While A Closed and Common Orbit deals with the aftermath of the events The Long Way to Small, Angry Planet, it can be read independently. The novel alternates between the view points of two characters. Lovelace/Sidra’s perspective takes place directly after the other novel, and Jane’s chapters take place about 20 years prior, and explore how she ended up escaping a planet where she was genetically engineered for one specific function/job. This isn’t a spoiler since Pepper was introduced in the previous novel as a friend of one of the main crew members and it had alluded to her past. In this novel we get to see how Jane 23 became Pepper and left her world and predestined role behind, with the help of an AI that she had the fortune to stumble upon after she accidentally discovered there was more to her world than the factory where she worked.
Minor spoilers for the end of Angry Planet:
Lovelace, on the other hand, is the result of the events the previous novel. Lovey was the AI of the ship, and had a very distinct and developed personality. After the attack, Lovey ends up reverting to her original setting as Lovelace. For reasons, there was a body on board for Lovey to eventually take over, so Pepper gives Lovelace a choice to take the body, leave the ship and stay with her, or stay on board as the AI. It’s obvious to her that she will always be a reminder of what was lost, so she chooses door A. However, this means that Lovelace has to find herself and her function outside of the thing she was designed for. Being in a humanoid body is disturbing and weird, and she hates the fact that people have the ability to be out of her line of sight.
If anything I liked this one even more than the previous novel in the series, even if I didn’t always love Sidra and her impatience with her friends Pepper and Blue. However, I liked the closer focus on two characters after having the ensemble of the crew in the previous novel. She takes two very different but complimentary characters and lives to explore the meaning of humanity and individuality. Pepper may be human but she was genetically engineered to be a cog in a machine with no free will. It was an AI that introduced her to love and the ability to make decisions. Sidra, on the other hand, was given a choice that did not feel like a choice and now has an independence she never desired or wanted. She had a purpose and doesn’t know what her new one might be.
Chambers is incredible at exploring relationships and creating complex and layered characters, even if they are only supporting. There had been a point about 18 months ago when I thought I no longer liked sci-fi, and it’s because the last few novels I had picked up had been way too descriptive of the technical parts or hopeless or in other ways missed the mark. I am so happy that in the past year I’ve discovered some of the amazing women sci-fi authors who are focused on relationships and how societies work rather than how the warp engine works.