Thoughts: A Closed and Common Orbit, by Becky Chambers

Lucky me ended up going into work for a thing that could only be done in the office, and to make up for this outrage, with me went the colleague who had lent me The Long Way To A Small Angry Planet previously, with the second two books and a bonus novella for my delectation. I like to bump borrowed books to the top of the list, knowing how horribly long my list is at any given time, so I dove right into this one.

Spoilers I guess? Though there’s not much a “stuff happens” kind of plot, to be honest.

I think I liked this one even more than The Long Way…, actually. I felt like Chambers had hit her stride, was doing what she wanted to do more confidently, and there was less that felt borrowed from other universes. It felt like we were getting to explore what makes her universe hers.

It avoids some of the issues I had with The Long Way…, namely the uneven spread of the ensemble cast, the episodic sort-of-but-not-quite-short-story structure. This time we’re following Lovelace, who left the Wayfarer at the end of The Long Way…, and Pepper, with whom she left. We got a taster of Pepper’s incredibly interesting backstory in The Long Way…, and her past is the parallel thread to Lovelace’s first steps in her new illegal body kit. In that sense it’s a little more of a traditional story than The Long Way…, but there’s also even less overarching tension, even less conflict besides small temporary storms between personalities living together and rubbing up against each other.

But that’s not to say that everything’s rainbows and hugs, as someone on Goodreads calls this “new subgenre” – Lovelace (who chooses the name Sidra for herself) is a ship AI living in a small body with limited drive space and lacking the hardware to be where all her programming says she should be at any one time, lacking the context to process the tasks which are written into her. Her experiences in the busy markets and art districts and clubs of Port Coriol aren’t experiences of endless wide-eyed wonder.

And this is where I think the rainbows-and-hugs people are doing Chambers a disservice. There are no universe-wide stakes here, sure, but if one of the aspects of sci fi is escapism, then it has to be understood that this is escapism too. For people who live with things in them that can turn a normal day into a nightmare based on one arbitrary moment, people who live with things that mean they have to ask for help with things that other people can do without thinking – to live in a universe like this one, where people are kind and know what to say and believe you without a doubt and do their best to help, and, let’s be honest, notice when it needs to be noticed, is escapism. And it’s no less worthy than the wish-fulfilment of being the chosen one or living in a spaceship.

There was something really deeply emotional about watching Sidra navigate this new world, resent her body, find things within it she liked nonetheless. Even more emotional about seeing friends help her out when things went wrong inside her. She didn’t choose the body kit; that was a choice made by a previous incarnation of the Wayfarer’s AI. She picks up and invents tricks to help her feel at ease, little tricks to help her function better in the environment in which she finds herself. I doubt any of Chambers’s readers are robots trying to get by in an organic world, or face the choice of one day having to pick and choose between their memories in order to make space for more, but there was a lot to relate to.

Pepper’s backstory was brilliant. If Sidra’s story is one of living with and around built-in brain shit, then Pepper’s is about having brain-shit thrust upon one, in the trauma of firstly her life as a genetically modified recyclingslave, and then her years on the run from that, building towards a means of escape, and then the messy, unromantic arrival in the GC’s refugee processing centres.

A theme here, like in The Long Way…, is finding/making your own family, getting to know yourself better. Another is definitely living with… I don’t know if “trauma” covers it all? Pepper certainly, but Sidra’s problems are more built-in? Well anyway, living with that is another. I don’t really want to throw names around, because I related in a way that I don’t think I have the right to if I throw names around. There are a lot of just really nice little parallels in Sidra’s and Pepper’s stories – choosing names being a big one. We don’t see Pepper specifically choosing her name, but we get a particularly lovely hint as to how that came about.

A couple of the things that needled at me from The Long Way… reappeared here. It was humancentric again, but not in a way this time where it felt strange. With the smaller cast it was easier to ignore. Sidra makes a particularly large and meaningful choice/sacrifice during the climax, and it’s never really revisited. Even if the conclusion is “it wasn’t as scary as she thought it would be”, I felt like I wanted some kind of acknowledgement of it?

And related to the humancentrism, Chambers’s compassionate universe makes it a little harder to believe in some kinds of badness. I can accept the big background things – the imperfections of society, things that no one has managed to get right yet – but every now and then it would be implied that humans are looked down upon and seem to face a kind of systemic soft-discrimination, as in they have the same rights, but other species hold all the power and they will never attain the standing of other older species. Because this is the story of Pepper and Sidra, and Sidra is an AI in a human casing and Pepper is a genetically modified human abused by a planet of humans, now living in a friendly multicultural locale, I just never really felt it. It felt kind of tacked on.

Still, pretty small problems in the grand scheme of things. I had to force myself to space out my reading so it would last longer, which is always a good sign. And to those who turn up their noses at it because it isn’t grim enough (which is of course fine – everyone has their own tastes and just because something is dark and depressing doesn’t make it less worthy than something which is wholesome and vice versa) I’d like to reassure them that the world’s bookshelves will long continue to contain hundreds upon hundreds of dystopias and grimdark stories and unhappy endings.

I don’t think the whole pillar of Literature will come tumbling down if I enjoy these three softer books.

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