A Tunnel in the Sky

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The Wayfarers Series
by Becky Chambers

Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted January 20, 2021
Edits and Addenda on January 25, February 22, & April 26

1. The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet
2. A Closed and Common Orbit
3. Record of a Spaceborn Few
4. The Galaxy and the Ground Within

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I've had The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet on my Kindle for over five years, but just now getting around to it. It got a lot of recommendations from other bloggers and reviewers, but I put it off because I always have more books to read than time allows. Chambers originally self-published it in 2014, supported by a Kickstarter campaign, which may have made it ineligible for major awards in 2015, although its nomination for a Kitchies, the Golden Tentacle for Best Debut, was for the original. After being picked up by UK publisher Hodder & Stoughton and republished in 2015 it was short-listed for the Arthur C. Clarke Award. I read the second book first when it was a Hugo finalist in 2017, but I've deleted that review pending edits after a re-read. I hope to read the third book next month. The fourth, reportedly the conclusion, will be out in April.

Other awards recognition for Angry Planet includes being on the long list for the Women's Prize for Fiction, and the Otherwise (formerly the Tiptree), the Grand Prix de l'Imaginaire for Best Foreign-Language Novel, and Chambers was among nominees for the Sydney J. Bounds Best Newcomer award from the British Fantasy Society. The first three novels collectively won the Best Series Hugo in 2019.

This was a refreshing change of pace from the typical space adventure. More character driven, more introspection, more getting to know other ways of thought than outright hostilities. There is some action, but just because "all drama is about conflict" doesn't mean all conflict has to be physical. In this future scenario there are multiple alien species interacting within what is known as the Galactic Commons (which would have been a good alternate series title), with humanity being a recent addition to the mix. There are also multiple factions of humanity: the Gaiists, who eek out a miserly existence on a dying Earth; the Mars colony, which is still viable, along with outposts on Luna and some outer planet moons; the Exodus Fleet, those who left the solar system a few hundreds of years before; the Independent colonies, which maintain contact and trade with the Fleet; and the Fringe colonies, which try to avoid the other factions as much as possible. The Wayfarer is a "tunneling" ship, creating wormholes to establish reliable, faster travel between systems through the sublayers of space. Its human captain is Ashby Santoso, who had grown up within the Exodus Fleet. His pilot is Sissix, a reptilian-like Aandrisk; the navigator Ohan is a Sianat Pair, a four-legged being which is host to a virus parasite. The technical engineers are human, Kizzy Shao and Jenks, with another human, Artis Corbin, handling the cultivation of algae, which is used as fuel, although Chambers never goes into detail about that process. Another alien, a Grum, doubles as doctor and cook. He goes by the name Dr. Chef, since he claims no one but a Grum could pronounce his real name. A new hire is accounting clerk Rosemary Harper (also not her real name), a human from Mars. Rounding out the crew is Lovelace, a highly advanced, sentient AI consciousness, whom everyone calls Lovey.

I've read criticisms of the book that claim there is no plot, but that is incorrect. The tunneling process is plot, the conflicts and/or alliances between various factions is plot, and so are conversations and interactions between characters. Rosemary is the viewpoint character, the one least knowledgeable about life "in the open," a term that at first seems contradictory, since when you are in space you are confined to a ship, or a station, or a bubble dome on a planet. Then again, you are free to travel wherever your ship can take you, into the "openness" of space. Rosemary had studied some alien languages, and knows some even the other crew do not, but she is still ignorant about customs and protocols. She learns quickly though, and is readily accepted as a valuable member of the crew. The latter portion of the book is also full of plot, when Ashby takes on a contract to tunnel for a new planetary alliance, the Toremi, which proves to be a fateful decision. The Toremi race is in the midst of a civil war between clans, with one of those clans resentful of the GC alliance. That causes both physical and emotional trauma for the Wayfarer crew. Lovey suffers a shutdown and reboot, and upon reawakening is back to her basic self, losing memories of crew and previous interactions. That sets up the story in the second book.

There is so much food for thought here, of how widely disparate species can cooperate, not to mention the differing personalites among humans. Ashby is a pacifist, but is eventually forced to consider physical action to protect his ship and crew. Sissix comes from a very demonstrably affectionate species, but has to tailor her actions to others who are more reserved. Dr. Chef is one of the few survivors of his race, which would put most in a depressive state, yet he is open and caring, nurturing, towards all. Kizzy is as wildly vivacious and carefree as Corbin is reclusive. Jenks had a unique relationship with Lovey, since he knows more about her than anyone else. He loves her, and oddly enough, she reciprocates that love, which raises the question of whether an artificial intelligence can experience emotion. They had even discussed installing her inside a human body 'kit.' Within all that mix, Rosemary has to blend in while also hiding her true identity, sure that the others will reject her if they learn of her familial connections. That does not happen. She discovers she is now a member of a loving, found family, with even Corbin loosening up at the end. All of these differences are mirrored in various real-life human relationships, from extreme extroverts to extreme introverts, from sexually promiscuous to celibate, from openly affectionate to shy and reserved, from masculine to feminine and every variation in between. Chambers is saying that we can come together if we want to, but if we don't as humans here on Earth, our chances at harmony with any other species is probably doomed as well. There have been many different "-punk" sub-genres over the years. This one qualifies as hope-punk. It is highly recommended.


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Posted May 26, 2017, with edits on January 25, 2021
As mentioned above, I read and reviewed A Closed and Common Orbit several years ago when it was a Hugo finalist. It was also up for Arthur C. Clarke and BSFA awards, and it won the Prix Julia Verlanger for its French translation. Several people said it was enough of a stand-alone story that it wasn't necessary to read the previous book, and I think they're right, and the author said they could be read in any order. Except…for the most part she refrained from rehashing previous plot points, character dynamics, or descriptions of the aliens, so the best way would be in publication order. I have edited a few comments that were made without that previous information. I explained above why the series is titled "Wayfarers," but also said Galactic Commons would have been an equally good title. Now I have to say that neither applies for this book, except in very general terms. The action does not take place on the Wayfarer, and unless I read it wrong, Coriol is not considered part of the Galactic Commons. It's more like neutral territory, although members of all the alien species mentioned earlier either live and work there, or visit the planet regularly. The last section of the book does shift to areas within the GC.

Two characters from the first book recur here. Pepper was introduced about mid-book, then reappeared toward the end. She is an engineer friend of Jenks who lives on Coriol, which the Wayfarer crew visited once. Lovelace was the ship's AI, not unique to that ship but a standard model that could be found on others. However "Lovey" is something else entirely, a consciousness that had grown self-aware, developing a complex personality. After her reboot, she knew herself as Lovelace again, without Lovey's memory of previous encounters with the crew, including her emotional attachment to Jenks. Pepper helped install her core in a humanoid body 'kit' and took her off the ship, Lovelace choosing Sidra as her new name. The 'kit' Sidra inhabits is so realistic she can physically pass as human, including bleeding if cut, although the blood has no other function for maintenance of the body. However, what Pepper has done is illegal, and there is the possibility Sidra could give herself away verbally, due to her strict honesty protocols and lack of familiarity with planetary customs. They return to Pepper's home on Coriol, where she runs a tech repair shop, and lives with her partner Blue, who is an artist. Sidra gets a room in their home and a job at Pepper's shop.

Chapters alternate between Sidra's attempts to learn human characteristics and customs in order to fit into Port Coriol society, with another sequence of events set about twenty years earlier. The focus there is on Jane23, a child slave, probably a clone, confined to a factory controlled by robots, her task being to sort through scrap to salvage any usable tech. Jane23 is a featured character in the later events, although it takes a while to learn how she acquired her nickname. I won't say any more about her story, other than it was the more interesting aspect of the book, and that it entails both tragic misery and hopeful optimism. I still liked the 'current time' segments, although I should caution those who like a lot of action in their SF that this might not satisfy them. Just remember, action doesn't have to involve violent encounters. The first book also dealt more with the characters and their interactions rather than the plot. That doesn't bother me, since the characters and worlds Chambers has created are fascinating.

When I first read this I felt the interactions with the alien species was unrealistic. Humanity has never exhibited that much empathy, I wouldn't expect it of aliens either. Many people today can't seem to tolerate other cultures here on Earth, so I'd expect more conflict between humanity and other species. There were a few comments about past wars in both books, with some residual antagonisms, but for the most part everyone gets along fine on Coriol, and aboard the Wayfarer. Even with wildly different customs there seems to be understanding and acceptance of those differences. Those quibbles aside, I really enjoyed this, perhaps even more on the second reading. The puzzle of Sidra's struggle to either become more human, or to possibly become something better, is intriguing. Jane23's struggle against almost insurmountable odds is equally inspiring. Both are memorable characters, and I hope we see more of their lives in subsequent books. Sidra learns a valuable lesson, just as any human should. Finding purpose. It works out best when that purpose is fulfilling, and can also be shared with others. Another book I can highly recommend.


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Posted February 22, 2021
2018's Record of a Spaceborn Few was a Hugo finalist, and while it did not win Best Novel, it joined the previous two books in winning Best Series. It was also a finalist for Locus and Kitchies awards. There will be a fourth book, reportedly the conclusion of the saga, published in April. I have not pre-ordered it yet, nor do I have an ARC, but I am very anxious to continue the journey. I've previously mentioned that Galactic Commons might have been a more appropriate title for the series, although now I think Chambers was using Wayfarers not so much for Ashby Santoso's ship and crew, but in a more general sense. Everyone is a wayfarer through life, whether on a planet or ship, whether human or alien. The events in this book take place within the Exodus Fleet.

The prologue is set about four standards prior to the first book, relating a tragic event in the Fleet. The book proper picks up shortly after the final events in the first book, at the same time Pepper and Lovelace go to Coriol. Tessa Santoso is Ashby's sister, living on the Asteria. She works in one of the cargo bays, sorting the collected remnants of the damaged ship from the prologue, the Oxomoco. Along with Tessa's experiences, we get a good look at life in the Fleet from several perspectives: Isabel Itoh is the Chief Archivist, maintining the data banks of knowledge retained from Earth, as well as adding new information; Eyas Parata is a caretaker, responsible for funeral rites for the dead, and composting the bodies to be used as fertilizer in the gardens; Kip Madaki is a sixteen-year-old boy drifting through school without a clear plan for his future. He is prone to getting into trouble, but most of that is because he follows the lead of his best friend, Ras. Add to that mix two outsiders. Each section of the book begins with excerpts from articles written by Ghuh'loloan, a visiting Harmagian ethnographer. The other outsider is Sawyer Gursky, whose ancestors were from the Fleet, but he was born on the planet Mushtullo. After the Oxomoco disaster he decides he wants to reconnect with his roots in the Fleet. He comes to the Asteria rather than the ship his family was from.

Sawyer looks for work, but balks at the first assignment offered, sanitation. He later learns from Eyas that is something shared between all Exodans, not as a permanent job, but one done on a rotating basis while on leave from their regular job. When he goes back to the jobs office to put his name on the list for sanitation, he encounters another man seeking someone with coding experience for a salvage job. Sawyer tells him he is not certified but does know several coding languages, so he is set up for an interview with a ship's captain. Again, very little in these books, even Sawyer's fate, is what most people would consider action-packed, but if anyone turns away from them on that account they are missing something remarkable. Everyone's story is significant, no matter their job or their experience. We get a look at the lives of various families and individuals, how their job or experiences fulfills them—or not, perhaps they are seeking another path. Not every story has to be about "heroic" events and characters. While reading I was thinking of the recent Perseverance rover landing on Mars, about the many scientists and engineers involved. What about their personal lives away from that drama? Might that not be just as interesting a story, the struggles they went through to get to where they are now? Perhaps we could follow the lives of a few who didn't make the cut at NASA or JPL, but pursued other goals. Everyone's story matters.

On a recent Twitter thread I said that if an action-packed story could be compared to playing a combat video game jacked up on Red Bull, Wayfarers is more like sitting in a comfy chair sipping tea while listening to soothing music. It's a story about personal lives, about traditions, but also about change. Some changes are good and beneficial, some might be resented by a few. Just as in our world with worries of robots eliminating human labor, or of the potential dangers of artificial intelligence, the Exodans face increasing reliance on technology they did not develop themselves, but received from the various alien races. The younger generations are adopting alien concepts, switching to the Klip language rather than the Ensk of their parents and grandparents. Can the Fleet survive if too many leave for life on a planet? Can they make it easier for those who wish to return to the Fleet? Eyas begins a school to aid in the latter, while Tessa chooses to leave with her family, and Kip, after a couple of years away, returns to the Fleet to apprentice with Isabel. Life goes on. Some of the planets are settled exclusively by humans, others have multiple species interacting. Ghuh'loloan is not the only alien to come to the Fleet to learn more about the human experience. About the only thing most can agree on is that Sol System is the past. Humanity's future is in Central Space, within the Galactic Commons, whether in the Fleet or on a planet. Humans are still considered a lesser species by most of the aliens, but that might be because we are just the most recent addition to the mix. Perhaps humans can teach them a few things along the way. I have no idea where the story will go in The Galaxy and the Ground Within, but I'm really looking forward to it. I'll update this page when I get to it.


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Posted April 26, 2021
I put in a hold request for The Galaxy, and the Ground Within at my library several weeks ago, before its publication last Tuesday, and was able to pick it up Saturday. It is not the book I was expecting, but I loved it all the same. It's the shortest of the series, but still filled with nuggets of wisdom, insight into personalites and their expectations, how they interaact with others. None of the featured characters are human, in fact there is only one human in the whole book, toward the end, but they are not someone we've seen before. The only character we had previously met is an Aeluon, Captain Pei Tem, not a soldier herself, but in charge of a cargo transport that typically supported military actions. She is a friend of Ashby Santoso, captain of the Wayfarer. A very close, intimate friend, if you catch my drift. She has had to keep their relationship secret from any other Aeluon since inter-species couplings are taboo. Pei is on leave and en route to visit Ashby when disaster strikes.

The planet Gora was an otherwise barren wasteland, not home to any sentient species, or any life at all. The lifeless rock's only claim to fame was its proximity to several wormhole tunnels, which in turn connect to multiple inhabited worlds. Gora has become a way station, a fuel depot, with resupply shops, along with food and accommodations for those whose tunnel queue schedule necessitates a layover. It is there that Pei meets several other travelers, one of which is a species with which she was previously unfamiliar. Her accommodations are at the Five-Hop One-Stop, operated by Ouloo, a Laru, whose child Tupo is not yet old enough to have chosen xyr gender. The other travelers are Roveg, a Quelin, and Speaker, an Akarak. Speaker's twin sister Tracker stayed aboard their ship in orbit, while Speaker used their shuttle. Pei and Roveg are traveling alone. Shortly after their arrival, as they are learning about Ouloo's establishment, the crisis begins. In almost any other space opera, it would have been a battle above Gora's atmosphere, but here it is simply a malfunction of multiple satellites that were being serviced. One failed, causing it to lose its orbit, crashing into another, leading to a cascading effect. Communications are out, both on Gora and with other systems via ansible, plus the debris field in orbit, so all ships are grounded. Orbital solar power generators are also out, so the planet has to rely on reserve power.

Everyone has reason to be anxious, since they can't be confident in the projected time for repairs. Ouloo worries she hasn't laid in enough supplies to cover what could be a prolonged stay for her guests, and she is also upset she was not aware what an Akarak could eat or drink. She only wanted what was best for her guests, wanting everyone to be happy, or at least satisfied. Pei has a limited time before she has to report back to duty, so it is possible she will have to forfeit her scheduled visit with Ashby. Something else comes up that threatens that visit too, but I won't give details about that. Roveg absolutely must not be late for an appointment on his homeworld. Speaker could handle the delay on her own, but she misses her sister desperately. While they are waiting they get to know each other, some of which intrigues them as they learn about other species, some of which causes conflicts. By the end, everyone has reconciled enough not to depart enemies, and in a couple of cases true friendships have begun. Pei, Roveg, Speaker, and Ouloo all get chapters from their perspective, even though it's all in third person. It would have been nice to get Tupo's perspective, but there is enough interaction with the others to paint a vivid portrait of a very intelligent, very inquisitive young Laru, whom all come to admire and respect.

Last night, before finishing the book, and either in a dream or while awake thinking about it, I perceived a parallel between this series and an early Samuel R. Delany story, "Empire Star." Not that they have anything in common plot wise, but Delany proposed that language shaped a person's perspective, their way of thinking. He also mentioned different modes of thinking; simplex, complex, and multiplex. Each of the various species of the Galactic Commons has different customs, traditions, and rituals, all of which can be only fully expressed in their own language. For some things there is no adequate translation into Klip. Each of the individual species before contact with others lived a simplex life, a simplex philosophy. After contact, they were forced to become complex, and multiplex thinking was necessary to understand how any species or individual fit into the whole. Tupo seemed to me to have already been in complex thinking mode, and the more varied species xe met pushed xem toward multiplex thinking. I would love to see where xe ended up once xe was an adult.

Unfortunately, Chambers confirms that this is the end of the series. As many times as I've stated my preference for standalones, or at least not potentially never-ending series, this is one for which I would gladly welcome more. Each has been unique, in a different setting, and with only a couple of exceptions completely different sets of characters, yet they all blend together to give an impression of the whole. Not that there couldn't be more stories of the Galactic Commons, such as what I had expected from this book; at the end of the third book Ashby's sister was leaving the Exodus Fleet for a planet, and I though we would see her reunite, even if only temporarily, with her brother. But I trust Chambers to know what she wants, and I'm looking forward to the beginning of another series come July. I cannot overstate how much I love Wayfarers, each character, each story, even every barely glimpsed clue. I will be re-reading them, and recommend you seek them out as well.


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Becky Chambers


Detailed in review

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Angry Planet
Common Orbit
Spaceborn Few
Ground Within

Angry Planet
Common Orbit
Spaceborn Few
Ground Within

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