A Closed and Common Orbit (week 3): this princess doesn’t need rescuing

A Closed and Common Orbit Read-along

It’s week 3 of the @SFFreadalong of A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers, so we’re inevitably into spoiler territory: proceed with caution! This week we’re hosted by Lynn from Lynn’s Book Blog.

1) So, the opening chapters brought us an apology from Tak to Sidra following the tattoo debacle. What were your thoughts on that particular scene?

I was really surprised by this scene first time around. Having had their previous encounter go so badly, I thought Becky Chambers was introducing the threat of blackmail or the actual consequences of being revealed (and perhaps segueing into a full-on challenge to AI rights in the GC). Call me Lil Miss Bleak; I’ve read too much gloomy fiction, at least.

The last thing I expected was the complete about face from Tak in the very next scene, but I really appreciated it. I love these books for their warmth and their celebration of friendship – instead of a gruelling personal saga, we get someone trying to confront their own prejudice and reach out. In terms of the stories told through these books, this is far more in keeping and in the world we currently live in, it’s very much more the story my heart needed.


2) The stories between Jane and Sidra have a certain symmetry and this week’s was no exception as we watched the pair of them almost go through a period akin to puberty. Did any of their particular experiences bring back fond, or not so fond, memories for you?

Err, no. I’m enjoying the story for what it is, but it’s not taking me down memory lane.

However, I enjoyed Jane’s journey; you can see how her acting out could be hazardous in the environment she’s in, so it’s no surprise when it goes wrong for her. And then along came Owl to break my heart into little pieces.

“It’s okay to make yourself feel better with imagination, too”

For Sidra this week, her approach to Tak to help her edit her code felt like Sidra has come to see Pepper as a disapproving (and annoyingly right) authority figure – even though in this case, I think Pepper would be happy to help her achieve her goal.


3) I love the two separate storylines going on here and though Jane and Sidra share some common ground I think their stories both have something different to say. What are your thoughts on that?

I think they’re complementary rather than different per se: for me, both stories are perspectives on forging your identity regardless of your provenance.

“I don’t care about your task. That’s not important. That should never have been the most important thing.”

Jane’s speech at the funeral resonated so hard for me in terms of the broader themes of the book. When Sidra went to the AI shop in the very next chapter to literally understand where she comes from, my heart broke. She stood in front of a menu and read how many of her basic responses and attitudes are programmed into her; she’s not unique – except through her experiences.

On the other hand, this is not an AI-specific existential crisis. We all have to come to terms with the fact that our genetics and our childhoods shape who we are; then our experiences; then our choices (and oh, how completely they are shaped by the rest). I think both Jane and Sidra’s journeys are about growing beyond your design brief – and while that may sound cold in human terms, it’s what we all go through.

In the end, I think this is also about figuring out how to integrate who you are with who you want to be. Pepper is a long way from Jane23, but she still sorts scrap and fixes junk; but she was also raised by Owl from a very young age, so she also takes in strays and does favours to help the community. She’s found a way to live that is rooted in who she was, but which will never take her back to that factory.

The question now (and having read this before, I’m loving seeing how it is explored) is whether Sidra can take on board what she’s learnt about who she is and find a way to live that makes her happy (her request to become Pepper’s household AI felt so obvious and so wrong; even before we got to the software guidance notes: “Like all intelligent multitaskers Lovelace can develop performance and personality issues if left without input for too long” – isn’t it annoying when Mom Pepper is always right about everything?)

The other thing that struck me this read as a shared theme is the idea of rescuing yourself (with the support of your friends, but you make it happen). This week we see Jane’s determination to do whatever it takes to escape the scrapyard – just as we see how Sidra takes matters into her own hands to negotiate her own constraints and edit her protocols. No needy princesses here, thank you. Take charge of your future. Becky Chambers, I could kiss you.


4) I’m curious about the Enhanced. We haven’t really spent a lot of time with them, but I still think we can draw some conclusions. Is there any aspect of the Enhanced and the planet on which they live that really caught your attention?

I read the Enhanced as a metaphor for us: the residents of the wealthy West who throw stuff away rather than fix it and don’t ask hard questions about the economic consequences of being able to replace that stuff at bargain prices.

The factories reflect what is effectively slave labour in clothing factories in SE Asia; the awful impact of the working conditions of those who put together electronics (especially smartphones); the blind disregard of first world countries for the environmental impact of everything we throw away. And the Enhanced are so utterly certain they are right – listen to any CEO defend his company’s practices and tell me we’re any different.

I think it’s a gentle nudge from Becky Chambers: if this outrages you, look closer to home.


5) At the end of the chapters we have a couple of new developments. Sidra has managed to alter the protocols that compel her to speak the truth, and the spaceship that Jane escaped in has been uncovered. Do you have any predictions how either of these might affect what is yet to come?

As I’ve read this before, I can’t answer this one 🙂

Instead, as a final thought, I’d like to reflect on the moment Sidra realises that her new ability to lie makes Tak nervous. Oh, Sidra. Yes. Of course it does. It’s not because you’re an AI; this is what the facility for lying does to all of us. We have to choose to trust. And don’t forget, Tak is an Aeluon, and their mode of communication must make lying nearly impossible. Pepper, on the other hand, will probably think that Sidra had already grown quite accomplished at going behind her back to do whatever she wanted regardless of her truth protocols!


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