stressing over steaming beverages. Doesn’t matter if they’re human, lizard alien, space bug, or robot; they all need relief from the exigencies of existence, and they all find it the same way. “A cup of tea can really change your whole mood,” Chambers says, “even if it’s just a psychological comfort blanket.”

The first time Chambers and I meet, back in May, she sips on something called Evening in Missoula. “Imagine an unsweet root beer, which sounds terrible,” she says, before declaring that she’s absolutely obsessed with it. It’s one of the “weird” teas she gets as part of a monthly subscription box, enjoyed in steady rotation with other, less weird herbals she currently has on hand: peppermint, ginger, chamomile, several chais. She hates hibiscus and, though it’s her wife’s favorite, licorice root, and because it disagrees with her nerves and fluttering heart, she avoids coffee. “I think I’m the only writer in the world,” Chambers says, “who doesn’t drink caffeine.”

She manages just fine without it. Since the publication of her much-loved first book, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, in 2014, she has written three more set in the same universe and two unrelated novellas, the latest of which, A Psalm for the Wild-Built, came out in July. It’s Chambers at her most Chambersian: touchy-feely, interior, and brimful of tea. The main character quite literally puts the tea in therapy—Dex is a young monk who assists far-future humans by brewing them the just-right hot drink as they offload their psychic baggage. “For anybody who could use a break,” reads Psalm’s dedication. Roll your eyes all you want; they’ll be prickling with happy tears by page 36, when Dex realizes the tea therapy is making a difference.

In a world numbed by cynicisms and divisions, Chambers’ stories are intended to repair—to warm up our insides and restore feeling. So you might say that Chambers is, herself, the tea of our times, a soothing soothsayer whose well-meaning characters act out a fragrant, curative optimism. This makes Chambers some combination of two things: kind of sort of extremely boring, and one of the best hopes for the future.

In recent years, Chambers’ name has come to be associated with a specific type of science fiction. It’s known, cutesily and somewhat oxymoronically, as hopepunk. If Chambers is the tea of the day, then hopepunk is the lovingly hand-crafted kettle that contains her.

Sci-fi is full of this sort of thing. Steampunk, solarpunk, biopunk, nanopunk—all manner of generic punkeries (even mannerpunk) vie for readers. The first of their kind, cyberpunk, dates back to a 1983 short story about teenage hackers, and that’s really all the suffix, in its now overextended ubiquity, signifies: a vague attitude of rebellion attached to any given aesthetic. In 2017 the fantasy writer Alexandra Rowland had a thought. Hope could be edgy too! Hence: hopepunk.

“It’s not about glory or noble deeds,” Rowland wrote in an essay on the subject. “It’s about being kind merely for the sake of kindness.” For Chambers, who didn’t ask to be labeled hopepunk but likes the term “very much,” the simple act of being kind in her writing, of imagining futures in which decency triumphs and people are allowed to cry tears of joy, qualifies as more than sufficiently rebellious in the 21st century. “You’re looking at the world exactly as it is, with all of its grimness and all of its tragedy, and you say, No, I believe this can be better,” she says. “That to me is punk as hell.”

Like all the punk variants, hopepunk has its own look and feel, emphasis on feel. Not much stuff goes boom; feelings are privileged over plot fireworks. Characters come from every background and/or planet, and they usually end up happier and wiser. Aesthetically, it’s the definition of cozy. You want to lounge and frolic and lose yourself forever in hopepunk’s bright, shiny worlds—particularly those imagined by Chambers, like the modder district on the planet Coriol, the setting of her second book, A Closed and Common Orbit:

There were lovingly tended strips of plantlife basking under sunlamps, and glowing fountains that glittered in the dark. There were sculptures made of scrap, smooth benches utilized by chatting friends and amorous couples, soft lighting fixtures that looked like the pet projects of individuals with disparate senses of style. There was nothing bureaucratic or single-minded about the public decor. This was a place built by many. […] There was a quiet slowness here.

Feel that? With every bit of description, you sink deeper and deeper into a squishy, sparkly beanbag of cradling support—“smooth,” “glowing,” “soft,” “quiet”—until you’re quite certain that something beautiful and stable and comfortable exists not only somewhere in this crazy stupid universe but is possible here, right now, for you. Congratulations. You’ve just been hopepunk’d.

A Closed and Common Orbit is about an existentially confused AI, and it’s the second of Chambers’ Hugo-winning The Wayfarers, four stand-alone novels, beginning with The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, that get more and more hopepunky as they go on. In other words: Less and less seems to happen in them. The third one, Record of a Spaceborn Few, follows bored humans living on generation ships. By the last book, The Galaxy, and the Ground Within—Chambers’ titles are, to a one, rhythmical mouthfuls—there’s not even space travel anymore; the only thing the characters do is talk and argue before ultimately agreeing to help one another. “If you want big, crunchy plot, go read someone else’s stuff,” Chambers says. “You can have things that still feel fraught without there being something that’s about to snap. Tension can just be internal. It can just come from you.”

When she says “you,” she means her characters. But she also means herself. Because Chambers’ approach to her hopepunk storytelling is based, it seems, on her experience of life.

Not that Chambers has led a dull, plotless, unadventurous existence. The daughter of an astrobiology educator and a satellite engineer, she dreams of going to space one day. She loves playing board games and video games. She looks for bugs. She moves and travels a lot and has lived for many years abroad—one in Edinburgh, where she worked as a bartender, and nearly five in Reykjavik, where her wife is from. Two and a half years ago, she shaved her head.

When she Zooms with me, fully looking the part of the bespectacled, bald-headed millennial sci-fi writer, it’s from her current home in Humboldt County, California. The little of it I see onscreen appears as cozy as you’d expect. Behind her is a yellow wall adorned with a wooden deer head, and her living room opens onto verdant forest. “Lazy California craftsman” is how she describes her design choices.

Chambers brings some of California to whatever she writes. Often, her fictional climes are temperate, her fruits and vegetables delectable, and her alien inhabitants from all over the place. Chambers grew up in Torrance, a suburb of Los Angeles, in an international household. With her German grandmother, Chambers remembers doing many an afternoon tea. Tea was, in fact, a regular part of her youth. She and her mom would also take frequent trips to the tearoom at the Huntington Library. On one such occasion, Chambers wanted to buy sandwiches for her best friend, but her mom wouldn’t let her. Said best friend was a stuffed-animal gorilla, you see. Its name: Gorilla Gorilla Gorilla. “Because that’s the scientific name for mountain gorilla,” Chambers says, referring to Gorilla beringei beringei. “I was an obnoxious little know-it-all.”

Some of that knowledge she put to preprofessional use, writing little fictional stories, mostly fantasy, based on her favorite books and movies. Chambers’ mom introduced her to Tolkien; Star Wars and Star Trek were movie-night mainstays; she was obsessed with Sailor Moon. When Chambers was 12, Contact came out. To explore the unknown, to encounter aliens “through a female protagonist,” Chambers says, “it grabbed me hard.” After that, she began reading Carl Sagan, the beginning of her fascination with space.

Looking up and out, though, distracted Chambers from having to look within, at the “absolute absence” she felt at the center of her young life. “Who I was, where I fit, what sort of life I could expect,” she says, “and there was just nothing.” Then, at 13, Chambers met a girl in a science class whose older sister had a gay best friend. “I was like, oh, that’s an option?” Chambers remembers thinking. “Well, my whole life makes sense now.” It would take several years before she was comfortable enough to come out to her parents. When she did, Mom was wonderful; Dad, not so much. “It was really bad at first, you know,” she says, shutting down a little. Although he’s “come around a lot,” Chambers says, she still doesn’t like talking about it.

In Chambers’ books, people—the word she uses not just for humans but for all member species of her so-called Galactic Commons—don’t come out. They simply don’t have to. “I don’t have terms for gay, straight, etc.,” she says. “People are who they are and they bring home whoever they’re going to bring home and they love who they love.” In The Long Way, Rosemary, a human woman, develops feelings for a female reptile-bird alien named Sissix. Rosemary “leaned in,” Chambers writes in a pivotal scene, “running a smooth fingertip along the length of one of Sissix’s feathers.” When I tell Chambers that a (straight, male) colleague of mine, who read the book, doesn’t believe humans would actually want to have sex with giant lizards, she is appalled. Has he even been on the internet?

The internet is where a college-age Chambers met her future wife, Berglaug Asmundardottir. On a Star Trek roleplaying forum, to be exact. Asmundardottir is not, so far as we know, a lizard person; she is, merely, Icelandic. When Chambers talks about her, the lighting in the room seems to somehow brighten and soften at once. In the acknowledgements section of each of the Wayfarers books, Chambers thanks her wife in a new way. Record of a Spaceborn Few: “Berglaug the incredible.” A Closed and Common Orbit: “The best part of every day.” The Galaxy, and the Ground Within: “If one scrap of my writing outlives me, I want it to be the one that says that I loved her, and so I will write it wherever I can.”

Out of college, Chambers moved with Asmundardottir to Edinburgh. The plan was to find work in the theater scene there—that’s what Chambers studied in school—but nothing much materialized. A couple years later, they relocated to Iceland, where Chambers freelanced for US publications, all the while writing dialog and scenes for an unformed story about queer misfits in space. For a long time, Chambers didn’t think “it was a real book,” she says. “I was like, no one is going to want to read this. It’s not a real story. There are no planets blowing up.” The tension, in other words, was internal. It came from the characters.

When I suggest to Chambers that the narratives of her novels mirror the coming-out process—a lot of tension, very little plot—she pauses. “I think … I think that’s fair,” she says. “It’s not one of those conscious things, but I definitely think that’s fair.” Whatever the case, the story resonated. With the help of a small following she’d built up as a freelancer, plus the interest of a handful of strangers, Chambers was able to self-finance on Kickstarter the novel that became A Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. Among other positive notices, io9 called it “the most delightful space opera” of the year.

After that, Chambers’ fears of being “pigeonholed as a gay author” lessened. “I can’t even say I’ve grown a thicker skin,” she says. “It’s just something I’m more comfortable being honest about.” When she went to write her first novella, To Be Taught, If Fortunate, in 2019, she says she made all the astronauts in it queer basically by accident. “I’m just writing my friends and my family,” she says. Or, as she puts it in The Galaxy, and the Ground Within, “there were no requirements when it came to what constituted a family.”

A phrase sometimes used to describe Chambers’ fiction is “queer-normative”—non-straightness as an unremarkable fact of life. The new novella, A Psalm for the Wild-Built, is being marketed by its publisher, an imprint of Tor, as “queer-normative hopepunk,” ad copy only possible, it seems, in 2021. Dex, the tea monk protagonist, is nonbinary; Chambers uses they/them pronouns for the character. True to form, almost nothing happens in the story. Dex, a chronic fretter, goes off to find themself in the wilderness and meets an adorable robot there named Mosscap, and the two of them hash out their differences around a campfire. In the most touching scene, Mosscap brews Dex a cup of tea. Not a very good one, as the robot can’t taste and only succeeds in producing hot thyme water, but it’s the thought that counts. “I feel like Psalm is the quietest book I’ve ever written,” Chambers says. “And I was unafraid of that entirely.”

The book explores questions of identity, consciousness, and personal fulfillment. It also makes, Chambers believes, a hopepunkishly radical argument: Everybody needs a cup of tea. Everybody wanders into the woods. Queer people have magical adventures too.

The second time we connect on Zoom, in June, I expect Chambers to be drinking more tea. But something’s happened. “A crisis,” as she puts it. Her electric kettle has stopped working. So she’s having a kombucha instead. “It’s technically tea,” she says lamely, “just with stuff in it.”

The more we talk about tea, the more Chambers and I realize we’re circling a fundamental truth about the genre: Tea—cross-cultural and civilizing; steeped in historical trade; revealing, in the leaves it leaves behind, of possible futures—might be the most science-fictional of all beverages. Long before Star Trek’s Captain Picard asked for “tea, Earl Grey, hot,” the Infinite Improbability Drive in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was being powered, Douglas Adams wrote, by “a fresh cup of really hot tea.” More recently, there’s Memory of Water by Emmi Itäranta, about a tea master in a water-scarce dystopia, and novellas like The Tea Master and the Detective by Aliette de Bodard. Ann Leckie made tea, its rituals and its trade, central to her Imperial Radch books, one of the more important trilogies in modern times. Even Yoda, in swampy exile, enjoys steaming mugs of things. As does Baby Yoda, his serene sipping memorialized in a thousand memes.

What tea signals, for starters, is a civilization of sufficient advancement. As Chambers says, “Most alien cultures, if they’re relatable enough to our own, have some sort of warm brewed beverage.” Roots, herbs, flowers, fruit: All of it can be steeped in water and called tea, really. Though the people in her Wayfarers books drink proper tea—“the tea soothed a tightness she hadn’t known was there,” Chambers writes of one of the restless souls in Spaceborn Few—they also guzzle copious amounts of something called mek. It’s made from powdered tree bark, can be served hot or cold, and has a mild narcotic effect. That’s tea too, and it binds the various peoples of the Galactic Commons together.

On top of its universality, or perhaps as a driver of it, tea has always been a kind of prototypical trade object, the material evidence of one culture dipping into, and often exploiting, another. Which is, of course, what science fiction, in its classic form, is all about: contact, between aliens, one of whom comes out on top. In a way, tea functions as shorthand for the colonialist fantasy that powers the exploratory thrust, the Prime Directive, of the genre. “Even if there is not a direct metaphor,” Chambers says, “that subtext is there.”


From the start, Chambers has sought to subvert that subtext, imagining quieter, nicer, gayer versions of the space operas she grew up with. Her characters aren’t colonizers or heroes of destiny, plunging mannishly into the abyss of the unknown and conquering all they find. They’re tunnelers, caretakers, sex workers, tea monks, and they mainly just want to talk about their feelings. “In science fiction,” she says, “I’m very interested in ripping out the drywall and seeing what’s behind it and messing around with the fundamental pieces of it.” But even Chambers is unsatisfied with her progress thus far. “The Galactic Commons … it’s postcolonial,” she says, “but it’s still born out of this really deep-rooted idea of what an intergalactic society is, that the natural arc of civilization is just to go out there and spread as far as you can. Can we tell a similar sort of story without that basis? What’s the alternative model?”

Someday, she thinks, she’ll attempt an answer—a tacit admission that A Psalm for the Wild-Built, and the sequel planned for next year, won’t be the series in which Chambers offers a searing reinterpretation of the visionary potential of science fiction. It’s just about a monk and a robot, after all, its ambitions too localized, its aesthetic, perhaps, more hope than punk. Temperature-wise, it never exceeds lukewarm, and true rebellion, Chambers seems to understand, requires hotter liquids.

Or at least a working kettle. A week after hers breaks, a replacement arrives, and “all,” she reports to me, “is right with the world.” This, for now, is how every Becky Chambers story ends. The crisis has been averted.

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