Coming off a well deserved Hugo for Best Series, Becky Chambers finishes her Wayfarers quartet with The Galaxy and the Ground Within. The novel works as an excellent bookend to the series along with A Long Way thanks to similarities between the two. Pei, Ashby’s partner, makes a return here somewhat continuing on their story. The book brings the series back to its book 1 slice of life roots. And there is a gentle trend of found family tropes flowing through the novel as three aliens are forced to stay at a hostel-type travel stop.
(Sidenote: how unfortunate it is that a book that uses a planet-wide lockdown as a plot kickstarter would be released in 2020/21 – I doubt it was intended to hit quite so close to home. Although, a lockdown only lasting one week sounds pretty idyllic at the moment.)
This is the first Wayfarers book to not feature any humans at all; without that ‘default’ human perspective, the setting truly feels like a diverse galaxy. In a practical sense, it’s something that is harder to pull off at the start of a series because readers find it harder to identify with characters. But now, in book 4, trusting that readers will not bounce off the decision, we can acknowledge that so much of what we experience (teenage awkwardness, struggles between honesty and fitting in, two of those explored in The Galaxy and the Ground Within) is universal.
One thing I really admire about the world Chambers has created is that while it clearly is a generally better quality of life as you’d want a futuristic society to be, there are still genuine systemic problems that would come with the territory. Wayfarers is known for being cosy science fiction and I think having these instances of societal backwards-thinking actually adds to it. It grounds the characters in reality and makes their gradual acceptance of each other while being in moral disagreement more realistic.
As is usually the case (with the exception of Spaceborn Few) the plot is fairly thin – there is no real attention given to the reason for the lockdown, it’s just used as a device to create character interactions. This isn’t a criticism though, it works to the book’s advantage. It’s reminiscent of real life for the average person so helps build the slice of life atmosphere. As a conclusion the Wayfarers series, The Galaxy and the Ground Within is anticlimactic. If you’re expecting some definitive closure or references to the previous books’ characters, prepare for disappointment. There is no grand send off to the series, no fanservice ending, this is just another installment. We read the book, finish the series, enjoy it, and look forward to what’s next.