Title: A Closed and Common Orbit
Author: Becky Chambers
Genre: Science Fiction
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Publication Date: October 20 2016
Paperback: 512 Pages
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 no memory of what came before. As Lovelace learns to negotiate the universe and discover who she is, she makes friends with Pepper, an excitable engineer, who’s determined to help her learn and grow.
Together, Pepper and Lovey will discover that no matter how vast space is, two people can fill it together.
The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet introduced readers to the incredible world of Rosemary Harper, a young woman with a restless soul and secrets to keep. When she joined the crew of the Wayfarer, an intergalactic ship, she got more than she bargained for – and learned to live with, and love, her rag-tag collection of crewmates.
A Closed and Common Orbit is the stand-alone sequel to Becky Chambers’ beloved debut novel The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and is perfect for fans of Firefly, Joss Whedon, Mass Effect and Star Wars.
Stand alone or series: Companion novel to The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, can be reads as a standalone novel
How did I get this book: Review copy from publisher
Format (e- or p-): Paperback
Optimistic, feel-good, adventurous and fun: A Closed and Common Orbit, Becky Chambers’ stand-alone follow-up to The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is as good, smart and satisfying as its predecessor.
There is a great success story behind these novels too. The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet started as a self-published book and when word of mouth and excellent reviews started to spread, the book was picked up by UK publisher Hodder & Stoughton. It’s probably safe to say that that first novel became a 2015 sensation collecting award nominations like it was running out of time, among them the prestigious Arthur C. Clarke Award. It was also longlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction as well as the Tiptree Award.
I like to think that its success story is indicative of a new direction within SFF: more optimistic, feel good, humane stories that celebrate ordinary people against an extraordinary, futuristic backdrop.
What’s so great about this? The optimism of this series does not solely rely on its characters succeeding or simple being/doing good. Its optimism equally appear in the way that very foundation of this universe is composed of a diverse make-up that is almost intoxicating in its normalisation. Take for instance this short, unremarked sentence right at the beginning of A Closed and Common Orbit when one of the main characters, an AI who has a new human body, looks at her new “kit” and describes it (bold mine):
“The kit looked like it had been pulled straight from the “Human” example in an interspecies relations textbook: brown skin, black hair, brown eyes. She was thankful that the kit’s manufacturer had seen the wisdom of blending in.”
There is no fuss about it: this is simply who humans are.
A genetically modified engineer and an artificial intelligence walk into a bar…
A Closed and Common Orbit picks up right after the final events of The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, with the once-Lovelace Artificial Intelligence, now reset and memory-less, finding a new life aboard a new body. Before, Lovelace had eyes everywhere and her task was to care for the health and wellbeing of the Wayfarer’s crew. Now, renamed Sidra, she finds herself in a new–and illegal–synthetic body, trying to cope with a limited, isolated, and physical existence that simply doesn’t seem enough.
She is helped by Pepper, an engineer who risked everything to get Sidra up and running. Pepper is a genetically modified clone, previously one of the Janes–Jane23–and part of a slave class of junk-fixers, brought up within a factory without any knowledge that there was an outside world. When Jane was ten years old, an accident at the factory led to a scape–and a new life inside a ship found in a junkyard. The ship’s AI Owl becomes Jane’s family.
With chapters alternating between Sidra/now and Jane/before, we follow both characters (as well as Owl, arguably a main character in this space drama too) as they journey through their lives. It’s a story about adapting, surviving, changing–identity is the core and just like its predecessor, A Closed and Common Orbit also has many things to say about found families, friendship and love. It also features different alien species, elegant gender fluidity, and a superb plotline that starts with loss and change and ends up with a quest and a heist. “Cool” does not even begin to describe it.
Imagine: one person whose life was so limited she didn’t even KNOW that there was such a thing as a “sky” or “edible food” (when you consumed liquid food all your life, do you even know how to chew?). Another one whose life was lived inside the confines of a ship and in downloading to a body and given the universe, THAT’S when the limitation starts: for an AI, a universe is not enough, if you don’t have connectivity. The questions of what connectivity even is, and what makes a person human fill the story to the brim. The answers are never straight-forward and following these lovable, interesting characters confronting and interrogating those questions is only a small part of the joy in reading this novel.
If there was such a thing as a Cosy Space Opera subgenre of Speculative Fiction, Becky Chambers’ series would likely be listed alongside the equally excellent On a Red Station, Drifting by Aliette de Bodard and Binti by Nnedi Okorafor.
Rating: 8 – Excellent
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