Review of The Galaxy, and the Ground Within

Review of The Galaxy, and the Ground Within

Gabriela Lee

Chambers, Becky. The Galaxy, and the Ground Within. Harper Voyager, 2021.

Stepping back into the world of Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers series is a comfort. Beginning with the first novel, A Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, and culminating in the fourth and final novel, The Galaxy, and the Ground Within, Chambers creates a vibrant, messy universe where humans are just a footnote in galactic history. In fact, in the Wayfarers universe, it is the humans who need to be saved by the other alien species with superior technology; it is the humans whose status as an independent and legal species needs to be acknowledged by the Galactic Commons, the parliamentary system that governs most of the known, traveled universe.

But Chambers is not concerned with the big picture of the galaxy—she is interested in the stories of the individuals who simply live their lives, and how they navigate a world in which people (and when I say “people” I mean all the sapient beings in this universe, not just humans) travel halfway across the galaxy through what is essentially traffic-controlled wormholes but still struggle with ordinary, everyday problems. In fact, one could say that Chambers is preoccupied with the personal, and it is through the personal that she is able to connect to the universal.

It is this particular preoccupation that makes The Galaxy, and the Ground Within approachable, despite the fact that it is the only book in the series in which none of the protagonists are humans. Instead, the novel focuses on four different beings stranded on Gora, an unassuming planet in the middle of what is essentially an intersection of five busy highways in space. Because of the interstellar traffic that passes through Gora and the wait time it takes to traverse the interspatial tunnels from one part of the galaxy to the other, many businesses spring up in the area to cater to travelers waiting to cross to other parts of the galaxy, including restaurants, bath houses, and travelers’ inns. One of them is the Five-Hop One-Stop, a kitschy intergalactic bed and breakfast that welcomes all visitors, no matter the species.

The novel’s plot is fairly simple: during a routine visit to the Five-Hop One-Stop while waiting for their turn in the queue to make their space jump, three guests are stranded when a major communication satellite malfunctions in Gora airspace, rendering the transportation hub inert. While the Galactic Commons Transit Authority and Goran officials scramble to repair the satellites and get the transportation tunnels back in order again, everyone is ordered to stay at their respective habitats, effectively stranding the three guests at the Five-Hop.

One of them is an Akarak named Speaker, who is described as small and stunted, with her arms ending in hooks that allow her to swing from one pole to another. The Akaraks are considered a fringe species, existing in the margins of the civilized universe without a home planet of their own and unable to live in more civilized spaces because of their unique biological needs; namely, they breathe methane instead of oxygen and are therefore unable to live outside of mechanical suits. Another guest is the exiled Quelin, Roveg, a designer of artificial simulations for entertainment and education. The Quelin, a monolithic society that despises change and insists on the enduring permanence of their own culture, branded Roveg a traitor after he was identified as the creator of narrative simulators that challenged Quelin ideology. Though he has since recuperated his career and finances, he is still permanently cut off from his family and home. The final guest is the Aeluon military cargo captain Pei, a character we briefly meet in the first book, as she heads to a secret rendezvous with her human lover. The Aeluons are considered one of the “Big Three” species that established the Galactic Commons and are generally considered one of the most advanced species in the universe. However, because of biological and social expectations, such as a declining birth rate, Aeluons are generally discouraged from romantic relationships with other species. Rounding out the cast of characters are Ouloo and her offspring, Tupo, a Laru mother-and-child who run the transit stop. Ouloo struggles with raising her child with a wealth of options while at the same time trying to figure out her place in the wider galaxy; similarly, the adolescent Tupo struggles to figure out their place in the world while they grow into their body and gender identity. The Laru are described as long-necked and fur-covered, are in part identified by their strange gaits—commonly alternating their walking style between two and four limbs—and are widespread across the galaxy, so much so that they no longer have any meaningful or traditional ties to their own home world.

The enforced proximity of the five characters reveals lines of tension. For instance, Pei’s work in a military-adjacent career is constantly challenged by Speaker, whose entire species was almost wiped out during a planet-side war generations ago, but the effects are still being felt in the present. Roveg’s exile also becomes a sore subject for him, especially when he confronts his own prejudices against Speaker and Pei, as well as his own personal philosophy of maintaining neutrality at the expense of everything else. However, the manufactured closeness also unveils intersections of commonality between everyone. Speaker’s reluctance at revealing her worry for her missing sister, Tracker, changes as Roveg and Ouloo attempt to help her find alternative means of communication outside the habitat. Pei’s frustration at the way by which her species are discouraged from entering relationships outside of their people boils over when she is faced with the choice of whether to be a mother, and though Aeluon motherhood is nothing like human motherhood, the choice still remains. Even Ouloo is challenged by the extended presence of visitors in her habitat and how their needs clash with the needs of her son.

Unlike many SF novels, Chambers smoothly gets around the thorny problem of exposition and explaining how the world works by utilizing short intermission pages that occur between chapters. They take the shape of planetwide bureaucratic announcements from the Galactic Commons Transit Authority that update the shelter-in-place policies around Gora. This allows readers to follow both the passage of time as well as provide ongoing updates of the events happening outside the Five-Hop. Similarly, Chambers uses the character of Tupo as a reader intermediary: as the youngest character, Tupo can easily shift between the four adults and ask questions, thereby expanding on our understanding of how each character sees each other and themselves. Although she consistently reminds the readers of the significant differences between the five protagonists—especially during the denouement of the novel, in which Pei, Roveg, Speaker, and Ouloo all have very different approaches and actions towards Tupo’s accidental poisoning—the novel seamlessly integrates their characters through constant interactions within each chapter.

In fact, it is very easy to forget that one is reading a story in which there are minimal mentions of humans or humanity. Chambers’ writing shines as she writes through the complexities of imagined species and cultures and touches on our own complex cultures as well. Though some may consider The Galaxy, and the Ground Within a slow novel in which nothing of note happens (which is a valid critique, especially if one expects a science fiction novel to be full of action) I would argue instead that the novel refracts and defamiliarizes genre tropes in SF and provides an alternate way of thinking about belonging and alienation in an unfamiliar space. It is to Chambers’ credit that The Galaxy, and the Ground Within welcomes the wayfaring reader with open arms.

Gabriela Lee teaches creative writing and children’s literature at the Department of English & Comparative Literature at the University of the Philippines. Her second collection of SF short stories, A Playlist for the End of the World (University of the Philippines Press, 2022), was just released. She recently received a National Children’s Book Award in the Philippines for her children’s book, Cely’s Crocodile: The Story and Art of Araceli Limcaco Dans (Tahanan Books, 2020). She is currently a PhD student in the English Department at the University of Pittsburgh. You can learn more about her and her work at

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