Friday 11 November 2016

Book Review | A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers

Lovelace was once merely a ship's artificial intelligence. When she wakes up in an new body, following a total system shut-down and reboot, she has to start over in a synthetic body, in a world where her kind are illegal. She's never felt so alone.

But she's not alone, not really. Pepper, one of the engineers who risked life and limb to reinstall Lovelace, is determined to help her adjust to her new world. Because Pepper knows a thing or two about starting over.

Together, Pepper and Lovey will discover that, huge as the galaxy may be, it's anything but empty.


Life is a lot of things. It's intense and it's tedious; it's exhausting as often as it's exhilarating. Sometimes it's kind of delightful; sometimes it's quite, quite terrifying. "None of us have a rule book," as Pepper puts it. "None of us know what we're doing here." (p.317) But we each have our own ideas, don't we? We all have our aspirations, our particular purposes. Some of us want to start families. Some of us want to make successes of ourselves. Some of us want to see the world. Some of us want to pave the way for change.

Insofar as she ever wanted anything, Lovelace—the AI formerly installed on the spaceship which went The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet in Becky Chambers' radiant debut—Lovelace wanted to make the humans in her hull happy. That's why she opted to be installed in a body kit:
At the time, it had seemed like the best course, the cleanest option. She had come into existence where another mind should have been. She wasn't what the Wayfarer crew was expecting, or hoping for. Her presence upset them, and that meant she had to go. That was why she'd left—not because she'd wanted to, not because she'd truly understood what it would mean, but because the crew was upset, and she was the reason for it. [...] She'd left because it was in her design to be accommodating, to put others first, to make everyone else comfortable, no matter what. (p.112)
But what of her comfort?

That's the question at the centre of A Closed and Common Orbit, the sensitive sequel of sorts to the novel that was nominated for any number of awards and accolades, including the Baileys Prize for Women's Fiction, the Tiptree Award, the Kitschies Golden Tentacle and the Arthur C. Clarke Award. I say "sequel of sorts" because Chambers' new book only features a few of The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet's characters, and isn't in the least bit interested the fate of the Wayfarer. It is, in other words, entirely standalone—unlike so many of the struggling sequels that insist on this—although a passing familiarity with the larger canvas of said series is sure to prove a plus.

In any case, Lovelace. Just imagine, for a moment: if life, despite its heights, is still sometimes too much for us—we who have been here, trying and failing and feeling for years—then what must it be like for someone such as she, someone who has never even been called upon to pretend to be more than a program?

Hard hardly describes her dilemma; Lovelace is really going to have to try to get by. And she does—albeit for others, initially. Primarily for the aforementioned Pepper, whose awful origins as a disposable person placed on a forbidding factory planet are interspersed with Lovelace's subtler struggles. It was Pepper who housed Lovelace in the banned body kit in the first instance, and if one is caught, the other is surely screwed—and so too would be Blue, Pepper's partner, who also figures into the dramatic flashbacks.

For Lovelace, fitting in begins with a new name: Sidra, for no better reason than because. Soon, she moves into Pepper and Blue's spare room, and starts working with them in their shop in the Sixtop district. That's a lot of newness, to be sure, but no amount of change in the day-to-day can overcome her old programming. One protocol in particular makes her interactions with others a real risk:
Already, the honesty protocol was proving to be a challenge, and her inability to disable it herself made her uneasy. Housed within a ship, she might have been ambivalent about it. But out here, where she was hyper-aware of everything she was and wasn't, truth left her vulnerable. (p.24)
Honesty might be the best policy, but life, Sidra realises, is full of fiction, and when you have something huge to hide and no way to hide it, the ability to tell a little white lie would be one way to keep the Powers That Be at bay—and that's what sets Sidra down the path that A Closed and Common Orbit charts.

Returning readers will recall that, though the journey was a genuine joyThe Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet wasn't what you'd call eventful, and as above, you know, so below. To wit, if the paucity of that novel's plot proved a problem for you, know now that A Closed and Common Orbit is not the follow-up you fancied. Instead, it doubles down on the small, character-focused moments that made its predecessor such an unfettered pleasure, and in that respect, it's no less of a success.

Sidra, Pepper, Blue—and Sidra's first friend, the tattoo artist Tak, too—are just decent people doing what decent people do; trying to find the right thing, but failing, from time to time. Sometimes, they're selfish, or small-minded, but when they are, they're able to realise the error of their ways, and put what they've learned into practice. Take Tak, who, on finding out that Sidra is not what she seems, reacts rather badly. After cooling xyr heels, however, xe apologises profusely, and Tak is a markedly more human character hereafter for the mistakes xe's made—quite the feat for an Aeulon, actually.

On the face of it, A Closed and Common Orbit sounds like a very different enterprise than its popular predecessor. In that it takes place not in the unimaginable vastness of space but almost entirely on a planet—indeed, in a single district—and has only a handful of characters as opposed to The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet's ensemble, it runs the risk of seeming unambitious. But, like Sidra herself, who doesn't differentiate between threats little and large, it isn't:
With every step there was something new to observe. She couldn't help but pay attention, make note, file it away. Out in space, something new could be a meteoroid, a ship full of pirates, an engine fire. Here, it was just shopkeepers. Travellers. Musicians. Kids. And behind every one of them, there was another, and another—an infinity of harmless instances of something new. She knew that there was a big difference between a shopkeeper and a meteoroid, but her protocols didn't, and they clawed at her. She didn't know how to stop. She couldn't stop. (p.41)
A Closed and Common Orbit may be smaller in scope than the book before it, but in its focus and its force, in the sheer delight it takes in the discoveries it documents, it's as fine and as fantastical as Chambers' absolute darling of a debut.


A Closed and Common Orbit
by Becky Chambers

UK Publication: October 2016, Hodder
US Publication: March 2017, Harper Voyager

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  1. This is just ... a really cozy book. Good characters, and setting I'd love to see more of. Ahh! I'm so happy I read this. I keep forgetting to mention it, but I seriously love the worldbuilding. The GC seems super-cool and inviting. A little Mass Effect-y in some ways, if that's your kind of thing.

  2. Wrapped into this story is an old fashioned heist story. It's a rich story and well worth reading. I'm a fan of this world, and I hope Ms. Chambers gives this treatment to others from The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. If she does, I'll buy it.

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