The last novel in Becky Chambers’ series of loosely-connected novels set in her Wayfarers universe, The Galaxy, and the Ground Within is also, unfortunately, the least accomplished. Structurally, it is what’s known in TV as a bottle episode: six aliens, one of them a minor character from the first Wayfarer novel, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, find themselves trapped by an infrastructure accident at a rest stop on the planet of Gora, a major transport hub. The delay causes tensions within the group for various reasons, but it also gives them a chance to connect and to form unlikely friendships; when the emergency is over, each leaves Gora enriched by their experience.
There’s nothing, I think, intrinsically wrong with the format of the bottle episode: in the context of a TV show it can be a truly excellent thing, giving writers a chance to delve deeply into the psychology of a group and the motivations of each of its characters, as well as slowly ratcheting up tension (the Doctor Who episode Midnight is a masterful example). But it’s a pretty thin plot to hang an entire novel on, and it does require some excellent character work to make up for the relative lack of Things Happening. My main problem with The Galaxy, and the Ground Within is that Chambers seems to mistake cultural exchange for characterisation.
All of the Wayfarers novels have been centrally concerned with issues of representation and inclusion: the galaxy where they’re set is largely a welcoming and diverse place, with many of its public spaces designed to accommodate the very differing access needs of the species that live there. Queerness of all kinds is unremarkable; most characters (with notable exceptions) work comfortably alongside people who are different from them in various respects; the second novel in the series, A Closed and Common Orbit, features some pretty obvious trans themes. How successful the series actually is in tackling issues of social justice is up for debate, but they are undoubtedly there. The Galaxy, and the Ground Within follows up on this conversation by, essentially, having its characters sit around and explain the nuances of their differing cultures to each other.
The chief focus in this exercise is Speaker, a member of a species called the Akaraks whose history is one of colonisation and displacement. None of the other characters know anything substantial about the Akaraks – and what they do know is mostly false and discriminatory – because of that history, which has left them homeless, powerless and without representation in the galactic government. Speaker’s presence on Gora gives her an opportunity to correct the record, at least in a small way, by sharing facts about Akarak culture with the other travellers and pointing out commonplace inaccuracies.
There are two problems with this approach, one of which is a problem of execution and one of which is more foundational. Firstly, and least seriously: this is all very Structural Oppression 101. This is what unconscious bias looks like, this is what casual racism looks like, this is what institutional disenfranchisement looks like…And it’s not done subtly, through character action, through metanarrative, through dialogue; it’s just infodumped into the text, and it…sits there, doing nothing except making the other characters feel good about themselves for having acquired this knowledge.
Secondly, it is…not great to put the marginalised character in the position of having to explain her own marginalisation; to educate those more privileged than she is about her culture. The text does lampshade this, but, again, it doesn’t particularly do anything with the fact that Speaker’s forced to do it at all. We’ve been told over and over again in this series that this is an enlightened and tolerant galaxy: where are the allies in the group on Gora? Why couldn’t Chambers have a more privileged character step in to correct assumptions, to prevent everyone else quizzing Speaker? At one point, Roveg, a wealthy sim designer who’s been exiled from his home planet, does contemplate rescuing her, but instead begins asking his own questions because he is: curious. Oh, great. (I will note here that the Wayfarers universe has a fully-functioning interplanetary Internet analogue which we have seen characters using in previous instalments.)
This all bespeaks a kind of shallowness that characterises the novel as a whole, for me. This is a text about cultural difference and structural oppression that doesn’t have anything coherent to say about those things except “structural oppression is bad and tolerance is good”. It’s a character-focused novel whose characters are largely unremarkable and flat. It’s a novel that means well, but which ultimately fails to grapple with questions about what meaningful allyship looks like. It is, like all of Chambers’ books, a perfectly readable novel: gentle, sweet, unchallenging to Western liberal sensitivities. But it’s a clunky note on which to end a series.