The Galaxy, And The Ground Within by Becky Chambers
(Hodder & Stoughton, 2021)
Reviewed by Stuart Carter
Embarrassingly for me, it’s taken over 40 years, and the wisdom of Becky Chambers, to question why carrying a gun—or piloting a spaceship with them—is so normal in science fiction.
As a child reading and watching swashbuckling space adventures, such as Star Wars or Battlestar Galactica, everyone, whether a farm boy or a space pilot, carried a gun (yes, yes, or a light sabre…) As a child from the other side of the Atlantic I never even saw a gun until years later; yet in my imagination they were completely normalised—practically de rigueur in any flight of fancy or childhood game.
So, hurrah for the wonderful Becky Chambers, whose resolutely pacifist and very human Wayfarer sequence of stories are set in an imperfect but thoroughly utopian universe. There is one gun in The Galaxy, And The Ground Within, and it’s pointedly locked away out of reach very early on, because the people in The Galaxy, And The Ground Within live in a (mostly) decent and peaceful galactic society which has laws and norms that expect people to be decent to each other without needing to be kept in line by the threat of retaliatory violence. In this final visit (alas!) to her Wayfarer universe, three people from quite different worlds (none human) are passing through a pivotal, but isolated, solar system. Following an unexpected orbital cascade event that renders spaceflight, if not actually impossible then certainly temporarily inadvisable, they’re thrown together for the undetermined duration of the emergency.
All they have in common are their bookings at the Five-Hop One-Stop: a rest-stop for intergalactic travellers waiting in the queue to transit the local Galactic Commons Transit Authority (GCTA) wormhole to their final destination. Despite the inconvenience and temporary failure of the systems they rely upon, no one grabs a gun or begins to jealously hoard food and supplies. Instead, everyone stays civil, follows the advice of the authorities and tries to help each other. It feels like a surprisingly radical concept in science fiction, but if the 2020 lockdown has shown anything it’s how people generally pull together, rather than apart, in a crisis.
The Five-Hop is one of many habitat domes on the single planet of Gora in the lonely Tren system, but it’s run by mother-and-child team Ouloo and Tupo, who take great pride in making every guest feel welcome and relaxed. They’re joined by tiny Speaker, an Akaraka, who has to wear a protective suit outside their ship; Roveg, an arthropod Quelin and VR artist, who is returning from exile; and Pei, an Aeulon captain who speaks using colour and has a couple of things she’d rather no one knew.
There are no heroes or heroics here: everyone has to sit tight while the GCTA fixes the chaos in orbit, which allows these five very different guests to discover each other’s story, and their place in the universe.
For plot, that really is about it: travellers meet, eat (a lot!), get to know each other and try to make the best of their situation. It’s a tale that’s been told many times before; the species may have been different, but crucially these are still people, with all their unique motivations, loves and faults. As with Becky Chambers’ previous Wayfarer books (all of which I’ve loved) they’re likeable, fallible and interesting, no matter how many legs they have.
That’s the point with the Wayfarer series: these are all people; there are no evil villains, ridiculously competent heroes or messiahs in waiting, only people, ge ng along and trying their best not to be a dick to other people. Even more remarkably, they do all of this without any guns or weapons: they talk and may disagree, but they also laugh and try to understand each other. If you’re struggling during lockdown, The Galaxy, And The Ground Within is a beautiful reminder of the big old world that’s still out there, just waiting for us to rejoin, and that a stranger is only a friend you haven’t met yet.