Tuesday 9 August 2022

The Breakfast Club in Space

There is a long-simmering tension in science fiction that could be reductively described as being between those who prefer books that are about things happening, and those who prefer books that are about people
Becky Chambers' fourth Wayfarers
novel continues her evolution away
from high-octane thrills.
(Image via Amazon)
experiencing emotions.

On the one extreme, we could describe the cold, sterile, action-packed Asimov tales of the 1940s. On the other extreme, we could examine some ponderous elegiac late-period Aldous Huxley works.

Few authors have pivoted between these two poles as thoroughly, or as successfully as Becky Chambers has over the past eight years since her (initially self-published) debut novel took the science fiction world by storm. Likewise, few authors have been as successful in showing the importance — and the value — of both strains of science fiction’s heritage.

Nowhere is this more evident than in her flagship works, the Best Series Hugo-winning Wayfarers novels. Fascinatingly, the most recent novel in this series The Galaxy, and the Ground Within could even be read as a textual mirror to the first book in the series Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet.

Both novels feature a diverse cast of middle-class characters from a variety of alien races, and both novels celebrate diversity, understanding, and compassion. But while Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet is an action-packed romp in which things never stop happening, this latest Hugo-finalist novel is far more meditative. They are similar in so many ways, but the later book could be interpreted as a foil to the first one’s action packed — and populist — approach to storytelling.

The set-up to Galaxy, and the Ground Within is fairly simple. Five characters with wildly different backgrounds are forced to spend time together after a technical failure traps them togetherfor several days. It’s The Breakfast Club in space, and as such the narrative is driven not by a series of events, but rather by how the characters relate to one another, and how they feel and grow. Althoughthere is a rescue plot at the very end of the novel, it feels somewhat tacked on.

Five people with wildly different personalities
and problems find commonalities and empathy.
(Image via Criterion)

Chambers’ Breakfast Club analogues are blue-collar Laru, immature Tupo, popular girl Pei Tem, mysterious Roveg, and good girl Speaker. Over the course of the novel, they deal with small survival issues pertaining to the life support system, but mostly they share their backstories and learn to get past their differences and prejudices.

It often seems that the vast majority of science fiction and fantasy deals with the fate of empires, the doom of worlds, epic galaxy-spanning wars of conquest, and special unique people born to greatness … and in doing so offers stories that are less relatable because they are not human scale. The fundamental relatability of Chambers' work is its greatest strength. 

Many of the folks who yearn for action adventure like Chambers’ earlier Wayfarers novels might not be drawn in by this book, and might in fact prefer some other Hugo finalists. In fact, those who aren’t drawn in by Chambers’ writing and excellent character building, might uncharitably dismiss The Galaxy, and the Ground Within as a book in which nothing happens. But that would be a mistake; this is a truly excellent example of emotionally grounded science fiction in which the narrative questions revolve around people experiencing emotions.


  1. Funny, I found even Long Way to a Small Angry Planet to be low on action and suspense. While some things happen over the course of the book, whole chapters are given over to food or relationships. One always got the impression that she wanted to write characters having fun and getting to know each other, but was forced to include a plot for the sake of readers who would expect one. In later books, of course, she knows what we're there for and doesn't force the plot thing.

    I think my favorite of hers, though, is A Close and Common Orbit. It has a plot *integrated with* the feelings instead of tacked on after.

    1. I completely agree that Close and Common Orbit is the high point of the series. Was the book that really drew me in and had me rooting for the characters.