A Closed and Common Orbit (Wayfarers #2) by Becky Chambers – A fantastically sanguine story of friendship and self-discovery
I read A Long Way To A Small Angry Planet a while ago and loved it. I don’t remember reading such a happy, positive book that presents itself in such a way that doesn’t come off saccharine. I thoroughly enjoyed the slice of life novel which incidentally is a genre that I’d never really come across.
The large cast of characters on the ship felt very Firefly-esque but with far more relatable crew members. The characters were all very realistic and familiar to the reader despite the majority being aliens. Becky Chambers spends a good deal of time developing the worldbuilding of the universe and does so deftly. I particularly like the use of chat logs reminiscent of IRC channels to give us a glimpse of the ‘main’ characters exploration of the space-wikipedia. I say ‘main’ because while Rosemary is introduced first and probably has the most POV chapters, each crew member gets their own storylines. None are world ending but just show that they all lead complex lives with worries and goals.
I was fascinated by the diversity of aliens; never were they just humans-but-blue or humans-but-reptiles (looking at you, Mass Effect) but instead totally uniquely designed. There’s an alien race called Sianats that has entirely been infected with a virus that lets them comprehend multi dimensional space allowing them to pilot ships through wormholes. Since every member of the Sianat race is paired with a parasite, they are referred to as Sianat Pairs and use plural pronouns such as ‘they’ and ‘we’ instead of ‘he’ and ‘I’. There’s a reptilian Aandrisk race (okay, there is one…) but it’s a supremely unique race in that their concept of family is totally different to humans. Every Aandrisk has three families, one that raises them, one that they live with as adults and one that they raises others as a a part of. They have a very casual sex culture, happy to mate with strangers and multiple others in public. The Aeluon are a race of aliens that communicate solely through their colour changing skin. Their skin is admired by all other races and can transition through the entire colour spectrum. These vastly different alien species really highlight Chambers’s imagination in creating her world and them all coexisting peacefully in the one ship is representative of a major theme of acceptance examined throughout the book.
Having enjoyed the lack of plot in A Long Way, I was mildly surprised that A Closed And Common Orbit is a less meandering, more focused novel on just two new main characters. Chambers uses this to explore the characters in more depth by keeping the storylines focus heavily on character development. There’s very little action in the book, probably even less than A Long Way; the characters generally do not develop through actions but more through conversations with those around them and self-reflection. The two storylines are mostly separate but they intertwine occasionally in a thematic manner. Both are about the the discovery of oneself, discussing the idea of what one does after rejecting their designated purpose.
One of the storylines continues off from where A Long Way ends. The AI Lovelace is taken out of the Wayfarers ship due to her predecessor’s relationships with the crew and decides to live with a mechanic Pepper while she tries to get used to going from being a ship AI to a body unit AI. The change is shown to be extremely uncomfortable for Lovelace as she goes from having cameras all over a spaceship and constant access to the galaxy-wide Internet (which she requires to research new ideas and concepts, a task she requires often as she has only just been turned on) to pretending to be a human. Since unshackled sentient AI is at best a touchy subject in the Galactic Commons and at worst, illegal, Lovelace has to disconnect herself and act as a human, limiting her natural inclinations.
The claustrophobic feeling that Lovelace continually experiences is represented excellently and despite my being not a robot, it was surprisingly easy to relate to. She felt like an extreme introvert forcing herself to endure public places and meet new people. Repeatedly, she would run back to her comfort zone and plug herself in to the cameras set up around Pepper’s house to simulate a spaceship monitoring system.
The other storyline covers Pepper’s early years as a human child clone called Jane-23. She is forced to work in a scrapheap sweatshop, taking apart scrap metal to salvage working components. She and all the other Janes are supervised by robot ‘Mothers’ that is somewhat reminiscent of The Handmaid’s Tale’s Aunts. Her story follows her awful childhood there briefly before detailing how she leaves it behind, and finds a ship whose AI raises her. It’s a very touching story that shows why Pepper was willing to help Lovelace adapt to her new life despite the dangers it included. There are lots of cute little moments like Jane discovering her first cartoon TV show, or how she decides on the new name Pepper.
A common problem in A Closed and Common Orbit in multiple POV books, especially those with just a few, is that often the viewpoint switches too often. I had this problem with The Lies of Locke Lamora too, just as the reader begins enjoying one storyline, it switches to the other. A minor criticism really but just something that made me sigh every so often.
Ultimately, I thoroughly enjoyed A Closed and Common Orbit. The casual nature that Chambers discusses sexuality, gender and inter species culture is wonderfully refreshing. Often when a book attempts to include societal norms that are more progressive than our own or are simply just different they do so in a hamfisted, self-congratulatory manner that undercuts the sincerity of it. Some have criticised Chambers for being overly optimistic in her depiction of the future’s accepted customs and while I agree, I don’t think that that is necessarily a bad thing.