Becky Chambers burst onto the science fiction scene with her multi-species but intensely humanist spaceship adventure The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet. This became the first of what is now known as the Wayfarer series, based on the name of that ship. Despite the name, there are only tangential connections to the Wayfarer in the books that follow. The fourth, and apparently last, in the Wayfarer universe is The Galaxy, and the Ground Within, the connection here being that one of the characters, an Aeluon called Pei, is in a semi-secret relationship with the human captain of the Wayfarer, Ashby (he does not appear in the book).
The Galaxy, and the Ground Within is set on a kind of galactic waystation planet called Gora (“the Hanto word for useless”). Gora has nothing to recommend it and no sentient life but it does sit at the confluence of a number of wormhole tunnels and so is a good place for a stop over while the traffic is regulated between them. One of the sentient beings running a station on Gora known as the Five-Hop One-Stop is Ouloo, a Laru, and her offspring Tupo. Her guests, three members of other alien species, including the aforementioned Pei, end up stuck on Gora when routine maintenance causes a cascade failure in the planet’s satellites, many of which crash to the surface. The story then follows the five as they learn about each other and navigate the complexity of cultural minsunderstanding.
It is easy to peg every novel completed in 2020 as a response to the pandemic. But there was some resonance with a story about characters being “locked-down” and unable to return to their ships or continue on their way to their home planets. But any analogy ends fairly quickly. Chambers creates this situation not to comment on the lockdown itself but so she can explore the culture clash between the five and the ways in which they learn to accommodate each other.
In the Wayfarer series Chambers has delivered her own brand of humanist science fiction (this one without any humans at all) with no space battles, no laser guns and no interstellar politics. This book is no different. Her focus is on individuals and their internal struggles – why is the insectoid Roveg an outcast and what will happen when he goes home? Should Pei be honest with her crew about her relationship with a human? Can (and should) Pei and Speaker (an Akarak who cannot leave their mechanical suit outside their shuttle) reconcile their very different views on colonisation The story is far from conflict free but the conflicts are either personal or internal and they are resolved in a civilised way.
In her acknowledgements, Chambers notes that this is the last of the Wayfarer books. They have all taken a different slant at the Galactic Commons and each have been enjoyable in their own way. But without a bigger story that might upend her Galactic milieu, this is probably a good call. The Galaxy, and the Ground Within takes the story out on a totally earned, heartfelt and feelgood note and with some excitement now as to what Becky Chambers will deliver next.