This is a transcript of Recommended Season 3 Episode 11.
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This is Recommended, where we talk to interesting people about their favorite books. This week, Sam Maggs talks about her love for Becky Chambers’ Record of a Spaceborn Few and Ausma Zehanat Khan discusses the impact of Dune by Frank Herbert on her writing life.
Sam Maggs is a bestselling writer of books, comics, and video games. She’s a Senior Writer for Insomniac Games; a contributor to BioWare’s highly-anticipated game ANTHEM; a writer for comics; and the author of THE FANGIRL’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY and WONDER WOMEN. Her newest book, Girl Squads, is a tour of famous girl BFFs from history who stuck together and changed the world.
My name is Sam Maggs and Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers is my recommend.
Record of a Spaceborn Few does what Becky does best, which is put a bunch of ragtag folks into a spaceship and send them on adventures that make you feel a lot of feelings.
This is the third book in Becky’s series, the first book, A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is one of my all time favorites. I always say it’s like if Firefly met Mass Effect, which is basically made for me. It’s a great examination not only of some wonderful characters who you get to know and come to love, but also some deeper science fiction questions like what is artificial intelligence and how do we love other people.
Becky and I actually used to be weekend editors together at the Mary Sue, she was living in Iceland and I was living in Toronto and every Saturday morning we would work together for hours and it would be just the two of us and she first introduced me to Mass Effect. She walked me through my first Mass Effect play through and it was at this time that she was finishing writing the book and so when it was finally coming out I was so excited to read it because I knew how brilliant Becky was and how well she understood sci-fi and what a great voice she had for it. So I was on board right away.
I think my favorite in A Record of a Spaceborn Few is Tessa. She thinks a lot about family and duty and her character was dealing with a lot of things that even though she’s talking about space and fleets and planetary life … is very relatable I think to a lot of gals in today’s world.
I think that Becky’s books are … while they have amazing plots and really great deep stories, they’re really about characters first. They really make you care about these people on this ship in such an abstract circumstance, but she’s so good at giving each character their own unique personality and relationships and quirks and foibles that you really want to be their best friends kind of in the same way that when you hang out with someone for long enough in Mass Effect you would literally die for them.
Each book in Becky’s trilogy is definitely different. If the first book is Firefly meets Mass Effect, the second book is maybe more Her, and this third book is a little more action adventure. I think it’s really cool to see the fact that you know, just because all these books take place in the same universe and often with some of the same characters, they’re approached with a very different tone and almost with a different sort of subgenre in mind. That’s one of the things that I love most about sci-fi is that sci-fi isn’t one thing, it can be many things, and this trilogy really emphasizes that.
I’m always looking for sci-fi written by women, there’s so much more of it now than when I was growing up which is amazing, so I feel very lucky to have so many choices now. This is right in my wheelhouse.
Whenever people ask me on a panel like what would you recommend, I just have this laundry list of sci-fi books written by women that I blow through every time, like Lightless and Planetfall and this one … like so many great women written sci-fi books that are so interesting and different. I love telling people to read them, it’s like my favorite thing to do.
I’ve reread the first one several times, they’re all great but A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet has been out the longest and I love it so dearly that I … it’s kind of a comfort read for me whenever I’m feeling … you know when you want to sit down and watch the Princess Diaries or whatever to make yourself feel better, like that’s how I feel like that book is for me. I get something new out of it every time.
I would love to reread the whole trilogy sort of in close proximity like back to back to back now that they’re all out just to get the full experience, like marathoning a movie trilogy, you know.
I know she threads things through all three books really intentionally so it’s fun to go find those kind of like a puzzle.
I definitely have my writer brain on when I read a book like Record of a Spaceborn Few because when you’re writing nonfiction, the thing about it is that you are telling people’s stories, ultimately you are writing about characters, they were real people, but you want to make your readers care about them in the same way that they would care about their fictional babies. So I think reading a book with such masterful character work is super informative for how to make people care more about your nonfiction children.
At the end of the day the narrative doesn’t always conform to perfect storytelling standards because you can’t control real life, so it can be hard to give every story a nonfiction … a happy ending or even a satisfying ending. I mean you can as a nonfiction author, it’s your job to give it … to sort of impose meaning on it or encourage people to read it in a certain way, but you know, often people die or lose and stuff like that. So if the narrative can’t be satisfactory in a traditional way, what you need to get people to connect to is the people, the characters so to speak so I try to rely on that while I’m writing.
I think maybe not consciously but definitely subconsciously the friendships in books like Becky’s or in great games that I’ve played definitely affect the way that I write about team ups and Girl Squads and Girl Gangs and friendships because you know, in all of Becky’s works it’s really clear that we’re stronger together than we are apart, so that’s important.
I think it can be really hard to … or it can be really easy I should say, to feel down about the way things are in the world right now and it can be easy to feel isolated or alone but I think we have to remember that everyone is fighting for the same cause. We’re all fighting for progress and I think that it helps to rely on each other, that’s the only way that we’re going to be able to move forwards.
I think that Becky’s work is particularly great and Record of a Spaceborn Few in particular because we really do benefit from the idea of found family and of the fact that you can always go out and find people … even if they seem so different from you, who actually are really great and are going to be there for you and are going to be the people who see you through hard times, even if you had never expected it. I think that sort of message is so important and you know, reading these books is like a form of self care for me I think. Just to feel that way and I think everyone should read them.
Thanks again to Sam Maggs for joining us and recommending Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers. Girl Squads, published by Quirk, is now available wherever books are sold. You can follow her on Twitter at sammaggs.
AD READ: Ruth Bader Ginsburg by Jane Sherron De Hart
Ausma Zehanat Khan is the author of The Unquiet Dead, published by St. Martin’s Press/Minotaur Books, and winner of the Barry Award, the Arthur Ellis Award and the Romantic Times Reviewers Choice Award for Best First Novel. Works in her critically acclaimed Esa Khattak/Rachel Getty mystery series include The Language of Secrets, A Death in Sarajevo, Among the Ruins, and A Dangerous Crossing. The Bloodprint, her fantasy debut, has been hailed as “truly remarkable” and “one of the year’s finest fantasy debuts”. The sequel, The Black Khan, follows a powerful band of women who must use their magic to defeat an oppressive dark regime.
My name is Ausma Zehanat Khan and Dune is my recommended.
I first read it when I was 13, and it’s such a great favorite of mine that I pretty much re-read it every year.
I was a huge Police fan when I was a kid, and Sting was starring in the movie version, the movie that came out, the one made by Dino de Laurentiis. And so I thought, “Oh, I wonder what this movie is about?” So, I actually read the book as a result of that and fell madly in love with it. That’s such an embarrassing story. I really shouldn’t have told it.
So I went out and bought a copy, a copy that I still have to this day. It’s very beat up and battered. And I read it and as I was reading it … First, I just fell in love with the story, the drama, the conflict, that whole universe that Frank Herbert created. But, very quickly, I began to pick up a lot of things in the book that were really familiar to me; the liberal use of the Arabic language, for example, or the fact that much of the mythology is based on Islamic history. So it struck very deep and it was very personal for me, and it was also very liberating in a sense because I had never seen that mythology portrayed in such a positive way, in a way that made it dramatic and empowering and magical. So, I really connected very deeply with the book on my very first read.
I mean, there’s things to critique in it, obviously, but first of all, just bringing it to the page was so revolutionary for its time. And then secondly, it’s not the only mythology, I’ve read criticism and reviews about it that talk about all the other things that he brought together in the book. I think that, I can’t speak to some of those other traditions, but what I could see in it that was familiar to me, it was very much like the birth of the Islam and the Arabian desert and Paul Atreides as the … has to go. He’s a prince of a noble house, but he can only come into his power by getting to these desert roots and having these desert people at his back. And they live fiercely, and purely, and they’re honorable, and they have so much grit and stamina. It was really interesting to me.
But, the flip side of that was, of course, he portrays also this very cultish element to the and how they fall under his sway very quickly. I mean, those were things that I could only understand as I grew older and would re-read the book, but on first reading, to me, it was powerful because of those resonances.
I think one of the things that I’ve been able to appreciate in a much more different as I have gotten older is the role that Bene Gesserit and the leading women characters in the book play. That’s really interesting to me, that there’s this powerful sisterhood of women that sows its legends throughout the universe, and it actually has greatly influenced my fantasy series, the Khorosan Archives. This idea that you lay down these legends and they flourish in all these different places, and then when you need something from one of those places, those legends serve you, in a way.
The fact that all of this power was in the hands of women, and that it was women who would determine … for example, the test that Paul Atreides has to go through, the , where a woman has to decide if he’s actually human or not. So when I was a kid I thought, “Oh, that’s neat.” But now older, every re-read, I think, “Okay, that’s a very powerful thing to put in the hands of women.” Their own history, their own legends, their own power, their own deviousness. All of that, I think.
I think one of the things that Frank Herbert was really prescient about was the theme of environmentalism and ecology that runs through the whole Dune universe. So here you are on this desert planet where, apart from the spice, the most prized commodity is water. And he does this ecological survey of how water is used on this planet; it’s used to trade with, it’s valuable, or it can raise your rank or bring an entire house down. And the planet is dry but here you have these famine in the desert who are experimenting, let by their science leader Liet Kynes, they’re experimenting with how they can bring water back to a dying planet. So, I think that was really … there’s a scene where there’s a lot of discussion about the conservation of water, that famous dinner party scene where Duke Leto makes a toast, but pours his water on the table, whereas the Fremen scientist saves his water and puts it in a flask under his robe. And I think that was a really prescient discussion of water shortages to come, and the way the climate is going to change, and what drought means in terms of power and how it affects different populations.
When people ask me what my favorite novel of all time is, I usually name two books. One of Dune and the other is Samarkand by Amin Maalouf . Very different ones, literally, history fiction and one is science fiction. But yes, every chance I get, I’ll absolutely recommend. I have three siblings, so all four of us have read the book and watched the different movies and TV series and so on, and we have all these insider family sayings, or we’ll trade lines from Dune back and forth and my siblings will still send me Dune memes and pictures and jokes. So, it’s I think very much alive in our family consciousness as well.
If I’m recommending it to someone from a similar background as myself, say to a South Asian or a Muslim or an Arab, I’ll say, “You’re gonna recognize the Arabic language in this book, you’re going to understand that he draws very heavily on the history of Islam, and that he uses the language of Jihad in a very fascinating way. So you might find some very deep points of connection that you won’t find in other works of science fiction.”
So to that audience I might say that, but to other people, I guess my elevator pitch would be, “If you want to read this meticulously planned world full of drama and adventure with fascinating men and women, Dune is the book for you.”
I think it is really one of those seminal works of science fiction, and I’m sure it’s influenced generations of writers. I know it certainly influenced me when I was creating this sisterhood of women in my series, I thought so much about the Bene Gesserit and how they used the voice. And also, apart from his incredible gift at creating this wildly original universe, he also has this talent for these really small but powerful character scenes.
Sometimes I know that I just want to read something for pleasure, and I just turn that side of my brain off and I absorb it. But then if I really love the book, and there are certain books that I’m madly in love with like Dune, then when I’m actually writing something, I will study it. I will study to see, how is this scene constructed?
So, one thing I often talk about with writing plans or with my agent is again, that dinner party scene in Dune, where … one of the hardest things to do when you’re writing is construct a scene with numerous characters and convey the action and thoughts of what each of those characters are doing in relation to the other without constantly flipping perspective, or sliding in and out of different people’s heads. And so in that dinner party scene, it’s a masterful example of how to do something like that. How to keep the tension high at all times, how to see what each character is doing to advance their agendas and their contradictory motives. So I actually study that scene line by line to see what he’s doing, to see if I can do it any better or do it even half as good. And I find it really helpful.
Every time they do a new cover I go out and buy it so my collection will be complete, but my favorite is still the copy that I bought when I was 13 years old. It’s so ragged, the spine is completely destroyed, and you can see that the pages have been smoothed over by my fingers over and over again. And I have this ridiculous bookplate inside it of a unicorn in outer space, and I haven’t even signed my name in the bookplate, but … it’s still my favorite copy.
Thanks again to Ausma Zehanat Khan for joining us and recommending Dune by Frank Herbert. Her novel The Black Khan, published by Harper Voyager, is available wherever books are sold. You can follow her on Twitter at ausmazehanat.
Next week on Recommended:
It’s a great book for smart kids to read because there’s a lot of little clever word play, and clever tricks in the ways he names things, and talks things. And, as you read the book, and you figure them out, it makes you feel like you’re accomplishing something. Greatness.
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