The Galaxy and the Ground Within by Becky Chambers

There’s a character in Larry Niven’s Ringworld series called Speaker whose job it is, as the member of the aggressive, xenophobic kzinti race, to talk to alien species. His full name is Speaker-to-Animals. There’s also a characters in The Galaxy and the Ground Within (GGW) called Speaker whose job it is, as the member of a [xenophobic] race, to speak to alien species.

Ringworld is an interesting comparison to Becky Chamber’s most recent (and final) book in her Wayfairers series. The Ringworld is a place where members of several different species end up, and the novel itself is plotless: a road trip at best. GGW is similarly plotless, and is set on some kind of a waystation where members of a variety of different species fetch up and find themselves, um, locked down. 


The main difference between these two plotless novels is that only one of them is any good.

I’d previously really enjoyed the first two Wayfairers novels, and while I wavered with the third volume, it won me over in the end. She’s also published a novella, To Be Taught if Fortunate, which I found enjoyable if a bit slight. With this fourth novel, I have to say, she lost me. And you know how sometimes an artist will produce something so bad that it changes forever your previously high opinion of their previous work?


I can see now, with the benefit of hindsight, that while Miss Chambers produced two strong books in this series, there has been a tapering off. There was enough residual goodwill for me to overlook the shortcomings of the next two books, but here I’m afraid we reach the end of the road. And the end of the road is so bad that I know I’ll never be able to re-read the earlier books because hating this will make me hate them too.

This novel is both annoying and exhausting. Far be it from me to suggest that writing a novel about people who are, you know, locked down, in the middle of a, you know, lockdown, is perhaps the wrong move.

The set up here is that there’s this place, like a space rest stop in space, where space people have to stop while they wait for a transit point to another part of space to open up. There are two people running this place, and three customers who get, you know, locked down with them when some shit starts happening up in orbit.

One thing I really can’t be bothered to do for this review is look up any names, consider their different ‘alien’ quirks, or work out which was which. This was a problem, too, when I was reading it. The point of view character would change, and was I supposed to be able to remember which it was? Because I never did.

As I said, there’s no real plot, so what we have here is a bunch of world building elements without any function advancing propositions. Nothing happens, in other words, and yet it keeps not happening. So what is this?

It was Herring, or was it Lee, who suggested that the initials PC ought to be understood as “Polite Consideration” rather than “Political Correctness”. Which I think is fine.

So what this novel is, to coin a phrase, is polite consideration gone mad.

Everybody is prickly about something.

Everybody seems to be (or about to be) triggered by everything that anyone else says.

Everybody is concerned that everything they say might upset or offend somebody.

Everybody spends all their time suppressing feelings and deciding not to take offence.

Everybody is a special snowflake lost in their special snowflake thoughts, and somehow they call get along.

One of them can’t breathe oxygen and only has a very short lifespan.

One of them sees and feels colours really intensely so bright colours give them headaches.

One of them doesn’t understand music, just hears sound.

Some of them don’t understand wearing shoes/clothes etc.

As I said, it’s highly irritating. And exhausting.

The novel spends so much time telling us about all these different species and their tiptoeing around each others’ feelings, that it is about nothing else. And since nobody ever does take offence, and everything is fine, you wonder why they spend so much fucking time thinking about it. Can we just stipulate that none of us are that bothered about being offended. Might we not even suggest that nobody has a right not to be offended and just deal with the world and what it throws at us without agonising about how each one of us is individually affected? And after a year of listening to special snowflakes talk about how hard the lockdown has been for them (fuck off), I didn’t want to read yet more of it.

As Fredric Jameson said, the problem with utopias is that they always fail because they send you back to this, imperfect world, by constantly reminding you of it.

And the problem with this utopian vision of everybody getting along is, it doesn’t matter. This is all telling with no showing. They’re just waiting for lockdown to end. They’ll go on with their lives. The fact that one of them is having an interspecies relationship that might shock people, or that one of them can’t hear music or smell the colour purple or whatever is just not interesting.

And I’ve probably come to this at the wrong time, because I’m losing my patience with identity politics at the moment. As we live under this corrupt government who are lining their (and their friends’) pockets with taxpayer money while using “the culture wars” as a massive distraction from their corruption and greed, all this touchy feely claptrap feels like opting out. Join a fucking union.

What this reads like, really, is just a set of character notes for another, different novel, in which stuff happens, with all of this character background being for the author’s benefit and for the reader to work out. Hemingway’s iceberg theory. “My people can’t hear music” is not a personality. It’s not interesting unless it is made interesting because something happens during which ‘not hearing music’ becomes important.

Hey, maybe it does. But I stopped reading when they had the half-page discussion about how they couldn’t imagine wearing clothes/shoes. Also not a personality.

%d bloggers like this: