There are four books in the series, each telling a story from a different corner of a fictional universe called the Galactic Commons. The 'GC', as it's called, is an interstellar alliance that seems to combine effective resource-sharing and cultural bridge-building with crippling bureaucratic glut and relentless political maneuvering — not unlike many of our orgs here on Earth.
Each book is self-contained, but the stories are interrelated and build on one another, forming a branching narrative that chases loose threads and back stories in subsequent books. For example, in the first book, Pei (partner of the Wayfarer's captain, Ashby) is a side character who only briefly appears in a couple scenes. But later in the series, in The Galaxy and the Ground Within, we follow her to a planet called Gora, where she gets stranded with half a dozen new characters, and we get to learn more about her history.
I think Chambers describes the series as a 'space opera', but there's an asterisk I might add. There are spaceships, wormholes, lots of fascinating aliens, laser weapons, robots, wars. All the good stuff I'll show up for every time. But the books aren't filled with swashbuckling and cliffhangers. The pacing is often slow, the tone calm. Chambers writes wonderful dialogue; she loves to put a group of characters in a room together so we can follow whatever conversation happens. Many of the best bits happen in break rooms, mess halls, street corners.
One of my very favorite scenes is just that: a late-night conversation in the mess hall aboard a freight ship. Jane, a human refugee who has joined the crew to gain passage to her new home planet, meets Oouoh, a Laru crew member
— A Closed and Common Orbit, page 322
[Jane] stood in front of the cupboard, jars on the floor around her, palms coated with multicolored dust. She wasn’t sure if it was the redreed [pipe smoke] or something she’d swallowed or what, but in that moment, she could feel a bridge stretching between her as she was right then – giggling and gasping in a spaceship kitchen – to her at four years old, sucking algae gunk from her nails in the dark.
Jane let out a sob she hadn’t known was there. Oouoh sat up with a start. ‘Oh – oh, what the fuck’, he said. ‘Shit, let’s get you to the med ward, come on—’
Jane started at him. ‘What? Why? I’m fine.’
‘Uh, no, you’re… your eyes are leaking.’
Jane laughed, which was hard to do while crying. ‘No, no, this’ — she sniffed hard – ‘it’s just tears. It’s okay.’
Oouoh was distraught. ‘What about this is okay?’
‘We do this. Humans do this when – when we’re feeling a lot of things.’
‘I guess. I’m okay, really. I’m fine.’
The Laru shifted his jaw back and forth. ‘All right. That’s fucking creepy, but all right.’
In another scene (in the last book, The Galaxy and the Ground Within), a group of aliens are talking. One asks what, exactly, that stuff humans call ‘cheese’ is and why they’re so obsessed with it. Another explains, with rising disgust, that it’s made from the ‘reproductive fluids’ stolen from another Earth species, then deliberately infected with bacteria until it reaches ‘a solid state.’ Everyone is revulsed and appalled.
I love all these little, wry moments about how ridiculous and weird our species can be.
The books often feel, literally, like you’re hanging out with these characters. That’s a really good thing: her characters are fascinating and the world(s) Chambers has built are just lovely places to spend time. I was truly sad to finish the last book, even after reading more than a thousand pages.