The Galaxy, and the Ground Within (Wayfarers #4)
by Becky Chambers
Expected publication date: April 20, 2021 by Harper Voyager
While the little planet of Gora is little more than a glorified rock floating in space, it has the distinction of sitting along multiple interstellar traffic lanes, making it a useful stop for travelers waiting their turn to enter the wormholes that allow the Galactic Commons to stay connected across the vastness of space. The Five-Hop One-Stop is something of a truck stop on Gora, allowing travelers a chance to get out of their ships, stretch their legs, and partake of the hospitality offered by the Five-Hop’s proprietor– a mother and her usually helpful child. But when a freak accident halts both incoming and outgoing traffic, a group of travelers must make the best of their situation. An exiled artist with an important appointment to make, a cargo captain at a crossroads, and a mysterious figure doing her best to help a people on the edge all find themselves with the time and space to consider where they’ve been, where they’re going, and what their chance meetings could mean for their futures.
Like other cultural institutions, the combined genre of Science Fiction and Fantasy (SFF) has seen its share of fragmentation over the past thirty years, as the internet allows people to delve ever deeper into specific niches and aesthetics. The sub-genres of Steampunk, Cyberpunk, Weird West, New Weird, and a host of others have sprung up in recent years, but the one that’s gotten the most attention is Grimdark, a subgenre loosely defined by the appearance of morally gray characters, violence, gritty realism, an overall tone of darkness, and the feeling that everything is terrible and there will probably be no happy ending. For anyone. And thanks to such television shows as Game of Thrones, Penny Dreadful, or The Expanse, and films like Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy (Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises), this particular subgenre has received heaps of praise and money.
But while many SFF fans embrace the gritty reality of Grimdark, others seek something more hopeful– and thus we have the subgenres of Solarpunk and Hopepunk, which don’t see the world as a grim and hopeless place where good people die first. Instead, they seek a way to find a way forward– together. It’s not a futile denial of reality and the grim future humanity faces, but an acknowledgement that being selfless and caring about other people takes strength, and in an environment that often feels like it’s ‘every man for himself’, putting others’ needs above one’s own is almost a radical act.
Enter Becky Chambers’s Wayfarers series, which nestles snugly into the heart of Hopepunk with its disparate alien cultures all trying to get along in the vast Galactic Common, where people are doing their best but don’t always manage it, because even a government that is trying to work for the common good doesn’t always make the right decisions in a timely fashion– or at all. But this doesn’t mean that individuals throw their hands (or tentacles) up in despair and give up, because that would be counterproductive and not help anyone. Chambers’s characters might be up against centuries of cultural taboo, GC law, or familial problems, but they’re not about to roll over and die. Not when there’s something they can do to make things better.
Some critics have disdained the Wayfarers series for its fluffiness, others for the lack of a plot in its four installments. But many readers have embraced the found families within the pages and found comfort in the fact that, no matter what happens between the first page and the last, there will be some sort of a happy ending, even if it’s not the one they expect. So it is for The Galaxy, and the Ground Within, the fourth and final book of this Hugo-Award winning series (Hugo Award for Best Series, 2019). The accident that grounds the disparate travelers at the Five-Hop is less an inciting incident and more of a background element; it’s just the thing that prevents the travelers from leaving on time, rather than a disaster they have to struggle against to survive. There are no great mysteries to unravel, no dark pasts any of the characters are running from, no villain they have to find before bodies start piling up. The characters endure nothing more odious than boredom and anxiety, which they cope with by talking to each other and doing their best to learn about each others’ cultures and particular ways of life. And even if they don’t agree on the fundamentals of existence, at least they have taken the time to learn about each other, and how to live with one another. It’s a message of hope and understanding that has proven to be a comforting balm for many readers facing unsettling times.
The final installment of the Wayfarers series is a worthy successor to the popular first book, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, and fulfills the promises of its Hopepunk subgenre. By portraying characters who actively seek to understand and look out for each other, Chambers shows how in this grim world of ours, simply being kind to our fellow beings can be a radical act.
Thank you to NetGalley and Harper Voyager for providing me with a free ebook in exchange for an honest review. This did not affect my opinion.