Robyn Reviews: The Galaxy, and the Ground Within

‘The Galaxy, and the Ground Within’ is the fourth and final book in Becky Chambers’ ‘Wayfarers’ series – a collection of loosely-connected space operas imagining an intergalactic future. Like all of her books, it’s a gorgeous, character driven tale, quiet and small in scope but absolutely brimming with humanity and emotion. It’s not my favourite entry in the series, but it’s a beautiful and poignant tale to end on.

The planet Gora is utterly unremarkable. It has no water, no breathable air, and no native life – not even the smallest microbe. However, it’s in convenient proximity to several more remarkable planets – and therefore makes a convenient stopover point for intergalactic travel. Ouloo, a member of the Laru race, runs the Five-Hop One-Stop – a place designed to cater to every sapient on their travels, no matter their needs. When a freak technical failure ends up grounding all flights from Gora, Ouloo finds herself playing host to four completely different sapients: her occasionally helpful son Tupo, an Aeluon called Pei, a Quelin exile called Rovsig, and – to her discomfort – an Akarak called Speaker, an alien even amongst aliens. The longer they spend together, the harder it becomes to stay diplomatic – for better or worse.

The only character to have featured in a previous ‘Wayfarers’ book is Pei – she’s Ashby’s love interest from ‘The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet’. However, seeing her from her own perspective is completely different, so this feels like a collection of completely new characters. ‘Galaxy’ is also the first Wayfarers book to have a completely non-human main cast. Chambers has proven time and time again that she excels at creating aliens – from the xenobiology to complicated cultures and political structures – and this is one of the best exemplifications of that. Each character is utterly unique, and their cultural backgrounds, complex politics, and relative xenophobia feel exceptionally believable. With the Akarak, Chambers has created her most unusual race yet, and the impact this has on the others’ relationship with Speaker is brilliantly portrayed.

This is a quiet story. There’s no plot beyond a group of different people being trapped for several days together unexpectedly, each with their own reasons to want to get away: Pei to meet Ashby, Rovsig to make an appointment, and Speaker to return to her unwell sister. The perspective alters between Pei, Rovsig, and Speaker, with very occasional chapters from Ouloo’s point of view as host. There are regular culture clashes, but there’s always an underlying sense of optimism that things can be better.

The underlying themes are many, but the overarching one is family and what it means. None of the characters have conventional family dynamics for their species: both Ouloo and Speaker spend time in pairs (Ouloo with her son, Speaker with her sister) when their culture would traditionally dictate a larger group, Rovsig is exiled from his family, and Pei is romantically involved with a human when her species forbids inter-species relationships. They each have a completely different perspective, and seeing how they all influence each other and come to understand each other’s beliefs is beautiful.

I can’t believe the series is over – Chambers’ world is so rich that it feels like losing a friend. Her writing is gorgeous and quotable, her worldbuilding immensely detailed and yet never overwhelming or confusing, and the diversity in her work is unparalleled. This book is one of the first major works I’ve seen in which a character uses neo-pronouns (xe and xyr), and it feels entirely natural.

Overall, ‘The Galaxy, and the Ground Within’ is a profoundly moving book – just like all its predecessors in the ‘Wayfarers’ series. This is a series where the books can be read in isolation, so if you’re a fan of character-driven stories and quiet, emotional reads, I highly recommend picking up the entry which interests you the most. For fans of stories about family and love in all its forms, this is definitely a book for you.

Thanks to NetGalley and Hodder & Stoughton for providing an eARC – this in no way affects the content of this review

Published by Hodder & Stoughton
Hardback: 18th February 2021

Robyn Reviews: To Be Taught, If Fortunate

‘To Be Taught, If Fortunate’ is a beautiful, emotional novella which captures humanity in a way only Becky Chambers can do. Filled with poignant, memorable scenes it’s a little slice of hope in a world which desperately needs it.

Set somewhere in the early 22nd century, it imagines a world in which humans have developed the technology to explore nearby planets compatible with life. Instead of developing complex machines and terraforming, humans have transformed themselves, developing ways to optimise their bodies to whichever planet they land on at the time. Ariadne, an engineer, is one of a crew of four sent to investigate these planets. Put in a form of stasis between planets, the journey will take a mere decade or so for her – but eighty years will pass back home on Earth. Ariadne and her colleagues have no idea how Earth will have changed on their return. As they grapple with the claustrophobia of deep space, the joy of new discovery, the thrill of being the first humans to set foot on new worlds, and the deep sadness of leaving all their loved ones – including their beloved planet – behind, they must answer one key question: what’s more important, their mission or the fate of those back home?

Chambers specialises in character-driven science fiction. She can craft complex technologies, entire alien races with plausible xenobiology, and realistic forms of space travel, but the crowning achievement of her work is how much the reader comes to love the characters and how deeply it makes them feel. This novella is no different. Ariadne is an eminently relatable character. She never intended to go to space, joining the space agency intending to be an engineer with her feet firmly on the ground, and fell into the astronaut program by accident. She’s strong and intelligent, with tight bonds of friendship to each of her crewmates, but she’s also given up her entire life for this mission – and no matter how amazing the things they discover are, there are always moments of darkness and doubt. Chambers chronicles the highs and the lows so well that the reader can’t help but feel them as well. At the end of the day, Ariadne stands by her choices, but her journey to get there is both haunting and beautiful.

For a novel with, essentially, four characters, there’s a huge amount of diversity. Ariadne is bisexual, one of the main characters is asexual, and another is transgender. One of the characters is Latin American, another Black. Each of these things is noted but never used as a plot point or discussion. It shows how easy it is to naturally fill a book with diverse characters, and hopefully hints of an accepting future.

The main difference between ‘To Be Taught, If Fortunate’ and the work chambers is most known for, her ‘Wayfarers’ quartet, is the focus on ethics. Here, Chambers delves into the ethics of space travel – the colonial nature of humanity imposing itself on new planets, the risk to local ecosystems, the ethics to the astronauts themselves of taking them away from their families and decades out of their own time. These are complex issues with no clear answers, but the discussions posed are fascinating. None of these issues feel shoved in – they weave naturally through the plot and add another level of maturity. I adore the ‘Wayfarers’ books, but this is a more challenging undertaking.

Overall, ‘To Be Taught, If Fortunate’ is a fantastic novella that marries Chambers’ exceptional ability to write characters and deeply emotional stories with intriguing discussions on ethics and futuristic science. Recommended for all science fiction fans, along with fans of general philosophy and stories with heart.

Published by Hodder & Stoughton
Hardback:
8th August 2019 / Paperback: 3rd November 2020