In about a month, I’ve gone from never having read anything by Becky Chambers to having read two novels and a novella. While neither of the other two hit the five-star threshold, I could see clear progression as a writer from her debut to her Best Novella finalist. And so I was looking forward to seeing whether Best Novel finalist The Galaxy, and the Ground Within may represent another step up.
Becky Chambers’ style remains Becky Chambers’ style, with interpersonal developments among the cast taking the starring role and external conflict relegated to the background. In The Galaxy, and the Ground Within, a technological failure leaves five people (from four different species) temporarily isolated in an interstellar rest stop. None of the five have the capability to address the problem, so a failure that could serve as the central conflict of another novel merely sets the stage for individuals trying to deal with the interruptions to their own plans, while thrust into close proximity with strangers from alien peoples.
[Note: one of these strangers is a side character in The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, and some background about her love life is assumed, but The Galaxy, and the Ground Within does provide enough background that it could probably be read as a standalone.]
I jumped straight to The Galaxy, and the Ground Within from The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, and the increased quality of the character work is noticeable. It probably helps that it’s a smaller cast, with only four perspective characters—none of them human!—allowing each more time for development. Each is likable and willing to work in good faith to get along with their fellows, and each has their own reason to be upset by the unexpected interruption of travel plans.
And so we have a generally cozy story of strangers trying to build relationships and help each other through an unexpected difficult time. For the majority of the story, the stakes are low, but the characters are engaging enough to keep the reader invested in reading about their relationships, even without looming disaster to keep the pages turning.
As the novel develops, there are a few instances where the stakes get higher, but these aren’t what make the story worth reading. There’s a flash of genuine danger and a(n unrelated) moral dilemma that are competently written but progress pretty much how you would expect them to (with at least one instance of alien species agreeing on exactly what you would expect from a 21st-century Western author–but it’s hard to criticize that aspect too much when it’s justified in-story and when so much of the appeal of the Wayfarers series consists in watching alien species work out their problems in a way that makes sense from the perspective of 21st-century Westerners). They don’t detract from the story, but it’s the time spent building up the characters in the first place that really makes it.
One way in which I felt The Galaxy, and the Ground Within improved on its predecessors is that it didn’t try to tie every conflict into a neat bow. There were enough bows for catharsis at the end, but there was one heated debate on heavy themes where the reader has a good indication of who was in the right, but one character had immense difficulty looking beyond their own perspective. As someone who has spent the last two years discussing major issues with people who won’t move off their opinions, I really appreciated seeing that struggle on the page. The forays into galactic politics also underlined the small scale of the story—the characters could help each other, and at times be brought even to gestures of solidarity, but even a handful of good faith people spending a few days learning each other’s perspectives isn’t going to fix widespread injustice. I felt in the series-opener that some of the solutions came too easily and rang false; here, we were reminded that you can celebrate the small wins even with a mountain yet ahead of you.
It’s no surprise that The Galaxy, and the Ground Within has given Becky Chambers her fourth Hugo nomination for the Wayfarers series. Her generally strong character work is even better here, and she manages to deliver the usual cozy vibes without forcing a clean ending for subplots that didn’t earn it.
Recommended if you like: Becky Chambers, stories about different people learning to work together.
Can I use it for Bingo? It headlines the LGBTQIA List and is a Book Club book where Family Matters. It’s also hard mode for Non-Human Protagonist and Mental Health.
Overall rating: 17 of Tar Vol’s 20. Five stars on Goodreads.