There are a handful of authors that I am simply delighted Cannonball Read has put on my reading radar. Becky Chambers is absolutely one of those. Her The Wayfarers series helped to cement for me my enjoyment of space based science fiction, while simultaneously reaffirming that one doesn’t need to rely on the hero’s journey in order to write excellent genre fiction. My favorite genre books are all character driven, and that is just the kind of exploration and survival stories to which Chambers excels.
A Good Heretic finds its existence in the sidelines of The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and one (including me) can be forgiven for not necessarily remembering the plot specifics this many years out from publication as that book spends over 400 pages bouncing from one small adventure to another. But that book doesn’t really need much else, and neither does this short story. For both their strengths lie in the small things. In the Galactic Commons, an interstellar, interspecies union established for ease of trade and travel, Faster than Light travel is illegal, so transportation between systems is facilitated through a vast network of constructed wormholes. The construction of wormholes is impossible without the mathematical contributions of the Sianat, a reclusive race who intentionally infect themselves with a virus that enhances specific cognitive abilities (at the cost of shortening their lifespan). Infected Sianat are properly called “Pairs,” and think of themselves as plural entities. In The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, we’re introduced to mainstream Sianat culture through Ohan, a Navigator aboard a tunneling ship. However, we receive a glimpse of an alternate Sianat way of life through the character Mas, who we meet briefly late in the book. A Good Heretic is her story, a story of what happens when they life we are destined for is not actually the life that we have grown to anticipate.
Chambers has the gift of writing these stories of people living on spaceships who act like people you interact with every day. Chambers captures what informs our humanity and she uses the small details that tell us so much about who we are to craft vivid writing with exceptional world-building. What Chambers can do in a matter of sentences to build her locations is superb.
While this story is my least favorite of all the Chambers I’ve read (I am still holding onto the final Wayfarers book, The Galaxy, and the Ground Within) it is still a good small bite to get an idea if her writing is for you, with the addition of giving a bit of extra insight into one of the corners of her universe that didn’t get as much exploration as it might have in the larger series. But, while you do not have to have read The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet to read this one, it might make more sense if you have.
A Good Heretic is available in the Infinite Stars: Dark Frontiers anthology and also at this link for free.