My first CBR last year was eye-opening, to say the least. I paid more attention to my reading than I have since college, and I also paid fresh attention to my book choices after being confronted by the ugly truth of my blindspot for women authors. And though not every book was a winner, I did fall in love with a number of books and authors new to me, including Becky Chambers and her delightful The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, one of my favorite reads of the year. I’m happy to say CBR 11 is off to a brilliant start thanks to her follow-up effort, sure to be one of my favorites at the end of the year.
Picking up where The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet left off, A Closed and Common Orbit tells the story of Sidra, a spaceship’s artificial intelligence (AI) hub who was downloaded into an illegal human body kit following catastrophic damage, and Pepper, the techie who brings Sidra to her home planet to start a new life. Although Sidra is frightened and confused, she’s also grateful to Pepper for the risk she’s taking. Early on, we learn at least part of the reason Pepper is so willing to help Sidra: she was raised by an AI.
From there, the story splits. We follow Sidra as she learns how to deal with her new, unexpected circumstances. She’s naturally curious and thoughtful, but she’s also frustrated by the limitations of her new body and the safety protocols built into her system. She wishes she could use the full breadth of her capabilities but is reminded over and over how tenuous her existence is, and she quickly learns she won’t feel like she belongs anywhere until she knows who she is and what she wants out of her life.
The other side of the story jumps back to Pepper’s childhood when she was known as Jane 23, one of a seemingly endless number of tech drones in a factory, sorting through scrap and fixing what can be salvaged. When Jane 23’s curiosity puts her in danger, she’s forced to flee through the endless scrap yard, first from the Mother robots and then from wild dogs. She’s rescued by a voice that leads her into the safety of a broken down shuttle, where she discovers the voice belongs Owl, the ship’s AI, who cares for Jane, educating and entertaining her, helping her survive the harsh environment. Owl realizes their only hope for survival is to leave the planet, so Jane goes to work fixing the ship, one small piece at a time.
The plots merge again near the end as tension builds between Sidra and Pepper. They both want the same thing — to take care of each other while maintaining their own independence — but they have stubbornly different ideas of what that means.
I adored this book. emmalita’s “cozy sci-fi” is a perfect label for Becky Chambers’s writing. This is hard sci-fi with the kind of detailed universe that could easily get bogged down in description and exposition, but Chambers is smart enough to avoid that trap by leading with her characters. There are flashes of action, but the stories are as much about the characters’ inner conflicts as their external struggles. Antagonists tend to be more natural and societal: Sidra struggles with her physical limitations and with the very meaning of identity, while Jane/Pepper struggles against time, the elements, and wild animals who want the same thing she wants: to find enough food and water to survive another day. These are ancient, fundamental issues of the human experience, but Chambers provides a fresh take, covering the full spectrum from the most basic to the most advanced. This book is about what it means to be sentient and how vital it is to be able to make our own decisions about our lives and bodies.
Much as with The Long Way to a Slow Angry Planet, I’m finding more to love about A Closed and Common Orbit the more I think about it. These books are straightforward and enjoyable to read, but the true impact for me comes only after I’ve had time to absorb and reflect, and then I’m overwhelmed by the power and beauty and generosity of her writing.