The Galaxy, and the Ground Within

by Becky Chambers

Cover image

Series: Wayfarers #4
Publisher: Harper Voyager
Copyright: April 2021
ISBN: 0-06-293605-0
Format: Kindle
Pages: 325

Buy at Powell's Books

The name of the planet Gora is the Hanto word for useless. It's a bone-dry, resource-poor planet with nothing to recommend it except that it happened to be conveniently located between five other busy systems and had well-established interspacial tunnels. Gora is therefore a transit hub: a place lots of people visit for about half a day while waiting for a departure time, but where very few people stay. It is the interstellar equivalent of an airport.

Ouloo is a Laru, a species physically somewhat similar to a giant dog. She is the owner of the Five-Hop One-Stop in a habitat dome on Gora, where she lives with her child (who is not yet old enough to choose a gender). On the day when this novel begins, she's expecting three ships to dock: one Aeluon, one Quelin, and, to Ouloo's significant surprise and moderate discomfort, an Akarak. But apart from that, it's a normal day.

A normal day, that is, until maintenance work on the solar satellite array leads to a Kessler syndrome collision cascade that destroys most of the communication satellites and makes it unsafe to leave the surface of the planet. Ouloo and her guests are stuck with each other for longer than they expected.

In a typical SF novel, you would expect the characters to have to fix the satellite cascade, or for it to be a sign of something more nefarious. That is not the case here; the problem is handled by the Goran authorities, the characters have no special expertise, and there is no larger significance to the accident. Instead, the accident functions as storm in a very old story-telling frame: three travelers and their host and her child, trapped together by circumstance and forced to entertain each other until they can go on their way.

Breaking from the formula, they do not do that primarily by telling stories to each other, although the close third-person narration that moves between the characters reveals their backgrounds over the course of the book. Instead, a lot of this book is conversation, sometimes prompted by Ouloo's kid Tupo (who I thought was a wonderfully-written tween, complete with swings between curiosity and shyness, random interests, occasionally poor impulse control, and intense but unpredictable learning interest). That leads to some conflict (and some emergencies), but, similar to Record of a Spaceborn Few, this is more of a character study book than a things-happen book.

An interesting question, then, is why is this story science fiction? A similar story could be written (and has been, many times) with human travelers in a mundane inn or boarding house in a storm. None of the aliens are all that alien; despite having different body shapes and senses, you could get more variation from a group of university students. And even more than with Chambers's other books, the advanced technology is not the point and is described only enough to provide some background color and a bit of characterization.

The answer, for me, is that the cognitive estrangement of non-human characters relieves my brain of the baggage that I bring to human characters and makes it easier for me to empathize with the characters as individuals rather than representatives of human archetypes. With human characters, I would be fitting them into my knowledge of history and politics, and my reaction to each decision the characters make would be influenced by the assumptions prompted by that background. I enjoy the distraction of invented worlds and invented histories in part because they're simplified compared to human histories and therefore feel more knowable and less subtle. I'm not trying to understand the political angle from which the author is writing or wondering if I'm missing a reference that's important to the story.

In other words, the science fiction setting gives the narrator more power. The story tells me the important details of the background; there isn't some true history lurking beneath that I'm trying to ferret out. When that's combined with interesting physical differences, I find myself imagining what it would be like to be the various aliens, trying to insert myself into their worlds, rather than placing them in a historical or political context. That puts me in a curious and empathetic mindset, and that, in turn, is the best perspective from which to enjoy Chambers's stories.

The characters in this story don't solve any large-scale problems. They do make life decisions, some quite significant, but only on a personal scale. They also don't resolve all of their suspicions and disagreements. This won't be to everyone's taste, but it's one of the things I most enjoyed about the book: it shows a small part of the lives of a collection of average individuals, none of whom are close to the levers of power and none of whom are responsible for fixing their species or galactic politics. They are responsible for their own choices, and for how their lives touch the lives of others. They can make the people they encounter happier or sadder, they can chose how to be true to their own principles, and they can make hard choices without right answers.

When I describe a mainstream fiction book that way, I often find it depressing, but I came away from The Galaxy, and the Ground Within feeling better about the world and more open-hearted towards other people. I'm not sure what Chambers does to produce that reaction, so I'm not sure if it will have the same effect on other people. Perhaps part of it is that while there is some drama, her characters do not seek drama for its own sake, none of the characters are villains, and she has a way of writing sincerity that clicks with my brain.

There is a scene, about two-thirds of the way through the book, where the characters get into a heated argument about politics, and for me this is the moment where you will either love this book or it will not work for you. The argument doesn't resolve anything, and yet it's one of the most perceptive, accurate, and satisfying portrayals of a political argument among normal people that I've seen in fiction. It's the sort of air-clearing conversation in which every character is blunt with both their opinion and their emotions rather than shading them for politeness. Those positions are not necessarily sophisticated or deeply philosophical, but they are deeply honest.

"And you know what? I truly don't care which of them is right so long as it fixes everything. I don't have an... an ideology. I don't know the right terms to discuss these things. I don't know the science behind any of it. I'm sure I sound silly right now. But I just want everyone to get along, and to be well taken care of. That's it. I want everybody to be happy and I do not care how we get there." She exhaled, her broad nostrils flaring. "That's how I feel about it."

I am not Ouloo, but I think she represents far more people than fiction normally realizes, and I found something deeply satisfying and revealing in seeing that position presented so clearly in the midst of a heated argument.

If you like what Chambers does, I think you will like this book. If it's not for you, this is probably not the book that will change your mind, although there is a bit less hand-wavy technology to distract the people whom that distracts. The Galaxy, and the Ground Within didn't have the emotional resonance that Record of a Spaceborn Few had for me, or the emotional gut punch of A Closed and Common Orbit. But I loved every moment of reading it.

This will apparently be the last novel in the Wayfarers universe, at least for the time being. Chambers will be moving on to other settings (starting with A Psalm for the Wild-Built).

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2021-08-15

Last modified and spun 2021-08-16