Most Americans think about extraterrestrials in one of two ways. Either the white-faced, goggle-eyed humanoid with an enormous head reported by UFO fantasists. Or the grim-looking denizens of the cantina in the original Star Wars film. But in the final entry in the Becky Chambers series, The Galaxy and the Ground Within, the author does them one better. Actually, much better. Five aliens populate her novel. (There’s not a single human in the bunch.) They represent a wildly diverse set of body plans and sense organs. Two legs, four, dozens. Fingers, prehensile toes, hooks. Fur, scales, beaks, a shell. Eyes or no eyes, ears or none. Yet somehow they manage to communicate with ease through a language called Klip that is the lingua franca, so to speak, of the Galactic Commons.
How can these creatures understand each other?
But wait! How can these creatures engage in conversation, language or no language? And what are they saying in the first place? They’re alien, after all! Well, just imagine one of those stories about a handful of people stranded by war or misfortune. Human people. They don’t know each other, and once the skies clear they’ll all be on their way. So, what do they do? They talk. And their innermost secrets come out, willingly or not. Yes, the characters in this novel are all extraterrestrial. (They call each other sapient or sentient, because Terra‘s not in the picture.) But it’s hard to imagine that they could be any more human in the ways they think and speak and act. Of course, it’s all in fun. Keep in mind, this is Becky Chambers’ universe—the Galactic Commons—not hard science fiction. In the GC, everybody’s nice—except when they’re at war.
The Galaxy, and the Ground Within (Wayfarers #4 of 4) by Becky Chambers (2021) 333 pages ★★★★☆
Who’s who in this last of the Becky Chambers series
For the record, I’ll list the characters here. If you plan to read the novel, save this list. It takes a little effort to sort them all out, as they’re introduced piecemeal, and it can be a little confusing at first.
Ooli Oht Ouloo is the proprietor of the Five-Hop One-Stop, a motel of sorts in a habitat dome for galactic travelers on the planet Gora (“the Hanto word for useless”). Ouloo is a Laru. She and her preadolescent son Tupo—he is “too young to have chosen a gender yet”—are covered with thick fur from head to the tips of their four paws. As one of Ooloo’s guests thinks, none too kindly, “their limbs were like animated noodles, their stubby torsos thick and bumbling, their long tail-like necks somewhere between a nightmare and a grand cosmic joke.”
A Quelin—”Quelin singular, even if it’s a group”— Roveg is a wealthy trader who was banished from her home planet for creating impertinent “sims,” which seem to be the latest format in education and entertainment. (The Quelin do not tolerate criticism.) She is desperate to obtain a visitor’s pass so she may reunite briefly with the three sons she left behind when she was stripped of the jewels on her carapace and forced to flee fifteen years ago. (“The Quelin Protectorate were a real bunch of bastards.”) Roveg sports dozens of legs, including abdominal and thoracic limbs that enable her to move quickly like a centipede.
Speaker is a tiny methane-breathing sapient whose species wanders the galaxy. She moves about inside her shuttle by swinging about from one pole to the next using hooks at the ends of her arms. (“The two short limbs that hung below her as she swung across the room could grasp and passively support, but nothing beyond that.”) Outside the shuttle that brought her to the surface, she lives in a massive spacesuit. Her home planet was colonized and stripped of all value by the rapacious Harmagians, and the Galactic Commons has not seen fit to allocate a new one for them. In Speaker’s species, the Akaraks, everyone has an identical twin. Hers is named Tracker. The two have never been apart for so long.
Gapei Tem Seri, known as Captain Tem, calls herself Pei. An Aeluon, she is a wealthy arms dealer who travels the galaxy in a ship that rivals planetary art museums. “One of the first things Aeluon children learned after they mastered the complicated matters of walking and eating and using their colours with intensity was that the world around them did not use the same language people did. People, of course, communicated via the swirling chromatophore patches covering both cheeks.” And to communicate with those who speak via sound, Pei had installed a voicebox on what corresponds to her neck. Pei is secretly involved in an interspecies relationship with—gasp!—a Human named Ashby.
So, what happens?
To be blunt, not much happens here. Unlike its three prequels, the last entry in the Becky Chambers series is modeled on those literary novels or films in which a small, disparate group of people are forced together for a time and spill their guts to one another. In this case, some equipment glitch has detonated virtually all of Gora’s huge fleet of communication satellites, and they’re now tumbling in pieces to the surface. The Goran Orbital Cooperative rushes to fix the problem. But in the meantime, everyone on the surface of the planet must shelter in place, within the many domes scattered about and, if possible, within their spacecraft as well. During all the days repairs are underway, the guests in the Five-Hop One-Stop are forced to deal with each other, historic enmities and suspicions notwithstanding. It’s amusing but less than satisfying—like dessert after the more substantial courses of the Wayfarers series.
About the author
Becky Chambers won the Hugo Award for Best Series for the Wayfarers novels. She self-published the first book in the series, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, in 2014. Number four in the series, The Galaxy, and the Ground Within, is, sadly, the last of the lot. Chambers was born in Los Angeles County in 1985. At an early age she became fascinated with space exploration. Currently she lives in California with her wife.
For more reading
Previously I reviewed all the other novels in the Wayfarers series:
- The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (Wayfarers #1 of 4) – A delightful modern space opera that’s all about character development
- A Closed and Common Orbit (Wayfarers #2 of 4) – Lovable characters in this off-beat space opera
- Record of a Spaceborn Few (Wayfarers #3 of 4) – A brilliant invented universe in an unusually good new science fiction novel
For more good reading, check out:
- The ultimate guide to the all-time best science fiction novels;
- Great sci-fi novels reviewed: my top 10 (plus 100 runners-up);
- Seven new science fiction authors worth reading; and
- The top 10 dystopian novels reviewed here (plus dozens of others).
And you can always find my most popular reviews, and the most recent ones, plus a guide to this whole site, on the Home Page.