I loved Becky Chambers first book The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet so much that I was a bit concerned about being disappointed with her second book. I should not have worried! A Closed and Common Orbit is every bit as wonderful and made me all kinds of happy.
The story takes place right after events from her first book but both books are standalone and there is absolutely no need to read them in order. This book is not a sequel and the only overlap between the two books is that they take place in the same universe and they have two characters from the first book in it. Well, more like one and a half. Because in A Closed and Common Orbit the main characters are Pepper, a crack mechanic who had a very brief role in the first book, and Sidra who used to be Lovey, the ship’s AI from the first book.
Sidra came to be in an artificial human body after a horrible incident on the Wayfarer caused Lovey to be essentially erased. Sidra does not remember being Lovey but she has been told what happened. Thing is, it is illegal for AIs to have bodies. As sentient as a ship AI might end up being, the AI is not recognized as anything but a program. For Sidra to now be in a body is dangerous for her and for Pepper and Pepper’s partner Blue should they be found out.
Sidra is used to being a ship and having full visual access to every nook and cranny, a huge memory capacity and continual connection to the Linkings, a universe scale internet of sorts. Being in a human body freaks her out and she has to learn to adjust.
Sidra’s story in the now alternates chapters with the story of Jane 23 who we learn is the Pepper we know in the current timeline. Jane 23 is a human clone, created to work in a scrap factory as a slave. But Jane escaped the factory when she was 10 and in the miles and miles of scrap, was found by the AI of a ship, still intact, that had been there for years. The AI is named Owl and together she and Jane find a way to survive and escape the planet.
Eventually the two stories merge for a happy ending but not without suspense and tension.
Given the plot I just outlined, what the book is really about is, I will let Pepper and Tak explain (Tak is an Aleuon, a species that communicates with color but have implants that allow them to speak out loud to others):
‘Life is terrifying. None of us have a rule book. None of use know what we’re doing here. So, the easiest way to stare reality in the face and not utterly lose your shit is to believe that you have control over it. If you believe you have control, then you believe you’re at the top. And if you’re at the top, then people who aren’t like you…well, they’ve got to be somewhere lower, right? Every species does this. Does it again and again and again. Doesn’t matter if they do it to themselves, or another species, or someone they created.’ She jutted her chin toward Tak. ‘You studied history. You know this. Everybody’s history is one long slog of all the horrible shit we’ve done to each other.’
‘It’s not all that,’ Tak said. ‘A lot of it, yes. But there’s good things, too. There’s art and cities and science. All the things we’ve discovered. All the things we’ve learned and made better.’
‘All the things made better for some people. Nobody has ever figured out how to make things better for everybody.’
‘I know,’ Tak said. She thought, cheeks swirling. ‘That’s why we have to keep talking to each other.’
‘And listening,’ Pepper said.
So there you go. It isn’t a book about sentient AIs deserving of the same rights as organic life forms, though that is definitely part of the plot. When it comes down to it, the story is about communicating, listening, accepting, making life better for others. And this is why I love Chambers so much. Her books are so full of kindness and generosity. They are like a warm, fuzzy blanket and a cup of hot chocolate on a cold night or a hug from a friend. They make me feel so happy I never want the story to stop.
We can say, oh it is so unrealistic that everyone is so good, but is it? If we are made of stories, if stories help us see who we are and show us who we can be, why not have stories full of compassion and affection, stories of thoughtfulness and caring? There are so many stories about people killing each other, about making life horrible, about how to survive the horrible that Chambers is a breath of fresh air. Life doesn’t have to be grim and neither does a good story.