Changing While Standing Still: The Galaxy, and the Ground Within by Becky Chambers

Contemporary life is a busy thing, full of demands and schedules and deadlines and destinations. The same holds true in Becky Chambers’ Wayfarer universe, where a cadre of sapient species are part of an intergalactic civilization called the Galactic Commons (GC, for short) with its own rules, expectations, and inequities.

It’s natural for those in the GC—just like it’s natural for us humans on Earth—to get lost in the day-to-day of one’s own life and the immediate stressors and concerns that go with it. And it’s equally jarring—as the year that was 2020 has shown all of us—when the routine and freedoms we took for granted get upended.

That brings us to The Galaxy, and the Ground Within. The sci-fi story takes place almost entirely down the well, a world that Chambers describes in the book’s first pages as, “one bone-dry planet of mediocre size, possessing no moon, no rings, nothing to harvest, nothing worth mining, nothing to gasp at while on vacation. It was merely a rock, with a halfhearted wisp of atmosphere clinging meagerly to its surface. The planet’s name was Gora, the Hanto word for useless.”

Gora’s biggest claim to fame is that it’s a pit stop, the intergalactic equivalent of a rest station that resides near a hub of interspatial tunnels that people in the Wayfarer universe use to get to more interesting planets and places. But when a catastrophic event grounds all travel, we spend time there with a handful of stranded travelers and their host, each of whom has their own distractions, their own preconceived notions, their own stories.

This group of initial strangers are quite different from each other—none of them are the same species, for one, and they all have subtle stereotypes or implicit biases about the others.

They also, however, are able to see the individuals in front of them, overcome their preconceived notions, and make connections that wouldn’t have happened otherwise. The reader can’t help but make connections with the characters as well—like Chambers’ other books in the series, this is a story about people rather than plot, and each person is fully fleshed out.

The characters in The Galaxy, and the Ground Within are also unique (to us human readers, at least) because there isn’t a single homo sapien among them. There’s Speaker, a tiny beaked Akarak whose species had been enslaved and currently has no planet; Pei, an Aeluon who speaks in colors and is at a personal crossroads; Roveg, a many-legged Quelin who has been banished from his own kind for publicly saying other species are not inferior; and Ouloo and her child Tupo, furry long-necked and four-pawed Laru who have made a home on the “useless” planet.

Just because they aren’t human, however, doesn’t mean that the struggles the characters go through don’t resonate with humanity’s own societal faults. Speaker’s species, for example, was historically enslaved, and even now that they are “liberated,” they’ve been shunned by the rest of the GC. Other sapients generally view Akaraks with suspicion, and the group on Gora didn’t consider Akaraks at all, much less how they are treated. Sound familiar?

The book’s plot—as much as it has one—is that for all their differences, the group first comes to respect each other, then depend on each other, and finally, become changed by each other. That’s not to say that there aren’t conflicts or moments of fear, but at its heart, The Galaxy, and the Ground Within is a story of people who are inherently decent and striving to do the right thing.

While it’s likely Chambers started this book before the events that were 2020, a post-pandemic (well, almost post, hopefully) reading can’t help but resonate with our own unexpected pause, how an unplanned and undesired halt to where we think we’re going can change things irrevocably.

Handling the unexpected, however, is not the exception to life, but the rule. “Life was never a matter of one decision alone,” Pei thinks near the end of the book. “Life was just a bunch of tiny steps, one after another, each conclusion that lead to a dozen questions more.” Everyone stuck on Gora experiences that by the end of the book. And everyone on Gora is now connected, not only through their shared experience, but through their empathy and appreciation of those not exactly like themselves. We should all learn that lesson, and fans of Chambers’ previous Wayfarer books will love this one as well.

The Galaxy and the Ground Within is available from Harper Voyager.

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