Exclusive Interview: “The Galaxy, And The Ground Within” Author Becky Chambers
With The Galaxy, And The Ground Within (paperback, Kindle, audiobook), writer Becky Chambers is bringing her epic and excellent Wayfarers series of stand-alone sci-fi space opera novels to a close. In the following email interview, Chambers discusses this final installment, as well as her plans for the future.
For people who haven’t read any of the books, what is the Wayfarers series about, and when and where do those books take place?
If you distill all of it way down, Wayfarers is a series about ordinary people living in a fantastic intergalactic future. It’s got all the goodies you’d expect from that kind of setting — lots of aliens, lots of planet-hopping, multispecies spaceports, galactic politics, and so forth — but instead of focusing on the movers and the shakers, I write stories about the nobodies who just live there. It’s intended as a sort of everyman approach to space opera.
Digging more into the details, the series is set in the Galactic Commons, a vast swath of the Milky Way inhabited by lots of different alien species. Humans are the underdog here. We’re the new kid on the block, and we don’t have a lot to offer. Each book focuses on a different group of characters, and the settings vary as well. It’s much more of a branching slice of life than a single linear story, and it happens during an unspecified point in the far future.
And then what is The Galaxy, And The Ground Within about, and how does it connect, both narratively and chronologically, to the previous book, in the Wayfarers series, Record Of A Spaceborn Few?
The Galaxy, And The Ground Within starts at roughly the same point that the post-prologue bulk of Record Of A Spaceborn Few does, but while Spaceborn Few takes place over a relatively long stretch of time, Ground Within lasts just a few days. The grand majority of the book wraps up just a little bit after The Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet does.
Like all the other books, this one’s a stand-alone, with only a small narrative thread linking it to the others. The story follows a group of strangers who get stranded at what is essentially an intergalactic truck stop, due to some unpredictable circumstances. None of these folks know each other, but their short time together has a big impact on all of them. Anybody who’s read the other books will recognize Pei, who’s a point-of-view in this one. Otherwise, it’s a brand new batch of characters.
The previous Wayfarers novels were all sci-fi space opera stories. Is The Galaxy, And The Ground Within one as well?
This one is right in line with all the others. It’s a low-key space opera-esque story that focuses on everyday folks.
Are there any writers, or specific stories, that had a big influence on The Galaxy, And The Ground Within but not on the previous Wayfarers novels or anything else you’ve written?
I can’t say that there were. The Galaxy, And The Ground Within is very much me having a conversation with myself about the series as a whole. The things that influenced it most were all real-world stuff: people I met, conversations I had, an unexpected five-day blackout where there was basically nothing to do but sit around and navel-gaze. Otherwise, it all pulled from the same creative roots as the rest of the series, and I’ve been hanging out in these books for long enough that it just feels like its own sandbox now.
How about non-literary influences; was The Galaxy, And The Ground Within influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games?
Honestly? Not really.
Not even the video game The Outer Worlds. That game struck me as being a bit Wayfarers-esque.
Hmm! I enjoyed that game very much, but we’re going to have to agree to disagree here. My impression of The Outer Worlds was a grungy, gun-toting corporate nightmare, which is pretty contrary to what I’ve aimed to write. But I will grant you the cozy spaceship full of people who are fun to talk to. That’s a pretty essential ingredient for space opera at large, I think.
Oh, and what about your mom? Did she have an influence on The Galaxy, And The Ground Within? Because in your novella To Be Taught, If Fortunate [which you can read more about by clicking here], you wrote, “Having a science consultant while writing a sci-fi book is a tremendous amount of help,” and then said that your consultant was your momma.
Yeah, my mom’s an astrobiology educator, and she’s been a huge help with my previous works — both To Be Taught and the Wayfarers universe as a whole. But since there aren’t any species or planets that I really had to stretch my brain cells with in The Galaxy, And The Ground Within, I didn’t have any problems I needed to tug on her sleeve about. I already had all the world-building pieces I needed for this one ready to go.
Now, along with The Galaxy, And The Ground Within, you also have a novella coming out July 13th called A Psalm For The Wild-Built, which is the first book in a series you’re calling Monk & Robot. What is that series going to be about, and when and where is it set?
Monk & Robot is a very different beast. It takes place on a made-up moon called Panga, which is not part of our real universe and could therefore happen at any time. Some centuries back, Panga was in big trouble. The people there were quickly approaching environmental collapse, due to all the same sustainability issues that we’ve got here in the real world. This was narrowly avoided due to an event that people still can’t explain: all the factory robots woke up, gained consciousness, and decided among themselves that they didn’t want to live in human civilization anymore. They wanted to go explore the wilderness on their own, and see what the world looks like without us. A Psalm For The Wild-Built is the story of a traveling monk named Sibling Dex who is the first person to come in contact with a robot since that occurred.
A Psalm For The Wild-Built also sounds like a sci-fi story, albeit not a space opera one. Is that a fair assessment?
Yeah, that’s spot on. Monk & Robot is straight-up solarpunk science fantasy. There are no spaceships, it takes place on a secondary world, and there’s a pantheon of very chill gods. It’s the polar opposite of To Be Taught, If Fortunate, in which leaning heavily on real science was the whole point. Here, stuff just works because I say so.
A Psalm For The Well-Built is a novella. What was it about this story that made you think it needed to be a novella as opposed to a novel, or that the Monk & Robot series couldn’t all be a single novel as opposed to a series of novellas?
This is a horribly practical answer, but I was asked if I wanted to write a novella, and this was the story that jumped to mind. But as I’ve finished writing two of this series now, I can say that this story is much more suited to books of this length. They’re these very gentle little vignettes, and I think they’d lose their punch if I tried to stretch them out longer.
And what is the plan for the Monk & Robot series? Is it a set number of books, and ongoing series…what?
I can’t answer this question right now, I’m afraid.
No worries. A Psalm For The Well-Built is your second novella after To Be Taught, If Fortunate. How, if at all, do you think writing shorter stories influences what you do in your novels, and especially The Galaxy, And The Ground Within, and vice versa?
I don’t think either influences the other very much. It’s definitely a different pace of writing, and switching gears from novel to novella or vice versa does take more adjustment than going from novel to novel. But in general, once I get in the groove, it always feels the same. It’s all the same muscle.
So, going back to The Galaxy, And The Ground Within, you have already said that it will be the last book of the Wayfarers series. What led you to this decision?
I just knew it in my gut, in the same way that I didn’t want to write a direct sequel to The Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet. A big part of it is that I got the first glimmers of the Wayfarers universe when I was twenty years old. I’m thirty-five now, and that’s a long time to sit with a setting. My creative interests are evolving, just like the rest of me is. I didn’t want to find myself scraping the bottom of the barrel. It’s always a little sad saying goodbye, but it’s definitely the right time.
Finally, with The Galaxy, And The Ground Within being the last of the Wayfarers books, there are going to be people who will consider reading all four books back-to-back. Do you think this is a good idea?
I think either way works. The series is intended to be easy to jump into and out of, so I think they’re equally suited to a binge or something you pick at slowly. You’ll definitely see my writing shift as you go along, if you read them all back-to-back, which could be interesting. I honestly don’t know what that would look like, as I’ve never done it before.