A Closed and Common Orbit (week 1): across the uncanny valley

A Closed and Common Orbit Read-along

It’s time to dive back into deep space with the read-along for A Closed and Common Orbit, the much-anticipated sequel to last year’s break-out debut The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet. This week we’re hosted by Lisa from Over the Effing Rainbow – we’ll be reading through December so if you’re interested in participating, hop on over to the SF/F Read-Along group to join the discussion.

1) So this story picks up more or less where The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet left off, but rather than having an ensemble cast on an adventure, it seems this story is much more intimately focused on Lovelace (later named Sidra) and ‘Jane 23’. What’s your initial response to this shift in the narrative style between books? Is it one you appreciate or do you think you’ll miss the ensemble aspect (assuming you’ve read Small Angry Planet)?

I must admit, I was a little bit sad to find that the crew of the Wayfarer wouldn’t feature at all – but I have faith in Becky Chambers to make me love these characters every bit as much. Like Small Angry Planet, Common Orbit starts with an intimate moment of fear and introspection – but it’s clear that the focus won’t broaden out this time. This one’s all about Lovelace learning to adapt to being a completely different type of sentient – a frustratingly limited one – while Jane 23’s journey is almost the exact opposite as she has to learn to cope with broader horizons.

I got over my little moment of sadness very very quickly. I also burst into tears rereading the first chapter. So forgive me if I’m not particularly coherent through this read-along. I’m not kidding when I say I have ALL THE FEELINGS. But of course I’m going to miss Sissix.


2) Sidra’s first experiences of living confined to a body mean that readers get to see her new home, and her new world, through the eyes of someone who’s never experienced it in such a way before. What aspects of Sidra’s first days ‘on the ground’ on Coriol stand out to you, and why?

Oh my, where to start? I’m so impressed by the way Becky Chambers has considered how big a shock being confined to a body would be for a shipboard AI. The ‘bonus feature’ of the body kit processing the neural feedback as a person would and inflicting panic attacks is… well, it’s cruel. Breathing, blinking, bleeding and so on are all things that a kit needs to do to pass as human, but panic attacks? Not at all. Maybe there was a customer request for a fully-immersive experience, but you’d really want this to be a setting you could opt out of. On the other hand, it’s an opportunity to forge sympathy with the reader – Sidra is convincingly other, but she faces some very familiar challenges – like any of us, she has to develop coping mechanisms.

I love the amount of thought Becky Chambers has put into how to portray her AI. The text works hard not to assume that a sentient in a body is that body: Sidra saving text files for reference in place of ‘remembering’; the distinction that ‘the kit blinks’ – Sidra feels disconnected from the automatic physiological responses; Sidra instantly feeling better when she stands in a corner and looks down on a room, because at some level she expects to view her environment through ceiling-mounted cameras. And let’s not skip the big one that gets me in the gut: Sidra’s need to find a purpose. Oh hai, narrative through-line and emotional hook, don’t tug too hard, I’ve got something in my eye. Again.


3) The POV switches regularly between Sidra in the present and Jane 23, a clone raised in some form of slave labour with many others of her kind, when she was a 10-year old girl. What do you make of Jane and her upbringing at this point, and where do you think her story might be going from here? Does her story interest you as much as Sidra’s (or vice versa)?

I was mildly curious about Jane 23 – because I like Pepper, and if she sees her adoption of Sidra as pay back for being raised by an AI, there’s an interesting story there. I love that there’s a distinct shift in prose style for Jane: she’s got such narrow horizons and limited (focused) education, even her vocabulary is simple. The Mothers have no needs for linguistic frills. Adjectives and adverbs wouldn’t help you be on-task.

And it’s heart-searing that we can objectively see that the girls are basically child slave labour being kept in inhumane conditions (that throwaway observation that nobody knows where the older girls go sent shivers down my spine. Do they get released? Recycled?). But the Mothers can’t stop the girls taking pleasure in the little things. Jane likes to run fast. She likes to fix stuff. She likes it when her beloved 64 says nice things about her. Not so much when a Mother does. She has no vocabulary for her emotions, but she’s a little bundle of love and desire for approval from her loved ones.

The contrast between the Mothers and Owl couldn’t be sharper. If the Mothers feel like dystopic robot overlords, Owl is a sentient AI who has strong opinions and a protective instinct. Her instant adoption of Jane; her suppressed anger at what she hears about the Mothers; her cautious attempts to understand what Jane does and doesn’t know (and Jane’s entirely understandable irritation – of course she knows what disinfectant is, she’s not a baby). It’s fair to say I liked Owl immediately.

I’ve read the book already, so I won’t comment on where I think this is all going.


4) In general, what’s stood out the most to you about these chapters so far, and why? Has anything raised questions or curiosity, or particularly turned you off? Discuss your favourite bits!

This is a random aside, but my mental image of Pepper in Small Angry Planet was as someone much older – middle-aged or more; it was quite a surprise to put together in Common Orbit that she’s much younger. Without rereading the first book, I’m not sure where I got that from – maybe some throwaway reference to her scars and lack of hair? Assumptions: dangerous, faulty things!

I was touched that Pepper and Blue go out of their way to ensure Sidra feels comfortable: rearranging the furniture, taking her to an indoor Shimmerquick. I also loved that Pepper made explicit that the offer of bed and board is entirely separate to the offer of a job. Sidra is welcomed into their life as a friend; she can also be an employee if she chooses. Pepper is so casual about it, but given her childhood this must be so important to her.

Payback is such a rich, nuanced thing: Pepper knows exactly what it’s like to have your whole world change (we’ve seen her childhood; it’s a long way from Port Coriol!) – so she must have some understanding of how overwhelming it all is; but she also takes such delight in introducing Sidra to things that she presumably delighted in when she first encountered them.

I loved that Sidra’s kit came with a user manual. The chapters that are user manual are priceless – the humour of the writer (don’t try this where people can see you folks!) and the thought that has gone into the kit’s manufacture (the sensory analogues).

I could go on and on, but just one more: Aeluons. In Small Angry Planet we got to know the Aandrisk through Sissix, and get a bit of an understanding of the other races. In this first week of Common Orbit we’ve had a complete immersion into Aeluon culture: the complexity of gender, child-rearing and communication (and oh my the difference in attitudes to cross-racial sex vs Ashby’s need to keep his relationship with an Aeluon secret to preserve her reputation!). This is Becky Chambers, so I’m not surprised that we have a race who have multiple genders and individuals who are constantly in transition – or that consideration is given to what this might mean for pronouns. But it makes me so very, very happy.

Also, Tak gave me really interesting food for thought regards tattoos.



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