Book Review – ‘A Closed and Common Orbit’ by Becky Chambers

Title: A Closed and Common Orbit
Authors: Becky Chambers
Genre: Science Fiction
Date of Publication: 20th October, 2016
Page Count: 365 pages (paperback)
Synopsis: (from Goodreads)

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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.

A Closed and Common Orbit is the stand-alone sequel to Becky Chambers’ beloved debut novel The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and is perfect for fans of Firefly, Joss Whedon, Mass Effect and Star Wars.

Although this is billed as a stand-alone, it took me a little effort to get into it as we’re introduced to the main characters in media res following on from the events of the first novel. I felt pretty lost in the beginning which is why I’ve taken so long to finish this – I ended up putting it aside to focus on other books instead. But once I picked it up again determined to get through it and plowed through a few chapters, I found it super compelling and became invested in the main dual protagonists.

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I know The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet has rave reviews, but the synopsis didn’t capture my interest. I’m very picky with my sci-fi, as the genre is a bit hit-and-miss for me, especially when it’s bogged down in technical details and more about the world-building than the characters. What caught my attention here was the concept of the AI developing her individuality and exploring her ‘humanity’ – I LOVE this trope, it is absolutely my catnip.

The Diabolic had a similar plot wherein the lead was created for a purpose and during the course of the novel, she developed beyond her ‘programming’ and learned to prioritize herself instead of the mission, and discovered her own desires and interests and ambitions. With that in the back of my mind, I was keen to see if A Closed and Common Orbit would satisfy me on the same level, and for the most part, it lived up to expectations!

Since it was Sidra that drew me in, I’m glad to say that her storyline had me hooked. I was actually so invested in it that I didn’t realize til the end that there wasn’t any action in her chapters! Sidra’s entire arc was the transition from displaced AI (I still don’t know how she ended up in a ‘kit’ that mimics the human body, some backstory there would’ve been appreciated) to fully-formed individual, but I loved it. I had so much sympathy for her initial desire to hook into a Linking box so she could connect herself to their version of wifi and hide from society – if I had this option, I certainly would take it up in a heartbeat!

Despite her misgivings and due in no small part to Pepper’s firm influence, she does eventually form bonds to other characters and I found it absolutely fascinating seeing her awkwardly negotiate social interaction and the way she’d pull up data on thousands of recorded interspecies relations to help her fit in! Talk about wish fulfillment… *sighs wistfully*

A Closed and Common Orbit has some fascinating philosophical dialogue on the nature of sentience and who merits being awarded the distinction of being considered ‘real’. This is a classic trope in sci-fi, certainly Star Trek has had many episodes exploring that debate (with Data in The Next Generation and the Doctor in Voyager) and I enjoyed this novel adding to that conversation. There was a particularly interesting exchange that brought up a new angle I hadn’t heard before – usually AIs or androids, etc. are keen to assimilate into humanity, but Sidra wanted to maintain her artificial roots (through the Linkings or uploading herself into the house’s security system), against Pepper’s protests. This is an exchange between Sidra and her friend, Tak:

“She doesn’t want me to do things that make it clear I have different abilities. She’s afraid someone will notice.”

“I get that you have to be careful. But you’re….you’re not like the rest of us. No offence. I mean, we’re all sapients, right? But say…say I moved to Hagarem. Say, by  some stroke of luck, I was the only Aeluon in a whole city of Harmagians. Would I respect their ways? Yes. Would I adopt their customs? Yes. Would I ever, ever stop being Aeluon? Hell no. I get that it’s a different thing for you, but that doesn’t mean you have to abandon what makes you unique. You’re supposed to own that, not smother it.”

This is what I enjoy about sci-fi, how it broadens my perspective – I hadn’t thought about it that way before!

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But Jane was the unexpected highlight for me; kudos to the author for the believable and effective way in which the writing conveyed the viewpoint of a sheltered, brainwashed child with no experience of the outside world. Sometimes when I’ve read books with different POVs, I haven’t realized the narration has switched to a different character because their mental tone is so similar, but there was never any risk of mixing up Jane’s simple youthful perspective and Sidra’s more analytical and sophisticated tone.

Jane’s chapters ended up being my favorite – while I can feel for Sidra being taken from the comfort and security of being the ship’s AI and being unwillingly dumped into the physical universe in a limited human body, her storyline lacked the urgency and life-or-death stakes of Jane’s backstory. Obviously we know that Jane survives and becomes Pepper, and I realize that might ruin the tension for some readers, but I don’t like to fret for the safety of characters I’ve grown fond of, so this was reassuring to me!

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It also made it easier to read about her suffering and hardship as a child, since I knew that she would be free, safe and happy in the future. But wow, did she go through a ton of pain and anguish before getting to that point – there were a few scenes I had to skim over because I felt squeamish reading about what she had to endure. 😦 (although thankfully there wasn’t any sexual assault, which is too often the sole plot device authors resort to for tragic backstory) Because she had so many obstacles to overcome, Jane became the more interesting protagonist to me because I was keen to see how she’d use her wits and ingenuity to deal with the problems she faced.

However, I wasn’t a huge fan of the chapters alternating between Jane/Pepper and Sidra’s perspectives. I appreciate the author’s intentions of using this as a narrative device, the way we follow Jane from her youth to adulthood in contrast to the adult version of her in the ‘present’ with Sidra and how this allows us to compare their respective emotional journeys and character development. We gain deeper insights into her personality and motivations as she gently shepherds Sidra through the trials and tribulations of emerging personhood, which is particularly poignant since we can see how she herself dealt with similar issues. But my problem with this format was that I would get excited about a particular plot development and then the next chapter would switch tracks to something completely different and it just killed my high and stalled the momentum that the author had built up. :/

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Overall, I think this was a great read – I’d recommend it to people who have read the first book so as to avoid my struggle of getting into it without the background to understand how the characters came to be in their position at the start. Or if you’re mentally flexible and you don’t mind a bit of initial bafflement as long as there’s wonderful characters and engaging storylines, go for it! I really enjoyed Sidra’s efforts to adapt to her new body and lifestyle amongst humanoids, and Jane’s misadventures and efforts to escape her unfortunate circumstances were thrilling and had me cheering for her whole-heartedly. ❤

Personal Rating: 4 out of 5 kitties approve this book!

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Disclaimer: I received a digital ARC free from Hatchette Australia via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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