Author Becky Chambers returns to the sprawling, Hugo Award-winning universe of the Galactic Commons to explore another corner of the cosmos—one often mentioned, but not yet explored—in The Galaxy, and the Ground Within, a new entry in the Wayfarers series available from Harper Voyager.
We’re thrilled to share an excerpt below, along with an interview with Becky Chambers!
Tor.com: What is the Wayfarers series about, and when and where do those books take place?
Becky Chambers: The Wayfarers series is about everyday people living within a fantastic, intergalactic future. I built a very classic sort of space opera universe, then flipped the camera around to focus on the intimate slices-of-life that exist in the distant background. Our setting is the Galactic Commons, a vast political union that facilitates trade and travel for the varied alien species that call it home. Humans are likewise part of the GC, but we’re the new kids on the space block, and very much the underdogs. We don’t have a lot to offer, and we’re still finding our way. The books take place in the far future, several centuries after humanity rendered Earth uninhabitable.
Tor.com: Your mom is an astrobiology educator! How has she helped to foster your interest in space, firstly, and how has she helped act as a consultant for your writing?
BC: From summer outings at the Griffith Observatory to watching Star Trek every week as a family, my mom has always been there to nerd out about space with me. She was a very good support class for that interest — she never pushed it, and gave me all the room I needed to figure out what I was into on my own. She’s been an awesome consultant for all my space stories thus far. Whenever I’ve got a nagging worry that I’ve screwed something up, she’s there to answer my questions about gravity or viruses or what have you. She’s also put me in touch with her colleagues, at times, if there’s something particular I need to pick someone’s brain about.
Tor.com: How do you keep track of the worldbuilding in the Wayfarers series? How do you track the various character species and develop new ones? Where do you get your ideas?
BC: I have a locally-hosted private wiki where I keep all of my lore (I use TiddlyWiki, for those interested in that sort of thing). It’s immensely helpful for keeping track of everything, especially info relating to alien cultures and technologies. I have way more details on those fronts than ever made it onto the page, but I found it very helpful to have as many things as possible sketched out. It’s always good to know what the boundaries of your sandbox are.
When I start work on a new species, I’m usually riffing off of biology. I’ll take a physical trait, then fall down the rabbit hole of what the implications of that adaptation might mean for a civilization-level species. If you lay eggs, for example, how does your notion of parenthood differ from someone who gives live birth? If you communicate through color rather than sound or gesture, how does that affect your art and architecture? If you’re cold-blooded, what sort of accommodations are necessary for you to have plenty of energy through the day? These are the sorts of questions I love messing around with.
Tor.com: These books are often mentioned in discussions of sci-fi hopepunk. What role does hope play in the series and why do you think that is so essential to readers, especially now?
BC: Hopeful futures are a vital thing to tell stories about if we’re going to survive the here and now. It’s good to have cautionary tales, and stories that make us take a hard look at the challenges that lie ahead. But if we don’t have a clear answer for what it is that might make the fight worth it, I don’t see how we’ll ever do anything but spin our wheels. Survival for survival’s sake isn’t enough. We have to know what we’re working toward.
This isn’t to say that I intend my work to be prescriptive, or that the societies I write don’t have massive problems of their own. But what I try to provide is a counterbalance to the grimdark. I want the futures I present to feel something other than scary. The key to that is to not shy away from the tough stuff. This isn’t a matter of sugar-coating. Hope only exists in the face of struggle. So, to that end, my stories have to include grief, and loss, and injustice. People get hurt in these books, big time. But they also heal, and that, to me, is the most important thing about them.
With no water, no air, and no native life, the planet Gora is unremarkable. The only thing it has going for it is a chance proximity to more popular worlds, making it a decent stopover for ships traveling between the wormholes that keep the Galactic Commons connected. If deep space is a highway, Gora is just your average truck stop.
At the Five-Hop One-Stop, long-haul spacers can stretch their legs (if they have legs, that is), and get fuel, transit permits, and assorted supplies. The Five-Hop is run by an enterprising alien and her sometimes helpful child, who work hard to provide a little piece of home to everyone passing through.
When a freak technological failure halts all traffic to and from Gora, three strangers—all different species with different aims—are thrown together at the Five-Hop. Grounded, with nothing to do but wait, the trio—an exiled artist with an appointment to keep, a cargo runner at a personal crossroads, and a mysterious individual doing her best to help those on the fringes—are compelled to confront where they’ve been, where they might go, and what they are, or could be, to each other.
From: Goran Orbital Cooperative Info Team (path: 8486-747-00)
To: Ooli Oht Ouloo (path: 5787-598-66)
Subject: Possible service outage today
This is an update from the Goran Orbital Cooperative regarding satellite network coverage between the hours of 06:00 and 18:00 today, 236/307.
We will be performing routine maintenance and adjustments on a portion of our solar energy fleet. While we hope to avoid any disruptions in service, there is a possibility that residents and business owners in Neighbourhoods 6, 7, and 8 (South) may experience a temporary decrease or loss in power during the hours stated above. Our maintenance crew will do everything in their ability to prevent this from being the case, but please prepare accordingly. We recom- mend activating and testing your back-up power system ahead of time.
If you have any questions, please feel free to contact our info team via this scrib path.
Thank you for supporting your local planetary co-op!
In the Linkings, the system was listed as Tren. The science section in those same files was remarkable only for its brevity, as even the most enthusiastic astronomer would find it hard to get excited over this lonely section of the map. Tren’s namesake star was middle-aged and run-of-the-mill, and when you discounted the assorted dust and debris you could find in any stellar system, the only thing orbiting it was 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 half-hearted wisp of atmosphere clinging meagrely to its surface. The planet’s name was Gora, the Hanto word for useless.
The sole point worth noting about poor Tren and Gora was that on a navigation chart, they had the accidental chance of falling at a favourable distance between five other systems that attracted a lot of to-and-fro. The interspatial tunnels branching from these more vibrant ports of call were old, built with tech- nology that lacked the range of modern wormholes. Tunnels couldn’t stretch as far back in the day, is what it came down to, and the old routes from the Harmagian colonial era were commonly punctuated with spots where ships could pop out into normal space before heading down the next leg. At last, the boring little rock that spun around the drab little sun was given a use: that of an anchor between the places people actu- ally wanted to visit.
Traffic at a tunnel hub like Gora was complicated, as the comings and goings through wormholes had to be meticulously tracked. Swooping out of one tunnel and into the next without any sort of regulation was a perfect recipe for accidents, particu- larly if you were entering a tunnel someone else had yet to exit. As was the case in all such places, Tren was under the watch of the Galactic Commons Transit Authority. Any ship exiting or entering had to first submit a flight plan indicating their time of arrival, their point of origin, and their final destination. The Transit Authority would then grant access to the destination- bound tunnel in question and assign a departure time. Crossing normal space from one tunnel to the next would only take a few hours, but waits in the Tren system were rarely that short. A layover of at least half a day was common, unless traffic demand was unusually light. And so, the solitary planet had acquired much more company over the decades. Gora was flocked with bubbled habitat domes, each containing diversions and services of varied flavours. There were hotels, tech swaps, restaurants, repair shops, grocery vendors, sim vendors, kick vendors, smash vendors, gardens, tet houses, and swimming pools, each courting weary spacers in need of some real gravity and a brief change in scenery.
One of these domes, on a flat plain in the southern hemi- sphere, encased a modest-sized establishment. Its name—as was painted in a wreath of multiple languages on the shuttlepad outside—was the Five-Hop One-Stop.
It was Ouloo’s self-appointed mission in life to make you want to land there.
She awoke, as she always did, before dawn. Her eyes opened easily in the ebbing dark, her body long accustomed to transi- tioning out of sleep at this exact hour in this exact lighting. She stretched against the nest of pillows heaped in her sleeping alcove, pulled her head out from where it rested beneath a hind leg, and shook errant locks of fur from her eyes. She reached out a paw and shut off the alarm that hadn’t been needed (she couldn’t even remember what it sounded like).
Ouloo swung her long neck out into the room and saw that the sleeping alcove across from hers was empty. ‘Tupo?’ she called. It wasn’t like her child to be awake this early. Every morning in recent memory had begun with a prepubescent war, each more tedious than the last. Ouloo felt a faint glimmer of hope arise, a fantastical fancy in which Tupo had gotten up on xyr own, started xyr chores, perhaps even cooked.
Ouloo nearly laughed at herself. There was no chance of that. She padded across the room, entered her grooming cabinet, shut herself in the spacious compartment, put her feet on each of the four placement markers, and tapped a button with her nose. She sighed as a company of clever machines got to work, combing and curling, washing and rinsing, massaging her paw pads and cleaning her dainty ears. She loved this part of the morning, though she did somewhat miss the days before Gora, when her morning routine included scented soaps and herbal powders. But as the host of a multispecies establishment, she knew all too well that what might smell delicious to her might trigger anything from an allergic reaction to a personal insult in someone else, and she valued the long-term satisfaction of her customers exponentially higher than the fleeting indulgence of a rich springweed lather. Ouloo was a woman who took details seriously, and in her mind, there was no detail too small to note, not where her customers were concerned.
‘Tupo?’ she called again. Properly groomed, she exited the cabinet and headed down the hallway that connected the sleeping room to everything else. Their home was not large or elaborate, but it was just right for two, and they needed nothing more than that. It wasn’t typical for Laru to live in a group that small—if a pair even counted as a group – but Ouloo didn’t think of herself as typical, in any respect. She took pride in that fact.
The hallway was lined with skylights, and the view through them was busy as always. Tren had barely begun to shine that day, but the sky was alight all the same, glittering with satellites, orbiters, and the ever-constant parade of ships launching and landing and sailing by. Ouloo noted, as she passed a window, that the shuttlepad paint could use a touch-up. She mentally added it to Tupo’s list.
The scene she found at the end of the hallway sent her fresh curls into an angry ruffle. ‘Tupo!’ Ouloo scolded. Her eyelids fell shut, and she sighed. She remembered a day long ago when she’d peered into her belly pouch and seen this pearl-pink nugget finally looking at her. Two tendays after being born, Tupo’s eyes had just begun to open, and Ouloo had stared back into them with all the love and wonder in the universe, rendered breathless by this moment of pure connection between herself and her marvellous, perfect baby, cooing softness and safety at this tiny living treasure as she wondered who xe might grow into.
The answer, depressingly, was the consummate disaster snoring in the middle of the floor, limbs sprawled like roadkill. Some goofball vid was playing unwatched on the projector nearby, while its lone audience member slept face-first in a bowl of algae puffs.
Ouloo had no time for this. She marched over to her child, wrapped her neck around either side of xyr torso, and shook firmly. ‘Tupo!’
Tupo awoke with a snort and a start. ‘I didn’t,’ xe blurted.
Ouloo stomped over to the projector and switched it off. ‘You said you would come to bed by midnight.’
Tupo raised xyr neck laboriously, blinking with confusion, algae-puff dust clinging to the fur of xyr face. ‘What time is it?’ ‘It’s morning. We have guests arriving soon, and… and look at yourself.’
Tupo continued to blink. Xe grimaced. ‘My mouth really hurts,’ xe whined.
‘Let me see,’ Ouloo said. She walked over, swinging her face close to Tupo’s, trying to ignore the fact that Tupo had drooled all over the contents of the snack bowl. ‘Open up.’ Tupo opened xyr mouth wide, habitually. Ouloo peered in. ‘Oh, dear,’ she said, sympathy bleeding through her annoyance. ‘That one’s going to come in by the end of the tenday, I’ll bet. We’ll put some gel on it, hmm?’ Tupo’s adult incisors were making their first appearance, and like everything else on the child’s body, they were being inelegant about the process. Growing up was never a fun experience for any species, but the Laru were longer- lived than most, and had that much more time to drag the whole unpleasant business out. Ouloo didn’t know how she was going to stand at least eight more years of this. Tupo was still so soft, so babylike in temperament, but had finally crossed the threshold from small and cute to big and dumb. Nothing fit right and everything was in flux. It wasn’t just the teeth, but the limbs, the jaw, the adult coat coming in like a badly trimmed hedge, and the smell—stars, but the kid had a funk. ‘You need to go wash,’ Ouloo said.
‘I did last night,’ Tupo protested.
‘And you need to again,’ Ouloo said. ‘We have Aeluons coming in, and if I can smell you, they definitely will.’
Tupo dug absentmindedly around the snack bowl with a forepaw, searching for puffs that weren’t wet. ‘Who is coming today?’
Ouloo fetched her scrib from where she’d set it on a side table the night before, the same place she always left it. She gestured at the screen, pulling up that day’s list of arrivals. ‘We’ve got three scheduled for docking,’ she said. Not the best day ever, but decent. It would give her time to get some repairs done, and Tupo could start on the shuttlepad painting. Ouloo gestured again, pulling the details on screen into projection mode so Tupo could see.
The list read:
Today’s scheduled dockings
- Saelen (Est. arrival: 11:26)
- Melody (Est. arrival: 12:15)
- Korrigoch Hrut (Est. arrival: 13:06)
‘Which one’s the Aeluon ship?’ Tupo asked through a full, crunching mouth.
‘Which one do you think?’ ‘I dunno.’
‘Oh, come on. Yes, you do.’
Tupo sighed. Normally, xe was all for guessing games like this—and could be a real show-off about it—but mornings were not xyr best time even when xe hadn’t spent the night in a snack bowl. ‘Saelen.’
‘Because that’s obviously an Aeluon name.’ ‘How can you tell?’
‘Because of the way it ends. And the ae.’
‘Very good.’ Ouloo pointed at the third ship name on the list. ‘And what language is this one?’
Tupo squinted. ‘Is that Ensk?’
‘Not even close. Look at the consonants.’
Tupo squinted harder. ‘Tellerain!’ xe said, as if xe’d known all along. Xyr sleepy eyes perked right up. ‘Are they Quelins?’
‘Quelin, singular, even if it’s a group, and yes, correct.’
Tupo was visibly excited. ‘We haven’t had any Quelin people in a long time.’
‘Well, there aren’t many of them who travel in common space. You remember not to be nosy with them about why they’re out here, right?’
‘Yeah. Their legs are so weird, Mom.’
Ouloo frowned. ‘What have we talked about?’
Tupo huffed, making the fur below xyr nose shiver. ‘Not weird, just different.’
Tupo rolled xyr eyes, then turned xyr attention to the list once more. ‘Who’s the second one?’
‘Could be anyone,’ Ouloo said, as was true for a ship with a Klip name. ‘Probably a mixed crew.’
‘You could loooook,’ Tupo wheedled.
Ouloo gestured at the list, bringing up the details filed with the Transport Authority.
Ship category: Family shuttle
Associated orbital ship (if applicable): Harmony Length of planetside layover: Two hours
‘What kind of a name is Speaker?’ Tupo said. ‘That’s not a name.’
‘It’s clearly xyr name,’ Ouloo said, but now she was curious, too. A modder, most likely. Modders always had funny names like that. She pulled up the pilot licence that had been submitted with the docking request. The file appeared on screen, complete with a photo of the pilot in question.
Tupo was fully awake now. ‘What is that?’ xe cried, pushing xyr face in close. ‘Mom, what is that?’
Ouloo stared. That… that couldn’t be right.
Excerpted from The Galaxy, and the Ground Within by arrangement with Harper Voyager, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Copyright © 2021, Becky Chambers.