Book review: The Galaxy and the Ground Within (Wayfarers 4) by Becky Chambers

Becky Chambers has become a household name for those who look for light, uplifting science fiction reading. Her style has been coined “Cozy-Punk” by some, and I wholeheartedly agree. Readers who pick up her latest Wayfarers novel know very well what they are getting into, and they will not be disappointed. The book is very light on story, but heavy on exposition of a rich and varied universe, through the eyes of the most agreeable characters.

The planed Gora is a barren wasteland where people have to live in hermetically closed habitats. The only reason there is any kind of population on the planet is that it serves as crossroads for several heavily used wormholes. So, the entire planetary industry is focused on rest stop hospitality. One such motel is Five-Hop One-Stop, which welcomes three ships whose crews can relax and resupply before their allocated time slots for departure open. Unfortunately, a cascading malfunction of the satellite net above the planet strands everyone on the surface until the situation is brought under control and space travel may be safe again.

So, three people, the caterpillar-like Roveg, the Aeluon Pei and the methane-breathing Speaker are stuck with their host, a furry equine named Ouloo and her child, Tupo. They all have their rich back stories, reasons to travel and places to get to. With nothing better to do on the ground, they begin exchanging stories and discussing their various ideas and worldviews, until an accident gets Tupo into mortal danger, at which time they band together to rescue him. Once the emergency ends, they all go on their merry ways.

As I mentioned in the introduction, the storyline is exceptionally poor, and the author spends most of her time on exposition of the universe. This universe is very varied, with plethora of alien species and cultures, wars, refugees, and other dark elements. The book’s protagonists have their own, much smaller, stories, which while often tragic, are presented in as gentle a way as possible. Here, Chambers “cheated” by selecting people whose personality suited her original idea.

I use “people” in a very general way. The book features a single human, in a single scene. All protagonists are what we’d call aliens, but only in appearance and customs. Their psychology is very human-like. This is both a blessing and a curse. It makes the protagonists much more approachable, but it also renders their alien origin less significant. I could easily imagine people from different cultures, with different limitations, coming together and discussing things. Still, I think this was an excellent decision by Chambers, as it made it much easier to read the book and let the reader focus on the feel-good setting.

One thing all the protagonists have in common is that they are very tolerant and open-minded. Ouloo is running a rest stop for anyone in the universe, so she is naturally curious about various species, their customs, food, likes and dislikes. She strives to make her establishment as welcoming for everyone as possible. Roveg is an exile from his own race because he is unnaturally humble and accepts that his species is not superior to others. He is actively seeking out differing opinions to discuss. Speaker is, as his name suggests, an orator, but during the story it is revealed that he is somewhat of an ambassador for his species. And Pei, who also featured in the first book of the series, is from a warlike xenophobic race, but in an inter-species relationship, which is strictly forbidden for her kind. As a result, the interaction between these four is cordial at first and very friendly at the end. In addition, they all treat the child Tupo as equal and are happy to entertain his childish notions. It all makes for a very pleasant reading, without any significant conflict, save for one scene, which is more about miscommunication rather than fundamental differences in opinion.

In essence, all books in the Wayfarers series are very tiny feel-good vignettes from a very vast, and rather unforgiving, universe. This contrast makes the characters and their stories look even more pleasant. In this regard, The Galaxy and the Ground Within is an outlier: it is even sweeter and more cozy than the other books. It is the perfect book to go with a mug of hot chocolate and a slice of Madeira cake, when it’s cold and dark outside. Even people who like hard science fiction or action may like this break from dark and dreary reading, while those who are already attuned to Chambers’ writing will welcome more of the same. I recommend this book to everyone looking for a pleasant read, light on content but heavy with feel-good fluff.

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