This novel isn’t a specific covid-narrative but the circumstance in which a group of travellers find their journey’s interrupted by a planetary lockdown adds plenty of parallels to recent experiences.
The planet Gora is a rocky wasteland of a world that is only inhabited because of its convenient location to a hub of wormholes-like “tunnels”. The numerous domed living spaces provide amenities to travellers and one such is the Five-Hop One-Stop: a kind of space motel. When an unexplained accident shrouds the upper atmosphere in debris, the guests of the Five-Hop One-Stop are forced to extend their stay.
Each of the guests (and the hosts) is alien and humans only appear tangentially. One of the guests, Pei, was heading to visit Ashby, the human captain of the ship from Chambers’s debut novel. The other characters are:
- Roveg, a multi-limbed being with a hard shell who is an artist and an exile from his people.
- Speaker, a small arboreal being who interacts with the others via a mech-suit due to her need for a methane atmosphere.
- Ouloo and Tupo: the host and their child who are both Laru: four-legged furry beings with long flexible necks.
The characters clash and connect as Ouloo does her utmost to accommodate the extended stay of the diverse group. In the process, each one works through some of their personal dilemmas around the journey that was interrupted. Although there is a major medical emergency late in the book, the events are mainly driven by each of the guests learning more about themselves and their lockdown comrades.
The story very much fits the expectations of a Chambers novel. The stakes are galactically-low and focused on the personal. There is conflict but it is either resolved or accommodated by people finding ways to get along. If anything, the focus on this aspect is greater than in previous stories and oddly, I found it better for that. It is a novel that is far more confident in staying within this personal space that is nonetheless shaped by political and cultural events.
I still didn’t really like it a great deal though. I’ll talk more about what works and doesn’t work for me with Chambers’s approach when we get to A Psalm for the Wild-Built which I liked a lot more but I kept finding myself with lingering frustrations with the story.
An example. Speaker is an Akarak and in the course of the story she reveals to the adolescent Tupo that despite her being an adult, she is technically much younger than Tupo. The Akarak are very short-lived beings compared to the other species of the Galactic Commons and reach adulthood in just over a year. This is the kind of interesting detail that Chambers adds to each of the aliens: things that colour the differences and attitudes between them. However, this fact about the Akarak goes nowhere even though the enforced stay at the Five-Hop is taking a substantially bigger chunk out of Speaker’s life than the other guests. Instead, a major plot point is the difficulty of Speaker sharing communal meals with the other guests, even though, as a practical problem it isn’t that difficult. It just all felt backwards — I felt like the age thing was a major revelation that would shape aspects of the plot and character but instead getting snacks delivered to Speaker’s shuttle when she can just pick them up with her suit and carry them into the shuttle becomes central to the story.
That’s a nit-pick I know but it is part of a problem with the premise. The story has diverse aliens with radically different cultures, ways of communicating and ways of engaging emotionally and sensorily with the world around them. That’s an interesting challenge. The aliens are also just relatable people with understandable human-like problems and dilemmas — and that’s a fine basis for a story as well…but the two things that marry up well. The differences become trivial, and before you say “that’s the point”, well it robs these people of something in the process. The characters become humans in weird costumes and we are back to Star Trek aliens. Pei can’t relate to music and she’s basically a character who can’t relate to music but also that’s a thing about her species, like as if I’m an alien from the planet of people who are bored by sports.
The opposite approach, making aspects of the aliens a greater challenge to empathy and community is full of pitfalls. Aliens do double-duty in science fiction both as speculation about actual other intelligent beings but also as a metaphor for human variety, including ethnicity. Creating alien-aliens runs the risk of a story taking the premise of “what if racism is true” and there are stories that can run with that idea and end up in places that aren’t appalling. However, this story is centred on the idea of these people really being essentially similar but with different needs and wants.
OK, now I feel like I’m being mean. It’s a nice story and as I said, I actually liked it better than some others in the series in part because it is more focused on the signature aspect of the series.