The Galaxy and the Ground Within is a new novel in the Wayfarers series from Becky Chambers. It’s also the last novel in that sequence, which makes talking about this entry a mixture of heartwarming and heartbreaking. I’ve really enjoyed the Wayfarers books over the years, so came to this one with high hopes. And those are, full disclosure, hopes which it more than met.
This is a story about people. That those people are different species, with different biological and psychological configurations, and different needs, is irrelevant. Well, not irrelevant. But it doesn't detract from the essential personhood at the core of their diversity of experience. And it really is a wonderfully diverse group, from societies as different from each other as they are from the one we’re familiar with. Notably, none of these characters is actually a human! All of the characters are forced together, forced to spend time with each other in a space they didn’t choose for themselves, victims of circumstance. But in their dialogue, in their striving toward understanding, they have a shared context and a shared understanding.
It’s a warm bath, this book, in some ways. It’s comfortable. It’s seeing so many different perspectives come together. Watching them face adversity, and discover their differences, and similarities, is a joy. It’s finding strength in common ground, and showing a world remarkably free of cynicism, and with a genuine warmth to it. There’s an emotional truth on display here and that has an honesty to it, a sense of looking through the masks of things to the core beneath, which makes every word, every action, seem real, and gets you to feel them. Too.
Plot-wise, the stakes are fairly personal. A natural disaster leaves a small collective f different individuals bundled together for an unknown period of time. They’re not in enormous peril, but they are out of their comfort zones. And that lets them explore, perhaps, different paths to understanding and happiness than they might have before. They’re ambassadors to each other, struggling past their own histories and preconceptions to see the people they’re talking to, to give them their own agency and sense of being. Incidentally, we do get viewpoints from them all - and each has their own voice, their own perceptions of what’s going on, their own truth, and that each of those is distinct, whilst all being valid, is wonderful. The stakes may not be epically high, in the traditional sense of universes to save or wars to end, but they’re intensely personal. The wealth and depth of character in display made me care about each of these people, about their needs, about their fears, the way they were seen, and the way they saw others. To them, their small, everyday triumphs and tragedies are encompassing the world. The conflicts are similarly personal - and no less intense or truthful for that. People have opinions, and disagreements, and while they have to live in the same space as each other, may not necessarily like each other very much. It’s not exploding space stations or laser swords, but what it is, is searingly emotionally honest, and immediately, personally valid. If you’ve not had these arguments, you’ve probably had ones like thm, and you can feel their truth in your bones, even if they’re being made by a spider in an exo-suit to an egg-laying rhino with an exoskeleton.
In the end, this has everything I loved about the Wayfarers series. Diversity, inclusion, and a universe which is rich in detail and characters which have a depth and truth all their own. It’s a book which is by turns comfortable and incisive, and in both states is doing something special. It’s a pitch perfect swan song to the Wayfarers series, and though I’m sad to see it end, if it must, I’m delighted to say that it’s getting the send off it deserves. You’ll want to read this one. And you should!