A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers
Published October 20, 2016
Looking for a much-needed escape from the dystopian genre that’s so prevalent in fiction today, or from the real world political landscape? Becky Chambers’ Hugo-nominated follow-up to 2014’s The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is the remedy.
A Closed and Common Orbit is the rare sequel that manages to improve on its predecessor. As much as I loved The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, I thought the book’s lack of overarching plot and the absence of any tension made it feel more like a series of vignettes than a narrative with any purpose. Chambers’ talent for creating characters who are uniquely likable and the diversity of species and cultural norms that she injects into her writing meant that The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet still worked exceptionally well, but I appreciated the more directed plot this time around. I also enjoyed the parallels between the present and past timelines, both of which are coming-of-age stories about identity, friendship, and carving a place for yourself in the world.
Told through alternating chapters, A Closed and Common Orbit consists of two parallel stories. The primary narrative, which picks up 28 minutes after the events of The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (and therefore involves heavy spoilers for the end of the first Wayfarers book), belongs to the ship’s AI formerly known as Lovelace. New to existence itself, she also has to come to terms with the unexpected manner of her existence, living in an artificial body (she calls it “the kit”) that was never meant for her, and passing for a human being. Despite support from Pepper, a tech and maternal figure who gives her a job and a place to stay, and Pepper’s partner Blue, Sidra struggles to identify with her physical body and to see the body as a reflection of who she is on the inside. I suspect this will resonate with some readers, as will Sidra’s fear that someone will discover who she really is.
The other story is set twenty years in the past and follows a young Pepper, known in these chapters as Jane 23. Created as part of a slave class by a rogue society of genetic engineers, ten-year-old Jane labors in a factory, drinks her meals, and has never seen the sky. But when an industrial accident gives her a chance to escape, she hides away in a nearby junkyard and spends her teenage years building a way off of the planet.
There’s something empowering in reading about these two young women who are shaped by tragic pasts, but who start over, gain autonomy, and shape their own identities. Pepper uses her gift for fixing things to make a life for herself and a living in her shop. Although Sidra is uncomfortable in her own artificial skin, she uses her ability to acquire knowledge by downloading files through the Linkings to find solutions to her problems, including flaws in her programming, and demonstrates a love of learning. Both characters quite literally name themselves and become more than they were engineered, or programmed, originally to be.
As in her first novel, Chambers’ demonstrates great imagination and diversity in her creation of original alien species. For example, the Aeluons are a four-gendered society who communicate through colour-flashing cheek patches. Differences are respected and welcomed, and although the Firefly-esque found family crew of the Wayfarer is nowhere to be found in this book, the idea that friendship and the families you choose are every bit as, if not more, important than romantic or sexual love, sends a positive message. Through Sidra and the plight of other AIs, as well as the genetically engineered slave class children like Jane 23, Chambers argues that marginalized groups are human too and worthy of respect, support, and equality.
A Closed and Common Orbit is a genuinely moving tale of likable characters, who you will root for, finding themselves and finding strength in each other. It’s empowering and it is affirming, saying that it’s okay to be different, to feel anxious, to need help and to receive it. Although there is an unfortunate rushed feeling to the ending, as if an awards show has started playing the music and Chambers knows she needs to wrap up ASAP, it’s a minor complaint about a wonderful book, and I for one can’t wait to read whatever she has in store for readers next!