Title: The Galaxy, and the Ground Within
Series: Wayfarers, #4
Author: Becky Chambers
Narrator: Rachel Dulude
Publisher: Harper Voyager
Publication date: April 20, 2021
Print length: 336 pages
Audio length: 9 hours, 55 minutes
Genre: Science fiction
With no water, no air, and no native life, the planet Gora is unremarkable. The only thing it has going for it is a chance proximity to more popular worlds, making it a decent stopover for ships traveling between the wormholes that keep the Galactic Commons connected. If deep space is a highway, Gora is just your average truck stop.
At the Five-Hop One-Stop, long-haul spacers can stretch their legs (if they have legs, that is), and get fuel, transit permits, and assorted supplies. The Five-Hop is run by an enterprising alien and her sometimes helpful child, who work hard to provide a little piece of home to everyone passing through.
When a freak technological failure halts all traffic to and from Gora, three strangers—all different species with different aims—are thrown together at the Five-Hop. Grounded, with nothing to do but wait, the trio—an exiled artist with an appointment to keep, a cargo runner at a personal crossroads, and a mysterious individual doing her best to help those on the fringes—are compelled to confront where they’ve been, where they might go, and what they are, or could be, to each other.
Reading (or listening to) Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers series is like being immersed in a cultural study, learning traditions, histories, and sociological norms… but here, the cultures are alien rather than human, and the action takes place in far-flung locations within the Galactic Commons.
In fact, in book #4 of the series — the final book — there’s not a human to be found. Instead, we settle in with a group of sapient non-humans from four different species as they wait out a space emergency that leaves then all stuck at a transit point, with only one another for company, support, and distraction.
Ouloo runs the Five-Hop with her exuberant child Tupo. Together, they welcome travelers with snacks, a garden, a bath house, and a place to restock and refuel before continuing on their way. Most visitors only stay for a couple of hours. There’s really nothing of interest on the planet Gora, but it is conveniently located between wormhole tunnels, so Ouloo does a pretty good business at her interplanetary version of a truck stop.
However, an accidental satellite collision leads to explosions and debris, and all travel on and off planet is halted while the emergency is dealt with. This strands the current batch of travelers at the Five-Hop, with no way to leave and no communications with the outside world. With no other options, the visitors settle in and start getting to know one another.
As with the other books in the series, The Galaxy, and the Ground Within is fairly gentle for a science fiction story. In fact, when the first explosions rocked Gora, I thought for a split-second that the planet was under attack… but no. Such violence would not be in keeping with the overall tone of the series. Yes, war and battles and calamities occur, but mostly as background or off the page. Throughout the Wayfarers books, the focus is on the people and their relationships, and the same is true in the 4th book.
One of the characters in this book is familiar from book #1 — Pei, of the Aeluon species, a cargo ship captain who faces a life-changing decision about her own destiny. The others, however, are all new, although most belong to species we’ve at least seen in passing before. As they spend time together, they learn about their lives, their differences and similarities, and find ways to bridge the cultural gaps between them.
In many ways The Galaxy, and the Ground Within feels like an anthropological study (although maybe that’s not the right word for a book about non-human species?). Through the characters, we’re introduced to the different species’ societal norms, traditions, physical features, dietary needs, and more. It’s all quiet fascinating, and a real tribute to the author’s skilled world-building and imagination.
At the same time, there’s not a ton of plot going on, other than strangers are stuck together, forge bonds, then go their separate ways. There are ups and downs, arguments and reconciliations, and even a medical emergency that requires everyone to put aside their differences and work together… but honestly, that’s about it.
That doesn’t mean this book is boring. It’s not! As I said before, for a science fiction novel, it’s very gentle. That’s not a bad thing, just unusual for the genre.
As with the other three books in the series, the audiobook narration by Rachel Delude is very well done. She provides distinct voices and inflections for each of the characters, and it’s quite a wonderful listening experience.
The Wayfarers series has been a reading goal of mine for a while now, and I’m delighted that I finally took the time to make it a priority. It’s a lovely feat of storytelling. Rather than a continuous narrative broken into four books, this series is built on the concept of taking a singular galactic society and examining it through four separate stories. It’s unusual, it’s all rather peaceful and beautiful, and it absolutely works.