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The Galaxy, and the Ground Within

April 27, 2021

The Galaxy, and the Ground Within, the new science fiction novel by Becky Chambers, is as delightful as I expected but not exactly what I expected. Although I don’t think we should try to make everything published this year about the pandemic, I still have to say that this is the quintessential pandemic novel in that it begins with four aliens landing their spaceships at a refueling stop and for a while we keep thinking they’re going to take off again and the real adventure will begin, when the story actually consists of the aliens stopping and learning to care about the other kinds of people they find themselves marooned with.

At first readers may not realize the importance of seemingly simple gestures like one alien learning how to greet another:
“There was movement within the suit: a level pulled, buttons pressed. The suit obeyed, straightening up and raising both of its four-fingered metal hands. At the Akarak’s command, it turned the palms outward, and tipped the fingertips gently to each side.
Pei’s inner eyelids flicked with surprise. The stance the Akarak’s suit had adopted was that of an Aeluon greeting, the kind you gave a person when you were too far apart to press palms. It was an unremarkable, everyday way of expressing a friendly hello, performed by the last sort of figure she would’ve expected it from.”
As more of these incidents are recounted, however, we see what a wonderful galaxy it is that has such people in it, people who have learned ways to communicate.

The refueling stop is on a planet called Gora; the entire planet is covered with places like the Five-Hop One-Stop, where the spacefarers spend a few days. The Five-Hop is run by Ouloo and her offspring Tupo, who are Laru, and their life’s work is to learn about the needs and preferences of other species so they can provide for them during their pit stops. The characters who have stopped with Ouloo and Tupo and gotten stuck on Gora are Pei, an Aeluon, Speaker, an Akarak, and Roveg, a Quelin.

The alien characters have an interesting conversation about humans, at one point, when Roveg is trying to turn the conversation from a more serious topic. He says “you know, on the subject of Humans, there’s something I’ve long wanted to ask someone about….Cheese. Is that a real thing?” All the aliens find the concept of cheese disgusting, especially after they’ve heard Pei’s version of how it’s made: “they take the milk, they add some ingredients—don’t ask me, I have no idea what—and then pour the mess into a. . . a thing. I don’t know. A container. And then….They leave it out until bacteria colonise it to the point of solidifying.” The furor intensifies when Pei reveals that Humans need an enzyme to be able to digest milk and “only some Humans produce it naturally. But here’s the thing: they’re all so fucking bonkers for cheese that they’ll ingest a dose of the enzymes beforehand so that they can eat it.” As a human who takes a lactaid pill anytime I want to ingest dairy products, I found this look at my own culture hilarious.

Pei, the Aeluon, has problems with insomnia that sound way too familiar: “this was her body’s way of communicating that there was a problem left unsolved, and some stupid part of her thought it best to wake at random intervals until the matter was closed….It didn’t matter that there was no new information to process; her mind simply wanted to review the facts over and over.” The story has stakes familiar from our world–the characters are struggling with why they wage war, what it means to colonize, how to deal with refugees, who they fall in love with, whether to reproduce, how to bring up their young, how to act on their ideals, and where their culture has blind spots.

There are many wonderful moments. One of the most wonderful is how Roveg comforts Ouloo when Tupo has been hurt, recalling a time when one of his own offspring, Segred, had been hurt and he was waiting to see if he would recover:
“his mother and I started doing this…sort of game, I suppose. We would talk about the things we were looking forward to doing with Segred once he had healed. The things we wanted to see him do. It was frightening, at first. I felt as though we were jinxing it. But the longer we did it, the more it felt like we were willing a future for Segred into existence. Like the more we said it, the more certain it was. I know there’s no reason or logic to that whatsoever. I know Segred’s recovery had nothing to do with that and everything to do with imubots and antibiotics. That game didn’t help my son. It helped me.”

Another wonderful moment is when Speaker tells Pei why she didn’t undergo genetic medical therapy to fix her crippled legs:
“Because I didn’t want to. And when it comes to a person’s body, that is all the reason there ever needs to be. Doesn’t matter if it’s a decision about a new pair of legs or how you like to trim your claws or…what to do about an egg. I didn’t want to. You don’t want to. That’s it.”

The way the individuals in the group grow and change from meeting each other is the point of this novel, but although the novel has serious stakes, it’s not always deep and complicated. It’s interspersed with moments that will tickle you, like the Quelin, who has an exoskeleton, asking what it’s like to be ticklish:
“’It’s like…” Ouloo frowned. “Hmm.’
‘Is it painful?’ Roveg asked.
‘No,’ Speaker said slowly. ‘It’s not.’
‘But you don’t like it?’ Roveg said.
‘I don’t like it,’ Pei said.
‘I mean,’ Ouloo said, ‘I don’t mind it.’
‘It’s not my favourite, but it’s not the worst,’ Speaker said.
Roveg looked around the group with his hard-shelled face. ‘Thank you, this has been incredibly illuminating,’ he said.”

Like The Lord of the Rings, the novel has three happy endings, each exquisitely satisfying in its own way and forming an overlay of perfect happiness, the feeling that sometimes, with a few people, things can go right.

Reading it made things go right for me, at least for a while. Has anything gone right for you lately?

13 Comments leave one →
  1. April 27, 2021 7:56 am

    A thing that’s gone right for me lately: I visited a bookstore! They have a situation where you can make an appointment and be the only shoppers there, so that’s what we did (masked). My mum and sister got some things for my nephew (and so did I, I admit), and I got myself two books and a puzzle. It was wonderful and rejuvenating; I loved it.

    • April 30, 2021 10:24 am

      That’s great! I went to the campus bookstore and picked out a graduation present for a favorite student yesterday. That was great too.

  2. Phyllis permalink
    April 27, 2021 9:14 am

    I saw my daughter for the first time in 18 months!
    This sounds like a fun book.

  3. April 27, 2021 10:00 am

    Random things adding up – seems everything is like that lately. I can’t plan much, only react.
    It’s getting very tiring.

    • April 30, 2021 10:26 am

      I’m sorry that it is so tiring, as I’m cheering you on from the sidelines and hoping to review your next novel soon.

  4. April 27, 2021 1:17 pm

    I think this book sounds lovely. I might have to check it out.

    Gone right – husband got second dose of vaccine. I’m getting back in meditating (with the Calm app.) Been reading lots of good books lately. Summer’s almost here – which means I won’t have to get up quite as early. 😉

    • April 30, 2021 10:27 am

      It’s so great to be vaccinated and go a few more places; I’m enjoying that. And yes, there are lots of good books and summer is coming!

  5. April 27, 2021 2:35 pm

    Well no surprise, this isn’t a book I think I’ll read (are we always opposite?). I read her first book and it was . . . OK. Mostly what you liked are the things about her writing I didn’t like. Everyone was just too nice. (I swear I am not evil myself!)

    What’s going well? I have the next Murderbot book to read, I am slowly getting my courage to ride my bike (although I suck at it) and we are making travel plans now that we are fully vaccinated. No place wild and crazy, just seeing my kids and grandkids.

    • April 30, 2021 10:29 am

      I read a very wide variety and have enjoyed the books you recommend. So I don’t think we’re opposites but maybe I have wider tastes right now.
      I’m also looking forward to the new Murderbot book! And it’s great to be able to make travel plans!

  6. April 28, 2021 4:25 pm

    I am so looking forward to reading this book! I put myself on the waitlist for it at my library even before it was published and it is taking so long *whine* I am glad to hear how wonderful it is. One of the things I like best about Chambers is how kind her novels are even when the stakes are high.

    • April 30, 2021 10:31 am

      Yes, her characters are kind. I think that’s a better word than “nice” (which always makes me think of the witch in Into the Woods singing “you’re so nice, you’re not good you’re not bad you’re just nice”). I hope you get to read it soon!

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