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When you read a book's cover blurb, and it's clearly just a variation on an author's previous work, your first impulse is usually to groan. Even if you enjoy that author, knowing that you're in for essentially a repeat performance will likely lower your expectations. With Becky Chambers however, having a good idea of what we'd be getting, didn't make my lady and me reluctant, indeed after the severely flawed; though still entertaining, To Be Taught, If Fortunate, we did have hopes that going back to her more familiar style would make for a better story, hopes that were; partly, vindicated.
Ouloo loves her job. A member of the long necked Laru species, Ouloo takes pride in running the Five Hop One Stop, a planetary rest station on the baron world of Gora. Even though most people think of Gora as nothing more than a stop off on their galactic journeys, to Ouloo, it is the perfect place. Here, she has found her purpose, making a friendly and welcoming environment for visitors of every species who might pass through, not to mention giving her child Tupo as wide an experience of other races and cultures as possible. When, however, disaster strikes, and a catastrophic failure disables Gora's satellite network; grounding all spaceships for an indefinite period, Ouloo finds her talents as hostess being severely stretched. Her guests include the Quelin artist and aesthete Roveg, the bluff and practical Aeluon captain Pei, and (to her own surprise), Ouloo's first Akarak guest, the diffident Speaker. When all three find their journeys interrupted, leaving them prey to uncertainty, fear of not reaching their various destinations, and anxiety over their loved ones, Ouloo definitely has her paws full. Yet, these few hours of enforced companionship will be a chance for all five to get to know each other, and maybe learn something about themselves and their place in the galaxy.
Chambers has always put character first. Written with a short, focused style which emphasises quirks, positivity and humour over historical explanation or serious ongoing plot, it was fairly obvious that here Chambers was playing to her strengths. As with Record of a Space Born Few, the book alternates between its five characters, slowly letting us understand who they are, and how the others see them, then, once the disaster hits, mixing them together and letting them spark off each other.
This meant Chambers had a perfect opportunity to present characters one way, then reveal different sides of their personalities as the book continues. Ouloo begins as a rather twittery overbearing mother, who turns into a twittery overbearing stewardess, desperate to keep her guests happy, however as the disaster progresses and other characters have conflicts, Ouloo proves surprisingly wise, offering good advice, stability and warmth as readily as she offers desserts or use of the 5 Hops' bathing facilities.
I was uncertain what human stage of childhood Tupo was supposed to be in; an early scene of Tupo asleep on the couch surrounded by snack food and mentions of Zir gangling appearance suggesting that Ze was closer to being a teen, while Zir quick curiosity, lack of knowledge, tact and understanding suggested Ze was younger. Either way, Tupo managed to successfully swing between being cute and exasperating, leaving Zir feeling realistically human and appealing, without sliding into being either insufferable or cloying.
Speaker was our first close view of the Akarak. Coming from a people who are not only refugees following a history of galactic slavery, but also considered outsiders by others, requiring mechs to move around; even Speaker’s name and job relates to her role as the one who interacts with other races. Chambers did a fantastic job of showing the feelings of being an outsider. Indeed, I suspect many reviewers have instantly labelled speaker and the Akarak as a direct allegory for their favourite minority, (and certainly some of her experiences, putting on a front for others, putting others at ease, or feeling a sense of actual amazement at even minimal acceptance, not to mention having most communal environments and technology simply not made for her), are ones I recognise myself as a disabled person. However, here it's Speaker's interactions with others, showing the exploration of a common humanity, occasional conflicts, and indeed others' acceptance of Speaker despite her differences, rather than any clumsy attempts at allegory which made her sections some of the most touching.
Roveg was possibly my favourite character. Initially appealing as an indolent; and indeed quite wealthy artist, Chambers first played on his feverish anxiety to finish his journey, an anxiety which elicited our sympathy. Then, when we really started seeing him interact with others, he proved possibly the kindest and most understanding of the group, especially with Speaker and Tupo.
The fifth character is the practical, at times abrasive captain Pei. While it does feel that Chambers is, well paying lip service to those who wanted to see the Wayfarer's crew again by including such a secondary character as Ashby's lover, a couple of mentions of Ashby, and asides about his crew were nice call backs.
As with Record of a Spaceborn Few, though the book doesn't really have a central major conflict, just spending time with these characters, seeing them rattle around together is more than enough to create moments of pathos, interest and tension. Chambers even presents one of the best depictions of a two sided political argument I've seen, both because we understand where the two participants are coming from; especially given their respective histories, and because of the ultimate moral which Ouloo brings to the table. Indeed, nothing quite sums up the book’s overall idea of "well we might disagree but wouldn't it be nice if we just got on with each other", better than the resolution of this argument, or the fact that the two participants show their shared humanity by working together to resolve a crisis shortly after.
Yes, in this review I have mentioned the characters "humanity", even though the book features five aliens. Chambers never fully describes any of the four races in the book. We get occasional hints, mentions of the Laru's fur, paws and long necks, or of Roveg holding a glass with the toes on one of his many legs, but we never get a complete description of them, even after finishing the book I still do not know exactly what the Akarak look like, other than that they have hands with climbing hooks and beaks. Not only physically, but for the most part in terms of their thought processes, none of the aliens feel, well particularly alien. Chambers does on a couple of occasions go out of her way to show some alien aspect of her characters, such as Pei feeling that brightly coloured objects are shouting at her, (since Aeluon communicate via colour), or the disgust all feel at the thought of humans eating "cheese", or a wonderful discussion of how Quelin language combines both vocalisations and clicks, but by working so much on the characters' emotional lives and friendly interactions, these feel more like personal preferences, than species differences. The frustrating thing here is that Chambers obviously could create some very alien viewpoints (witness her discussion of how an Ai might see the world in A Closed and Common Orbit), but chooses not to.
While the humanity of her aliens wouldn't usually be as much of an issue, (especially with how good the characters are), it highlights the book’s really major problem: That it is extremely opinionated! Though Chambers makes all her characters very likable, the same cannot be said for the races they come from. Roveg might be a kind and generous person, but we are told in no uncertain terms that the Quelin are a race who succumbed to "scapegoating", and "fear of the other", and "desire to maintain tradition." Indeed for a writer who bangs so heavily on the "your body is yours" drum as Chambers, the fact that one of the Quelin traditions involves painful branding of their chitinous shells, they might as well be waving a flag saying "eeeeeevil”. Not that I've got anything against evil aliens, but it was a bit too obvious that you could almost search and replace "Quelin" with "white male", or "western culture". Of course, Roveg is far from a stereotypically nasty Quelin, however, he's also been exiled from his home, race, family and culture for daring to speak out of turn.
Again, Chambers does start to address this problem, with Roveg mentioning Quelin opera and poetry, but a "mention", is literally all we get. There was a similar problem when discussing the Galactic Commons' treatment of the Akarak and their request for a new home planet, though there at least the criticism was of a government, not of an entire race.
Apart from the Quelin, all other alien cultures are discussed in glowing terms. The Akarak are a race of misunderstood refugees who share everything they have and only engage in piracy because they've been so badly treated; never mind the Akarak who looted the Wayfarer and punched Ashby in the face back in The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet. We don't learn anything about the Laru, because Ouloo explains that she's bringing Tupo up away from other Laru, since it's more important to learn about other cultures than your own; despite the fact that apparently she has still taught Tupo some of her regional language and a lot of Laru recipes, and that the only thing we do learn of Laru culture is how Laru respect all other cultures.
It is with Tupo that we run into another huge axe which Chambers is grinding, the issue of gender. Even though Rachel Dulude rather over emphasises the Ze and Zir pronouns used to describe Tupo, for the most part Chambers does a great job of avoiding any "little boy", or "little girl", tropes, meaning that even though my lady has a habit of referring to Tupo as "she", mostly Tupo could indeed have been either gender. All of this would be fine, and indeed expected in an alien race who do not develop gender until adulthood. However, at one point Ouloo explains breezily that Tupo hasn't "chosen", a gender yet, and that this is all a matter of preference. Given that even for humans it is difficult to say beyond the grossly biological level what actually being "male", or "female", means, especially in an era when old fashioned cultural stereotypes bump up against equally rigid new prejudices, I'm honestly confused here. Do Laru have gender assumptions? Or specific rolls for each gender? Will Tupo have to physically change Zir genitalia in some way? Would Tupo's interests, geology, dancing, cooking, be coloured by Zir choice of gender, and how about Zir role as a parent? Since both Ouloo and Chambers actively tell us so little about Laru culture, all we're left with is a possible choice of pronoun, and so much emphasis placed on "well who cares it's whatever you want", that the whole discussion seems inconsequential. Indeed, I am fairly certain the only reason Tupo happened to be genderless was so that Chambers could insert Ouloo's pro non binary invective.
Chamber's simplistic exploration of gender also has a major effect on Pei's part of the story. Pei becomes aware part way through that she is fertile, and thus has the chance to bear a child. We are reminded that when an Aeluon female is fertile, she goes to a crèche, where she spends several weeks being rigorously pampered and having sex with as many males as possible. When her egg is born and fertilised, she's then free to leave, knowing her child will be raised by professional male parents, with no obligation to have a relationship with her child or even see it again if she doesn't want to. With the mention that "Aeluon cultural stereotypes are changing, but there are still very few female Aeluon parents", Chambers' attempt at a society with reversed gender expectations is pretty transparent here. Yet, if we flip expectations back, the idea of a society where men spend several weeks having as much sex as possible with many willing women, who wait on their every desire in order to conceive a child, then being free to swan off and forget the child's existence, sounds like a chauvinist's wet dream. Again, this would be fine if we were indeed dealing with a truly alien society, or if the Aeluon culture (like the Quelin), were presented more negatively, however all of this is apparently perfectly fine, being just part of that glorious multicultural galaxy.
Even more than Chambers misplaced axe grinding, the really major problem with Pei's plot is its conflict. Pei could go off and have a child, spend a few week’s vacation being pampered and having astonishing sex with lots of males, and then only interact with that child as much as she wants. Though Chambers vaguely talks about the "cultural expectation", that Aeluon females should have children, we never get any idea what these cultural expectations are, no mention of what her family or friends might think, or even the consideration that since Aeluon females are rarely fertile, the decision of whether to have a child is literally a once in a lifetime opportunity. Set against this is Pei's feeling that "she doesn't want to." We are not told why Pei doesn't want to, indeed Pei doesn't even examine this feeling herself, whether it relates to Ashby; even though both Pei and we know that Ashby would be quite understanding, whether it relates to not wanting to have sex with other males, whether it relates to taking time out of her career, both we, and seemingly Pei, don't know, Pei simply doesn't feel like it. The conflict is swept aside when Speaker mentions to Pei that she could have some of her paralysed legs fixed but she just "doesn't want to", (a depiction of disability so problematic I don't know where to start).
Having a child is a major life decision, for an Aeluon even more so, and one rife with the potential for writing drama and character conflict, especially when Pei seeks advice or needs to analyse her own feelings and why she might have them.
Yet even though Chambers devotes considerable attention to explaining the unquestionably benign Aeluon reproductive culture, and examining Pei's options, in the end all the conflict boils down to is Pei saying "I don't feel like it now!" and leaving it at that.
This is not to say that Pei should or should not decide either way, however for a writer as good at creating complex character conflicts as Chambers, to have such a major life decision pushed aside so radically, without any further examination, seems not only a wasted writing opportunity, but almost dismissive of anyone who does consider having children to be important, let alone anyone who may only have one chance in their entire lives. Indeed, it's odd that we get far more conflict regarding how Pei's life might change if her relationship with Ashby is ever publicised to other Aeluons, a relationship which Pei never seems to consider to be any sort of long term emotional commitment, than if Pei takes this chance to have a child. And of course the two issues are never related to one another. Heck, Pei barely acknowledges that she actually loves Ashby.
All of that being said, the characters here are still incredibly, almost preternaturally likable. When Chambers sticks to writing about those characters, their interactions, their conflicts, their loves and ambitions, the book is as warm, engaging and interesting as any story could be. Indeed, when the characters' perceptions of themselves change, or when they are given new opportunities, we have some genuinely beautiful, uplifting moments.
The Galaxy, and the Ground Within feels as if it were written by two people. There is Becky Chambers of Angry Planet, an author who writes with nuance, delicacy and humour. Yes, her characters might all feel a little too human to be aliens, but human characters can often tell the most heart-warming stories. Seeing Speaker's slowly coming to be accepted, Roveg's kindness, or Ouloo's surprising wisdom, it's clear that Becky Chambers is here at the top of her game.
The problem is we have the other Becky Chambers, the Chambers who writes in buzzwords, slogans and thinly veiled allegories, the chambers who ended To be Taught, if Fortunate with a diatribe rather than a conclusion. It is not that I even disagree with many of her principles, however gendered expectations, life decisions regarding children, disability or multiculturalism are very complex matters, and to try and reduce them to the best possible soundbite makes the book feel more like a string of opinionated tweets, than the genuinely thought provoking and character rich science fiction novel Chamber’s is fully capable of writing.
This problem was epitomised when, during one scene when everyone is listening to music and Pei gets up and shows people an Aeluon, visual only dance, my lady remarked that Chambers was clearly "doing deafness" now.
Yet, the book was still extremely good. Indeed, the simplified messages stuck out like a sore thumb precisely because of the quality of the book’s other aspects.
Is The Galaxy, and the Ground Within worth reading? If you are looking for complex science fiction that actually deals with real issues and explores alien perspectives, rather than offering simple soundbites, then probably not.
If you're looking for a quirky and cute character drama with people you come to love, strange happenings and a warm sense of community, then it absolutely is.
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Review by Dark
7.7/10 from 1 reviews
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