Hugo Nominee Review: the galaxy, and the ground within – Becky Chambers

This year, I’m reviewing all of the nominees for the Hugo Best Novel award. My hope is to provide a brief overview, an analysis of world-building, characters, and narrative pace/structure, and what I feel its strengths and weaknesses are. I will attempt to avoid any major spoilers but will necessarily be dealing with some specifics.

Overview of the galaxy, and the ground within by Becky Chambers from the back of the book: “When a freak technological failure halts traffic to and from the planet Gora, three strangers are thrown together unexpectedly, with nothing to do but wait. Pei is a cargo runner at a personal crossroads, torn between her duty to her people, and her duty to herself. Roveg is an exiled artist, with a deeply urgent, and longed for, family appointment to keep. Speaker has never been far from her twin but now must endure the unendurable: separation. Under the care of Ouloo, an enterprising alien, and Tupo, her occasionally helpful child, the trio are compelled to confront where they’ve been, where they might go, and what they might be to one another. Together they will discover that even in the vastness of space, they’re not alone.”

World-building: 5/5
While this is book 4 in a series (all of which has previously won the Hugo award for best series), it can stand mostly entirely on its own. Only one character of those present appeared in one of the previous books, and then only for a few scenes. Having read the previous three, it is difficult to gauge how accessible this one would be as a stand-alone, though I found that Chambers’ descriptions and explanations would likely allow entrance to anyone that wanted to only read this installment.

I’ve read a lot of space opera, so I’m fairly picky. What Chambers has accomplished is a plausible universe, grounded in—but not focused on—science. She presents a well-fleshed out history, has slopped humans and earth into a dynamic relationship with alien races, and uses the resulting worlds to situate her characters. Gora is nothing special, which actually works well since none of the characters are originally from there, letting Chambers explore them and their origins within their current context.

Characters: 5/5
I don’t know that I’ve ever come across such character-centric story telling in speculative fiction. Chambers is an expert in creating unique, individual, and dynamic characters that all take on a life of their own. Her characters grow, reflect, interact with hardships, and rub against each other, but never lose their unique voices. The journey each character is on is far more important than the plot of the story.

What I’ve also never encountered before is a book with no human protagonists. It’s been a long quibble of mine how much science fiction ends up being human-centric. The rest of this series still was, but in this book, every single character (bar the appearance of one human in one scene) is from an alien race. They are still fairly anthropomorphized, though Chambers has distinguished ways of thinking, anatomical details, and cultures so that they are quite believably alien.

Narrative Pace/Structure: 3/5
And yet there’s almost no plot. I knew going in this would be the case, because that’s Chambers’ trademark style. The hyper-focus on characters and their development essentially comes at the expense of plot. In the first book, the balance just about worked, and in the second, Chambers crossed a very tricky tightrope really well. Book three already was tenuous at best with how the characters’ developments were held together, but this one had almost nothing. The inciting even feels fitting, but insignificant, and the only other event of note is pure happenstance.

This meant that the flow of this particular novel was not as immediate as the other three. Despite my connection to all of the characters, the beauty of Chambers’ writing, and my love of the ideas and themes of this series, I didn’t feel compelled to pick the book up between chapters. This needed more tension and more external motivators.

Overall: 4/5
Very entertaining, super well written, a joy with regards to characters, and a deft exploration of diversity, acceptance, learning about difference, and choosing to set aside prejudices. And it’s mostly just really sweet. But I needed a little more to be happening. If books 1 or 2 in the series were up for the Hugo, I’d give it to them, but not this one.

Other 2022 Hugo Nominee Reviews:
Hugo Nominee Review # 1: A Master of Djinn
Hugo Nominee Review # 2: She Who Became the Sun
Hugo Nominee Review # 3: Light From Uncommon Stars
Hugo Nominee Review # 4: Project Hail Mary
Hugo Nominee Review # 5: the galaxy, and the ground within
Hugo Nominee Review # 6: A Desolation Called Peace

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