Becky Chambers writes science fiction stories whose characters don’t necessarily save the world. If they’re fortunate, they save their own part of the world, and maybe make the overall shape of things a little bit better. I both like and respect that approach. I like it because if every story is about saving the whole entire world, then there’s a certain sameness involved; the stakes of the story seem pre-set and externally imposed. I respect it for two reasons. First, because assuming that stories within a setting are worth telling even if they don’t upend the setting shows she values the worlds that she has created, that they have meaning in themselves and not just as playthings for the protagonists. It also shows that she respects her readers enough to expect them to care about characters who are not taking part in world-shaping events. Second, because having created a world (or in Chambers’ case, quite a few worlds) there is a temptation to tell The Most Important Story within that world, and Chambers resists it. I’m glad she does. Not every science fiction story should be like that, but I think the field would be better off if more were.
The Galaxy, and the Ground Within is apparently also the fourth in her Wayfarers series. I’ve only read one of the other three in the set (Doreen has read and reviewed all three), but I didn’t feel lost at all. I’m sure there were depths that I missed because I didn’t recognize returning characters or the resolution of their conflicts. The good news, though, is that the novel totally works as a standalone.
Three interstellar travelers are stuck at a way station run by the gregarious and solicitous Ouloo and her only slightly scowly adolescent child Tupo. They are stuck because of disruptions in the satellite network above the way station’s world. It is — temporarily, everyone hopes — unsafe to travel from the surface to orbit, and all long-distance communication is disrupted. Each of the travelers is from a different sentient species, although Ouloo has gone to great lengths to make everyone feel welcome and comfortable, and each of them has a reason to want to be on their way as quickly as possible, although the details of those reasons do not become clear until much later in the book.
Pei is Aeluon, sensitive to color, which her species uses for communication; they wear soundboxes for the convenience of communicating with other sentients, but their natural mode is silence. Ouloo has made sure that the palette of her way station is subtle enough not to upset any Aeluon visitors. Roveg is Quelin, possessed of a carapace and many sets of legs. He’s a sim artist, and an exile, as any Quelin who travels through the space of the Galactic Commons will be, though it is not polite to inquire about details. Speaker is an Akarak, a species with a reputation for piracy that tests even Ouloo’s hospitable inclinations. But of course not every reputation is correct, and not every member of a group is typical of that group. Ouloo and Tupo are Laru, red-furred quardupeds. Laru usually live in large groups, and the reasons why Ouloo and her child are different come out in the course of the book.
The Galaxy, and the Ground Within is all about the interactions of characters thrown together by circumstance, stressed by their own desires, and in moderate danger. They can’t do anything to restore the satellite networks, they just have to sit tight and let the authorities do their job. They have different natural reactions to the situation, adjusted by their present circumstances. Pei, for instance, is usually captain of a ship that carries supplies in and out of a war zone. She’s alone for a period of leave, and is frankly glad not to be in charge of the response to a crisis, for a change. If only she didn’t have a tight time frame for her plans during leave, plans that matter to her personally a great deal but which she doesn’t feel at liberty to discuss with anyone.
Chambers’ pacing is particularly good. Just when I thought the performative civility and sensitivity of all the characters was getting to be a bit much — nobody is sarcastic or trolling, there’s little one-upmanship, nobody’s just out there trolling or being a dick because that’s how they roll — a couple of someones get drunk and say too much. Suddenly it’s not a happy slumber party at all, even less so when the combustible personal mixture puts one of the characters in grave danger. The rest of them manage to bury their differences without burying hatchets in one another — this is not a book that ends in tragedy, that much is clear from the beginning — but also without pretending that deep differences don’t exist.
An epilogue tells readers what happened to each after the networks were restored and they could continue their journeys. Most were a bit wiser for the wear, and all were changed in some way by the unexpected layover. It’s a kind and touching story, one that gets readers to care about its characters without having to force them into huge events.