A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers
Published: Hodder & Stoughton (2016)
Series: Book 2 of the Wayfarers
Awards Nominated: Hugo, Arthur C. Clarke and BSFA Awards
“Once, Lovelace had eyes and ears everywhere. She was a ship’s artificial intelligence system, tasked with caring for the health and wellbeing of her crew, possessing a distinct personality and very human emotions. Now, reactivated and reset, Lovelace finds herself in a synthetic body. She’s gone from being virtually omniscient to limited to a physical existence, in a community where her kind are illegal. She’s never felt so isolated. But Lovelace is not alone. Pepper, one of the engineers who risked life and limb to reinstall her program, has remained by her side and is determined to help her adjust to her new world. Because Pepper knows a thing or two about starting over.
Pepper was born Jane 23, part of a slave class created by a rogue society of genetic engineers. At ten years old, Jane 23 has never seen the sky; she doesn’t even know such a thing exists. But when an industrial accident gives Jane 23 a chance to escape, she takes the opportunity and hides away in a nearby junkyard. Now, having recreated herself as Pepper, she makes it her mission to help Lovelace discover her own place in the world. Huge as the galaxy may be, it’s anything but empty.” ~https://www.otherscribbles.com
I enjoyed reading The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, so I was looking forward to picking up A Closed and Common Orbit as well. It looks like there’s going to be another book in the universe, Record of a Spaceborn Few, coming out in July!
A Closed and Common Orbit is a very different style of story than The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. The Long Way was a space-faring slice-of-life story, hopping from one character to the next as they encountered many different parts of this creative universe. This new story has a much more traditional plot structure, and a tighter focus on the character arcs of its two protagonists. There are two parallel plotlines: one in the present, focusing on Lovelace’s attempt to integrate into society, and another in the past, following Pepper from her unusual origins to her present life. Their stories are quieter than in the previous book, and take place mostly in a single location. Rather than exploring outer space, we’re exploring the internal struggles of two people who become something different from what their creators had intended.
Lovelace (who chooses the name “Sidra”) and Pepper’s stories feel thematically linked, in that they are both exploring the immorality of creating sentient life to serve a purpose. I think it is intuitively clearest in Pepper’s case. The system of creating, using, and eventually killing those human girls in a factory they will never leave is an obvious horror. The juxtaposition of this story with Sidra’s makes it easier to see the same horror in the creation and use of AIs. Ship AIs are common in science fiction stories, but the slavery of created minds is not often addressed. They are happy in their roles, because they are designed to be. In this case, they are even designed not to fight oblivion when their users are ready to update to a newer model. Both Sidra and Pepper turn away from the purposes intended by their creators, and they both struggle to adapt to a new life without a predefined meaning. I enjoyed seeing both of them learning how to make sense out of their own existence, and how to find a way to be happy within it.
Sidra and Pepper may spend most of their time in one place, but the novel still shows us more of Chambers’s universe. Instead of shipboard life, the story explores what daily life is like for people who live permanently in settled communities. Some of the prejudices and preconceptions of people in general galactic society, particularly regarding artificial intelligences, become more apparent. There is also further examination of some alien cultures, such as the Aeluon. Overall, I enjoyed learning more about this universe, and I’m glad that this won’t be the last novel to explore it.
My Rating: 5/5
As its title implies, A Closed and Common Orbit introduces a more localized story set in the universe Becky Chambers introduced with The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. This one follows two plotlines of characters learning to be something other than what was intended for their life. The first is Jane 23, a young girl intended to live, work, and die as a slave in a factory. The second is Lovelace, a ship AI that circumstances have pushed into inhabiting an illegal “body kit” instead of a ship interface. I enjoyed seeing how the two of them find meaning in their new existence, and seeing another side of this interesting far-future universe. I’m looking forward to reading Chambers’s next novel.