Lovelace is an AI. She belongs on a ship, protecting and caring for its crew. But due to events in Becky Chambers’ first novel, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, she finds herself instead in a synthetic body. To everyone else she looks perfectly human, but inside she’s struggling with her new circumstances, missing her old abilities, and feeling lost. Her guide through this transition is Pepper, an expert in all things tech, and someone who knows what it’s like not to be your average human.
A Closed and Common Orbit alternates between Lovelace (who later takes a different name to fit in) and Pepper’s stories, the latter’s starting twenty years ago when she was a child slave. It shows why she’s so keen to help Lovelace, given that AIs in body kits are illegal and come with steep penalties. Together they try to navigate Lovelace’s discomfort with her surroundings, and perhaps find their way to acceptance.
I adored Angry Planet. I read it twice last year and tore through this one as well. Orbit is more of a companion piece than a straight sequel, some minor characters from the first appear or are mentioned by name but you don’t have to have read the first to follow this one. Having said that, it would help, as it would give you a grounding in this universe. Chambers does not repeat herself, and so it’s assumed you will recognise the aliens/cultures that appear.
The story is one of friendship and family, and like Angry Planet before it, focuses on the family that you make for yourselves, rather than the one you’re born into. It’s a lovely tale, told beautifully, but if you’re looking for something plot heavy this is not it. It’s not that the story isn’t engaging (it is!) but it meanders. It takes its sweet time. It allows its characters to breathe, to tell you their stories slowly. There’s a chunk dedicated to a character getting a tattoo, for example. But within that there’s the opportunity to get to know someone new, organically, without a huge info drop. And it gives you reams of backstory about this universe and those who inhabit it (those that weren’t already covered in Angry Planet) that might seem superfluous to the main story, but I loved it. This kind of storytelling isn’t for everyone though.
I love Becky Chambers’ writing and her imagination and her intelligence. And especially…her empathy, I think is the right word. I was moved by these characters. A hug made me cry! Her stories are just so damn optimistic, and that’s not something you get very often with this genre. It’s sci-fi that’s warm and comforting and loaded with heart. My favourite kind.