In her final installment of her Wayfarer’s series, The Galaxy, and the Ground Within , Becky Chambers continues to explore themes of friendship, diversity, cross cultural and cross species understanding. It is a beautiful book. Beautifully written and beautiful in that the heart of the author shines in her love of her characters and a deep respect she conveys for each being’s right to exist.
Many have characterised Chamber’s writing as uplifting and comforting and that is no small thing in a genre rife with stories of violence and conflict. It is a welcome experience to read her books during this pandemic. But her books do deal with conflict and violence. But rather than see that violence as the focus, Chambers approaches things from the most real angle of all- how that conflict affects a person’s life, culture and personal choices. In no way would I describe her works as escapist, even if in reading her you feel calm in her capable hands, because she never shies from the deeper and more difficult questions that arise from privilege, loss, grief and bigotry. Her books are defined by the relationships and interactions her characters experience. And her characters, my god, her characters. It’s rare to see parenthood so achingly and profoundly portrayed. In Galaxy we even get to explore what NOT choosing to be a parent means. And all this in a book with only a fleeting appearance of a single human. The entire book is populated by incredibly well thought out sapient species and never once do you feel you can not relate to any of them.
While the book can be read as a stand alone, readers familiar with the series will again meet Pei, the Aeluon captain whose taboo love affair with a human has been kept secret from her crew and entire species for fear of being entirely shunned. Due to a catastrophic failure of satellites, she is stranded on a pit stop planet intended as a refueling holdover before one’s destination. She meets two other travellers of different species as they shelter at host Ouloo’s and her young child Tupo’s tiny Five-Hop One Stop dome. During their brief stay, each character brings their species’ culture and difficult life stories with them creating an intimacy none of them would have sought out initially but each values in the end. As with most stories in this series, the plot is secondary to the rich exploration of what happens when different species- some of whom historically are oppressed by another- are forced by circumstances to be something other than strangers.
Parenthood, the lovable silliness of a child alongside the aching fears and regrets of the parent, is portrayed in a way rarely if ever seen in sci-fi. Exile, being a without a homeworld either as a being or entire species, privilege, power, gender, pursuing one’s purpose at odds with one’s society are all explored. And yet the reader is never preached to. Chambers’ characters are afforded incredible dignity to represent themselves even at the cost of no easy answers or viewpoint being exalted over another. The author trusts and respects her readers enough to allow ambiguity to breathe in a space defined by attempts of understanding and acts of kindness. While each character is so very different, kindness and eventually empathy define this wonderful last chapter in her series. It’s as if Chambers only wants to show what might be possible if we listen to one another. And if that sounds boring, it truly is not. The reader is borne along, learning with each character as difficult understandings are attempted, not always successfully. At that is where the comfort of her books come from. You know this galaxy is rife with awful, violent things but the characters themselves seem to rise above that and reach some beautiful place where a hopeful future might be gleaned. That hopeful future might be not yet be realised but it’s tangible beginnings, rooted in friendships, can be seen. In times like these that hope is an incredible balm to the soul. If I could meet Chambers, I would want to hug her, thank her, and sit down for a lovely chat with a cup of mek. Highly recommend.