Saturday, 25 March 2017

A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers

A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers is a companion novel to Long Way to a Small Angry Planet. It follows characters which appear in Long Way to a Small Angry Planet but covers events that happen both before and after the events in the earlier book. The two books can be read in any order, although the existence of one of the characters in A Closed and Common Orbit is a spoiler for one of the events in Long Way to a Small Angry Planet. Otherwise, there is very little overlap.

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.

The environment and ensemble cast in A Closed and Common Orbit are quite different to those in Long Way to a Small Angry Planet  The book consists of alternating chapters from the points of view of two characters: an AI who has just been moved to a human-looking body, after having been a ship AI; and Pepper, the human woman helping the AI. The AI sections are set in the "present", having some temporal overlap with Long Way to a Small Angry Planet  whereas Pepper's sections recount her rather horrific childhood. Sidra, the AI, has relatively mundane concerns regarding learning how to function as a person, and fitting in so as not to be discovered (an AI pretending to be human is illegal). Pepper's childhood and teen years, however, are much starker than might normally be expected and I found her half of the story more gripping and emotive.

It was not immediately apparent how the two stories tied together — aside from the obvious part where Pepper features in Sidra's story — but this became clear at the end (and a bit earlier, if you were paying attention). Even so, I was more invested in (young) Pepper for the entire book. The ending was wonderfully touching, and Sidra was involved in that, but it was mainly touching because of what we had learnt about Pepper's life. Which is not to say that Sidra's story was boring — it certainly had its exciting moments — but my interest in it was more intellectual than emotional.

If you enjoyed Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, then I expect you will also enjoy A Closed and Common Orbit. However, if you didn't like the plot structure of Long Way to a Small Angry Planet  then, despite the dual storylines, A Closed and Common Orbit might not be for you. If you enjoy sociological SF about community and the meaning of personhood, then this is definitely the book for you. I am keen to see what else Chambers writes, whether or not it is set in the same universe as her first two books.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: 2016, Hachette Australia
Series: Sort of. Wayfarers universe, second publication set in that world
Format read: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley

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