This is one of my favorite books in a long time! Just delightful from start to finish.
The plot is essentially this: set in the distant future, the Galactic Commons (a multi-species galactic government à la the Federation) hires a small ship (the Wayfarer) to tunnel a wormhole to facilitate faster travel to a new member system. While only a few hours of actual work, the tunneling process requires that they begin at the endpoint. Since there’s no wormhole there yet, the ship has to get there via alternate, slower means (in other words, the long way).
But the plot isn’t really where this book shines – the characters and world-building are just absolutely stellar. Don’t get me wrong: the story itself is engaging in its own right, but I still would have loved this book even if the “A” plot was nonexistent.
The world that Chambers built here feels so alive and lived-in. So much of the Galactic Commons (both its member species and its societal norms) are incredibly foreign at times, yet everything feels incredibly natural. The various species the book establishes – and particularly how those species physiology affects their respective cultures – were super-interesting to me and felt quite well-thought-out.
Likewise, the crew of the Wayfarer feel like deep, complete characters. Chambers does a great job making it feel like all of the characters have their own independent lives going on in the background, rather than just being “on pause” until they’re needed for some plot or expository reason (something I find a lot of fiction suffers from when it leverages a large ensemble cast).
This book is often compared to Firefly. I understand the comparison (“a story about a diverse crew of quirky characters making their way through space in an outdated spaceship”) and generally agree that Firefly fans are likely to enjoy this book. However, I think the comparison sells this story a bit short; usually when I see media compared to Firefly, the subtext is effectively “this is the closest thing to new Firefly that we’re going to get, so I guess it’ll have to do”. If anything, this is the sort of story I think Firefly could have aspired to had it been given a longer run.
Finally, and above all else, it was refreshing just how nice this book is. It’s not that there’s no interpersonal conflict (there’s plenty), and it’s not just that the book presents an optimistic take on the future (while the Galactic Commons has moved past many of the issues we face today, it’s in no way presented as a utopia). There’s just something nice about how so many of the characters in this book try; to empathize, to accept, and to introspect. In a year as terrible as 2020, in which so many people have shown an inability to do any of that, this world was exactly the kind of escape I needed.