A Review of: The Galaxy, and the Ground Within: [Wayfarers 4], by Becky Chambers

Book 4 builds on the existing cosmic space utilized in the previous 3 books – same ‘alien’ types, crossover of some location, mentions of characters we have previously been introduced to. And we get new Sentient species to interact with and learn about. The Akaraks. [They are mentioned in a previous book, but barely. Here they are a main character.] Which, as we learn, have a troublesome history in the Galactic Commons, which complicates all kinds of things. Other sapients know very little about them, due to very little interaction with them. They are not officially part of the Galactic Commons, and we do eventually learn why, and it is quite staggering. The other sapients first are a bit speechless to be in the midst of an Akarak, but our sapients are generally open and curious, despite the belief that ‘they’re all pirates’. As they get to know Speaker, the Akarak; they all learn much about the species, their challenges, and why perceptions are as they are. Along with the horrific story of how the Akarak were treated historically, and not so far in the past. We also learn that they have no planet, and the Galactic Commons treated them as if it were too much for them to ask for, too much effort to help them find, or terraform a planet to be suitable – because it was ‘too different’ [after the Harmigans destroyed the Akarak home.]. Their home planet was far more methane based, unlike the typical oxygen based most of the other sapient are from. The background here is delivered in an info dump, cleverly disguised as a ‘media brief’ being read by another character. And it’s well done. It’s also jarring, and a bit too politically motivated – like it’s [the author] making a hard jab at how some races of people are treated here on earth. It felt a bit preachy. But at the same time, the Akarak were treated terribly. So they are angry, and cranky as a result. Understandably.

We also get to learn a lot more about the Quelin… through Rovegs’s story. That’s also interesting!

The thing is though…. Is this fictional universe that was created, it’s too big a stretch for me – that this ONE sentient species gets treated so extraordinarily different then alllllllll the others. I’d much more expect the Galactic Commons to go bend over backwards to make things right, despite the extra complication of their needs, based on what we have been taught about the galactic Commons. The fact that it’s more of a challenge, is just something they would find a way to work though, with all those big brained intelligent species.

So this bit just feels like a puzzle piece in the whole shared universe that didn’t work for me. Forced into a puzzle it didn’t originate with. And that smacks of ‘agenda’ to me. [as noted above.]

It is set for the most part, on a space rock / planet that is essentially a pit stop / gas station in the middle of nowhere, for all intents and purposes. A group of different Sapient beings end up temporarily ‘stranded’ on the rock, due to a space accident that loads the atmosphere with debris, knocks out communications, and forces them all to stay put at their ‘gas stop’, which is a habitation dome on the planet, offering a variety of amenities, such as fuel, food, museum, outdoor garden, etc, to pass time where they would normally be waiting for their turn in a cue for one of the many nearby space port jump rings. When the space accident occurs, the strangers are all forced to wait, at the Five Hop, until they are again cleared for travel. The story follows the time there. Each of them has their own things going on, and the story is a expertly woven tale of each of them struggling with their own situation, while being put in this uncontrollable situation; and what they do while they wait. As time passes, they chat with each other, learn things they didn’t know culturally about each other’s species, as well as the personal stories of where they were headed and why, and in the end there are a couple events in which they band together and work for a shared good outcome, which is all pretty great. We even have politics, and verbal shouting, which causes tension between them, but they come thru it.

We have one crossover character, from book one: Pei – who extremely captivating. So this was exciting, to get to learn more about the Aleuon beings.

And to gripe some, similar to the ending in book 3 – we are left without resolution on more than several plot threads. And this being the last ‘book in the series’ [not that any of them are related, not a series] we will never have the opportunity to find out.
Notable – I want to know:

  • Pei calls in a favor to help Roveg. And that’s great. (but why? – it isn’t like she felt she owed him anything.) And, did Roveg have what kind of reunion with his children? This we really want to know! How was his time on the home planet?? So much of the book made us yearn to know how it turns out for him. No mention.
  • Why does Pei help out Roveg? And why not favors to Speaker? Or Tupo and Oouloo? Surely they were also deserving of such favors? If Pei was making anything up to anyone, I’d think she’d be trying to help Speaker, and the Akarak, have their own planet.
  • What gender does Tupo choose?!?!?! We want to know!!! This deserved an ending. Maybe Tupo becomes an adult, and as a result of the time in this book with the others, end up in space working with Ashby. Or Pei. Or Roveg!. Inspired by the visitors and the time all spent together.
  • Pei. The whole book, she’s trying to get to her time off, to spend with Ashby on his ship. Does She ever gets there? We are left hanging about her time with him – this in my opinion, would have tied the 4 book series up in a nice bow – to have her get the time she deserves with Ashby. On his ship. Out as a couple, and them navigating that situation – and how a sense of how their lives move forward after that. But nope. We don’t get any satisfaction for Pei. (or Ashby!)
  • How is it Pei doesn’t realize she’s shimmering? Hardly seems like it would take that long… when your skin literally shimmers…… and, the whole agenda-y thing about reproductive obligation. Another bit of the book that felt a wee bit preachy and all. It does kind of tie into what we have been taught of the Aleuon, and how they rear children… but in my opinion, it went to far into the deep end. I would have been happier just to have Pei come to the decision to do what’s best for her, and her life, and her needs, without the preachy expose on it all.
  • So many unanswered plot lines, and such a disappointment. This book did not give me a satisfied feeling; especially knowing that it is the last one, and no more are to come in this shared universe.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book… aside from the back 1/3 missing. It’s a nice, slow, deep snapshot at what life might be like in the distant future. We get to spend a lot of time with a group of strangers – as they navigate cultural differences, misconceptions, and the ability to communicate and accept each other as they are. The ‘Alien’ life forms are well developed, thoughtful, varied, and very interesting! I could easily picture them, and understood enough about them to see cause and effect for actions, and interaction, etc. It’s very fun, when there’s enough info on something currently so fictional, that it comes alive in your mind.

And here, I MUST direct quote the scene about cheese. OMFG. This. This was one of the best snippets of any book in forever.

Roveg couldn’t suss out the sliver of tension that had entered the gathering, but he didn’t like it. Moreover, the way this round robin was going, the next question was going to focus on where he was headed, and that, he didn’t want. He swooped in, reaching for lighter fare. ‘You know, on the subject of Humans, there’s something I’ve long wanted to ask someone about.’ He paused in thought. ‘Cheese. Is that a real thing?’
Pei erupted in laughter. ‘Ugh,’ she said. ‘Stars. Yeah, cheese is real, unfortunately.’
Roveg was both delighted and horrified by her answer. ‘Not really?’ he said.
This was finally enough to coax Tupo out from under the table. ‘What’s cheese?’
Speaker cocked her head. ‘I second the question.’
‘Oh, please don’t make me explain this,’ Pei groaned.
The Akarak leaned back in her cockpit. ‘Well, now you have to,’ she said.
‘Mom, what’s cheese?’ Tupo whispered loudly.
‘I don’t know,’ Ouloo said back. ‘If you listen, you’ll find out.’
Pei set down her plate and exhaled apologetically. ‘Cheese,’ she said in a clinical manner, ‘is a foodstuff made out of milk.’
Ouloo blinked. ‘You mean like …’ She gestured at her own underbelly, where her mammary glands presumably lay beneath thick fur.
‘Yep,’ Pei said. ‘Exactly that.’
‘So, a children’s food,’ Speaker said, her tone suggesting that this struck her as no stranger than the concept of milk itself.
Roveg laughed. ‘Go on,’ he said to Pei goadingly. He continued to snack, enjoying the show.
Pei winced. ‘No,’ she said to Speaker. ‘It’s not for kids. I mean, kids eat it, too, but … so do adults.’
Everyone present – with the exception of Pei – let out a reflexive sound. There were low growls from Ouloo and Tupo, a short trill from Speaker. Roveg, for his part, let out a triple-clicked hiss. A brief cacophony of varied species all communicating the exact same thing: complete and utter disgust.
‘No,’ Ouloo said.
Tupo cooed in fascinated horror.
‘Wait, so, how …’ Speaker made a hesitant face. ‘I’m going to regret this question. How is it … prepared?’
Pei grimaced. ‘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 …’ She shut her eyes. ‘They leave it out until bacteria colonise it to the point of solidifying.’
The cacophony returned.
‘I knew I’d regret it,’ Speaker said.
Roveg laughed and laughed. ‘I’m so glad I asked about this,’ he said.
‘Mom, can we order some?’ Tupo said.
‘Absolutely not,’ Ouloo said.
‘They don’t all eat this, do they?’ Speaker asked.
‘I don’t know,’ Pei said. ‘I know they don’t make it in the Fleet, and a lot of people there can’t eat it without getting sick.’
‘Understandably.’
‘No, it’s not that. Humans need a … oh, what is it … it’s something with their stomachs. An enzyme, I think. For digesting milk. 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.’
‘That seems a bit extreme,’ Roveg said.
‘Have you eaten it?’ Tupo asked.
‘Not if my life depended on it,’ Pei said.
‘How is it that their milk makes them sick?’ Speaker said. ‘That’s got to pose a problem if they can’t feed their young.’
‘Oh, no, I – stars, I forgot the worst part.’ Pei rubbed her neck with her palm. ‘They don’t make cheese with their own milk. They take it from other animals.’
At that, chaos broke out.
‘I didn’t know that part,’ Roveg said, his forelegs shivering. ‘That’s … oh, that’s vile.’ And it truly was, but this fact did nothing to derail his glee.
Tupo had become scientific fervour incarnate. ‘How do they take it from them?’
‘Tupo, please,’ xyr mother said wearily.
The Akarak looked dumbfounded. ‘But … but why?’
‘I have no idea,’ Pei said. ‘No idea.’
‘I knew they ate other mammals, but … ugh,’ Roveg said.
‘They eat mammals?’ Tupo said, xyr voice heading toward a shriek.
Speaker cocked her head. ‘Is that worse?’ she asked. ‘Killing and eating them, rather than harvesting something from them while still alive?’
‘Do you not think so?’ Roveg asked.

Becky Chambers

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Thoughts:

• Story pacing?
It’s a slow, constant progression, with much anxiety, stress, and ongoing personal drama. 8/10

• Story character arcs?
I think all our characters have growth, and learning, but the book does feel like we are just trying to get them from A point to B point to do a Thing. It’s more of a the drive is about the journey, not the destination type story. Docking points for so many unfinished plot lines/ character arcs. 6/10

• Story arc?
As above… the story is more focused on the journey, but each character had a story arc. Sadly, incomplete for pretty much all of them, since the last 1/3 of the book was ‘missed.’ 6/10

• Story writing quality?
Really enjoyed the read. Expert work making so many alien beings come to life, without feeling like heaps of info-dumps. But: what is up with not completing the story with this author? 6/10

• Story wokeness? ( tolerable / gag me)
As noted there is a political agenda being plastered into the story, as well as a reproduction one. While ‘valid’, it just felt like is was author agenda, and was taken way too far to the point of preachy stuff that makes me want t throw a book away. We do have all kinds of cultures, races, etc that also includes the reality or racism, or in this case speciesism. Which is fair – it will no doubt be a reality, when we get there. 6/10 for the mixed bag.

• Grates against my annoyances? Not finishing the story. 0/10

• Grates against my annoyances? (fictional words) Being the fourth book, all the made up words are familiar. At least the names in this book are pronounceable, while still unusual. 8/10

• Story romance level? No actual romance, just Pei’s ongoing mental complications regarding her relationship with Ashby. 10/10

• Story readability? Easy read, fun, enjoyable. 8/10

• Story Completeness (did it end on a cliff hanger, or a see my next book!)? As noted, there is no resolution for any of the characters, and so many unanswered questions. So disappointing. 0/10

• Did the story cover familiar ground, or go new places? Being the fourth book, if you also have read the previous ones, most of it feels familiar. We do dip into the Quelin planet a little, and learn about the Akarak home. That’s ‘new’. 7/10

• Was there anything I wanted to know that was left unanswered? As noted in my comments. So man unanswered questions. A total fail in this respect. 0/10

• Things I really liked / or didn’t like? The political agenda. Insert my giant eyerolls. As noted above. Things I did like – the ‘real-ness’ of the many Aliens, their planets, cultures, social structures, mating styles, etc. For the mixed bag: 5/10

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