The Galaxy, and the Ground Within by Becky Chambers

Reviewed by Annabel

With The Galaxy, and the Ground Within, Becky Chambers brings her Wayfarers series to a close. The quartet began in 2015 with The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, followed by A Closed and Common Orbit and Record of a Spaceborn Few, winning a Hugo award for best series along the way. I was hooked by the worlds she has created from the beginning, unique for their optimistic outlook in the multi-species ‘Galactic Commons’. There are ephemeral links between all four novels, but they are minimal and thus each of the books stands alone. However if you love any one of them, I bet you’ll want to read all four.

Gora, an unremarkable planet that can’t support life, would be a complete backwater except for its position, perfectly located on the routes between a number of other planets which makes it the ideal place for a rest and refuelling stop. Ouloo runs the Five-Hop One-Stop with her teenager Tupo, and tries to make it the most welcoming place for everyone, whichever alien race they’re from.

Today, they have three visitors booked in, all different species. Each plans to stay only a few hours as they have places to get to, but Ouloo does her utmost to make those hours a delight with the stop’s spa and her endless supply of cake! “It was Ouloo’s self-appointed mission in life to make you want to land there.” However, a tech incident downs the planet’s entire comms satellite network, meaning that no-one can leave until it’s fixed, and it could be days. So the three visitors are temporarily marooned with Ouloo and Tupo on Gora.

As in Record of a Spaceborn Few in particular, which explored five very different roles of humans living in the Exodus Fleet of spaceships carrying the ancestors of those who had to evacuate Earth, Chambers again makes her story primarily about the domestic. She gives us another character-driven story with little conventional plot, although her novels are not lacking in narrative drive.

Ouloo and Tupo are Laru, furry, floppy and long-necked, an utterly loveable species. Tupo is yet to settle in a gender, so is referred to using the “xyr” pronoun. As the novel begins, Ouloo coaches xyr about protocols to help look after their expected guests – the devil is in the detail.

Stuck together, the four alien species will need to get along with each other, and naturally will find themselves learning about each other’s race as well. They couldn’t be more different, in appearance, in cultural beliefs, in use of language and how they communicate, and importantly how they perceive each other. It is a joy to see this group overcoming impressions given by racial stereotypes to become friends. Pei, the Aeluon who partly communicates in colours via her fur and Roveg, the armour-plated Quelin can both breath air, but Speaker, the diminutive Akarak, a reclusive species, must wear a mech suit in this atmosphere. All three have their own stories and it is the curious Tupo that draws them out, and later cements their friendship when xyr precipates another drama, which I won’t spoil here.

All four of Chambers’ Wayfarer books have championed inclusivity and tolerance, which is so refreshing along with their positive attitude. When I think back to Star Trek, even the Klingons learned to work with humans and Vulcans eventually. Gene Roddenbury also gave his creation that optimism; Chambers’ novels occupy a similar space. Where they differ is that Trek’s Starfleet is a military and political entity, Chambers stories are of individual people and the drama of ordinary lives – less space opera, more space kitchen sink drama, and they are all the more powerful for it.

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Annabel is Co-Founder of Shiny and one of the editors. She’d love to live in Becky Chambers’ universe.

Becky Chambers, the galaxy, and the ground within (Hodder & Stoughton, 2021). 978-1473647664, 326pp., hardback.

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