A Closed and Common Orbit: Aeluons

In my previous posts I discussed Chambers’s statements on the ethics of marginalizing one population to enrich another, then I described Sidra the spaceship AI in a human body, and how Chambers herself wouldn’t mind being a robot. Now I want to move outward from Sidra herself to some of her more, let’s call them “colorful,” friends.

I always imagined the Aeluons looked like axolotls for some reason, but I think everyone else agrees they’re really just shiny humans with iridescent cheeks whose hue they manipulate in order to communicate.

Sorry, buddy. There’s always next space opera.

In Chambers’s universe, the Aeluons, who never evolved a mechanism to hear on their own, have accepted species-wide surgical augmentation to enable them to speak and listen using sound. Otherwise they would not be able to communicate with the other species in the galactic commons. The implications of that may merit their own blog post, but I’m going to move on for now to a much more important subject: Sex.

Cleverly, Chambers adds asexual and gender-fluid people as first-class gender citizens to the Aeluons, making them a four-gender species. The Aeluon shon is an interesting take on gender fluidity/transexuality, and I suspect a lot of thought went into it. A Closed and Common Orbit introduces the Aeluon shon Tak to the Wayfarer series. Xe shifts between genders on a regular basis. Xe even does it a few times throughout the course of the novel. But does Chambers stop there? No, she takes it a step further, and actually builds some suspense around it. Repeatedly, we get vague references to “implants” that activate in Tak when Xe is ready to shift. They’re never explained in detail, but later on it’s revealed that Aeluon shon don’t manifest right at birth, and when they do, Aeluon parents take them to get a medical device that supports the process.

By creating a relatable gender fluid character, Becky Chambers implicitly states that people like this have a right to exist. Yes, they do. That’s good. Is it a radical political statement? No. As I mentioned in an earlier post on Star Trek, radicalness (boldness as I call it there) depends on the setting. Novel takes on crossing between genders were radical when Octavia Butler wrote Wild Seed in which god-like characters take on whatever sex they choose in 1977. A future where ordinary people would choose their sex (and everything else about their body) through technology was radical in Michael Moorcock’s The Dancers at the End of Time 1981. By 2016, Becky Chambers’ beautiful writing voice was just one in a choir.

Is it important to note that Chambers’ takes on the marginalization of vulnerable populations to create wealth for others or the right for transgender people to exist are not radical? Well, I wanted to set the playing field, because Chambers is radical. Two books in, there’s a clear theme that goes well beyond commonly accepted wisdom. No judgment. I love Chambers’s radical side. What’s radical today may be commonly accepted in the future, and what is utopian science fiction for if not imagining a better universe to come? Engines on, fuel pumps go! It’s time to talk about alien childrearing.

Just two books in, we already see a trend. Despite the comfortable wrapping, Chambers’s work may well suggest a political agenda: Communities should raise children, not individual couples. Aandrisk families leave parenting to self-chosen families of wise elders, but Chambers’s kaleidoscope-cheeked Aeluon people take it a step further. University certification is required to raise children. When an Aeluon woman shimmers, the child she is capable of producing becomes a commodity for teams of highly educated professionals to fight over. Whoever she chooses will pamper her for her two month gestation period (Chambers likes to write about species that have easy pregnancies compared to humans), but then, like in Aandrisk life, the woman drops off her child and heads out. Chambers gamely offers women the right to visit, but doesn’t mention any cases of a woman staying to maintain a constant presence in her child’s life.

It’s not radical to suggest that it takes a village to raise a child. I personally love the idea of dedicated community services to support education and upbringing and strong encouragement to make sure every child has access to these services. I want the freedom for people to produce a child and know that a whole society exists to make sure it will get everything it needs to prosper. I also want to play devil’s advocate. 

First, let’s imagine someone who never had access to a university education reading this book. How would she feel about this approach to family, particularly that she can’t have one until someone else has told her how to do it right? What happens when an Aeluon woman without a university childrearing certification shimmers and wants to keep her child? Presumably she will have access to whatever instruction she needs, but what if for some reason she can’t or won’t accept it? Two months is an awfully short time to get a degree, after all. How far can we trust a society to make better decisions for a child’s wellbeing than its own parents? Where should a mother’s rights end?

This is where a utopian picture gets a little darker. We can’t say if Chambers has considered the harsher ramifications of the bright and pleasant parts she shows of her societies, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that she has. Is it wrong that she doesn’t address these questions in her books? No. Every good author knows that a story is finite in scope. Chambers has selected a scope that appeals to her sensibilities, and, as her success gives ample evidence, to those of a sizable audience. Asking less comforting questions, well, I guess that’s for obscure bloggers like me.

By Sam Munk

Science fiction and Fantasy author with a focus on philosophical inquiry and character-driven drama.

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