The Galaxy, and the Ground Within, which I found completely delightful, is the fourth of Becky Chambers’ Wayfarer novels. The first novel in the group, The Long Way To A Small Angry Planet (2014), initially funded by a Kickstarter campaign, was nominated for six literary prizes, including the Arthur C Clarke Award and the Women’s Prize for Fiction in the UK. (The first three novels, in cluding Record of a Space-Born Few) won the 2019 Hugo for Best Series.) The Wayfarer novels, named after the spaceship of the first novel, are set in the same galaxy, but of their large cast of characters only four or five individuals appear in more than one novel or have even heard of each other.
In The Galaxy, and the Ground Within three travellers are grounded on the hub planet Gora after a freak accident crashes its entire satellite network, making all ship-to-planet communication and off-planet travel impossible until the Transit Authority fixes the damage. No-one is inconvenienced for more than a few days, and the travellers are staying in a comfortable place, one of Gora’s many habitat domes set up to receive the immense number of travellers passing through the five transport wormholes in its vicinity. The Five-Hop One-Stop is run by the friendly and resourceful Laru host Ouloo and her child Tupo, with its own atmosphere, and a snack shop, bath-house, tech supply shop, museum and lounging areas. Travellers can sleep in their own shuttles parked on the landing pad outside the dome and can be as sociable or as rested as they want.
Trouble is, these three travellers are desperate to get on with their journeys. They only expected to wait for a few hours at Gora for their allotted places at the wormhole gates. And now they are stuck, grounded until the comms tech is fixed and all the ships can talk to transit control again and get a new allocated place at the gates to get somewhere else as fast as they can.
Speaker is panic-stricken because she has left her twin sister Tracker alone in their ship orbiting the planet, and Tracker has a heart condition that needs her to take her medicine regularly. Speaker had not expected to be away for more than a few hours, and she has never been separated from her twin for so long before. Speaker and Tracker are Akarak, a small furry, beaked people who ambulate using poles and hooks, so when visiting planets or ships with a different atmosphere to the one they breathe, like Gora, they use bipedal suits.
Roveg is an artist, a well-known designer of sims that allow his customers to virtually visit different worlds and situations. He is also in exile, banished from Quelin space because he could no longer stomach the way they lived or the ideas and feelings he was expected to suppress. Now, he is returning to his home world for the first time since his exile for a very important appointment that he cannot miss. And the delays are eating into the margins his AI has calculated for his journey. Quelin look something like very large stag beetles with multiple legs, and Roveg is a particularly kind and generous person.
We met Pei in The Long Way To A Small Angry Planet, a cargo runner now on her way back from supplying Aeluon troops in battle against the Rosk. She is now on her way to meet Ashby, the Human captain of the Wayfarer with whom she has been having a very secret long-distance affair for a long time, and she needs to see him again desperately. If she misses her place in the gate queue she’ll miss her connections, and the precious hours they have squeezed out of their lives to be together again. Pei is Aeluon, a tall and beautiful hairless biped with delicate white scales and no natural sense of hearing or speech: Aeluon use colour shifts on their skin to communicate, or implanted augmentations. She is so tired of concealing her interspecies affair, which will probably alienate her customers and her own people, but Ashby is who she belongs with. And then another, very personal complication emerges.
So, they’re all delayed, and they work hard at passing the time in a friendly way. Ouloo is about the most eager host one could hope for, and Tupo, still making xyr way through a very hairy and lolloping adolescence, brings out the best in people. Then the discordances begin to appear. Speaker finds it hard to contain her fury at the Aeluon’s gun-running. Roveg’s desperation about missing his appointment, and his growing fear of returning to his own people, begins to overwhelm him. And while she’s teaching the others an Aeluon dance Pei makes a completely unexpected discovery that changes her entire life’s plan, and forces a terrible choice on her, right now, on Gora.
Food becomes rather important. Ouloo feeds everyone with an inexhaustible supply of desserts and snacks (the Five-Stop One-Hop is not really set up for stays of more than a few hours), and Roveg creates phenomenal artistic spreads from his own lavish food supplies. But Tupo, worrying about Speaker’s increasing panic about the silence from Tracker, forgets the reason why Speaker wears a suit, and heads off to her ship with a plateful of desserts to reassure her.
Chambers is now an experienced, solid writer with a sure vision of how she wants to write about living in space, interacting with AIs, the classification of aliens and intergalactic conflict. Most of the events in The Galaxy, and the Ground Within take place on the ground, and the plot explores how people interact with each other and sort out their personal issues. This is common to all of Chambers’ novels (she’s published three additional SFF titles outside the Wayfarers group): her characters do much more talking than clenching teeth or claws or waving guns around (actually, hardly anyone waves a gun around). This has been a problem for some critics. As well as praising the novels’ addictive qualities and the sheer delight, compassion and emotional power embodied in the characters, reviewers have objected to these plots in which ‘nothing much happens’. Some are irritated by the novels’ primary focus on the characters, and object to the plot ‘which appears almost as an afterthought’. The critics most often categorise Chambers’ fiction as space opera, repeatedly comparing it to film and TV series, rather than novels, particularly Joss Whedon’s 2002 TV series Firefly (which I have not seen).
‘Hopepunk’ is the other landing pad Chambers’ novels are directed onto by reviewers who love their upbeat, tech-focused milieux, in which a happily grinning grubbiness and cobbled-together solutions have more appeal than sharp uniforms and clean workspaces. Among the peoples of the Galactic Commons sleekness is suspicious, and true grit and honesty are more often to be found in a relentlessly remodelled environment (and body). Chambers’ focus on character and peoples is crucial for her bottom-up democratic vision of how peoples can live together harmoniously. What I find most pleasing about her worldbuilding is that in its loose political framework, a Commons of the constituent peoples to which Humans have only relatively recently been admitted, there is no Fleet. There is no galactic military force to support and act for the politicians: no Jedi, no Starfleet, no space police. Each species manages its own affairs, and if military force is part of their galactic perspective, then they develop it and handle the consequences of opposing views. That absence of overall enforced control at galactic level is very freeing.
Chambers gives balance to her universe by allowing people to be nice to each other. Actively horrible characters are extremely rare in Chambers’ novels: even the most malignant (the Toremi, for instance, from the first novel) are given adequate reasons for their violent tendencies, and then we don’t see them again. This too is a problem for some critics, and I see their point. Adam Roberts calls it ‘a slight sense of authorial thumb-in-the-balance when it comes to stressing the upsides, never the downsides, of cultural, sexual and inter-species diversity’. Without villains and antagonists how can the characters prove themselves, and push their envelopes? All Chambers’ characters grow and change, and some change more than just a few people’s lives: Ashby’s honest fury at the unwarranted attack on the Wayfarer by the Toremi led to a significant and unexpected change in Galactic Commons politics.
But is there something lacking in a plot without unpleasant people or terrible catastrophes? I said that I found The Galaxy, and the Ground Within delightful, and it is: sheer reading pleasure, a relief, a space to enjoy and celebrate the fascination of difference between people, with tensions and imperatives propelling us through the plot (yes, things do happen). When anger and opposition enter the plot, it’s jarring. We see both sides of the position, we learn a bit more about those individuals and their place in the galaxy, and everyone moves through it, enhanced and more understanding. There is always something more to learn about people, and it doesn’t have to be through rampaging violence or imperial domination.