A Closed and Common Orbit

Book cover: A Closed and Common Orbit - Becky Chambers (two silhouetted figures against a night sky of wheeling stars)The heart-rending follow-up to last year’s break-out debut, The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, I liked A Closed and Common Orbit so much I read it twice in two months. Honestly, do I need to say more?

First things first: I know this sounds counter-intuitive (if not downright illogical), but while A Closed and Common Orbit stands alone, it is impossible to discuss without reference to The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet. If you don’t want to know the outcome of one of the (many) storylines, turn away now with my heartfelt encouragement to go read it. It’s all sorts of fab.

Still here? Right then.

A Closed and Common Orbit picks up the story of Lovelace, previously the Wayfarer’s shipboard AI, now housed in a highly illegal body kit and masquerading as human. Where Small Angry Planet focused on acceptance by others, Common Orbit homes in on questions of identity and acceptance of self, telling two coming of age stories side by side.

Narrated from just the two points of view (Lovelace – now known as Sidra – and Pepper), it makes for an intimate, thoughtful read that I liked even more than the previous volume’s Firefly-esque escapades. Sidra’s story takes place largely in and around Port Coriol; Pepper’s on her home planet, a human colony with none of the GC’s reservations about genetic modification and cloning.

With fewer locations to explore and alien races to meet, we get to dive deeper and look more searchingly at the implications of some of the GC’s attitudes – and our own (it’s hard not to read the Enhanced as a thinly-veiled criticism of thoughtless consumerism and poisonous narcissism). However, I didn’t find the narrative preachy – possibly because it was singing to the choir – so much as deeply affecting. These are very personal stories, as Pepper struggles to survive her childhood and Sidra struggles to find a purpose.

Happily, it’s also funny. Becky Chambers has a knack for comic detail – I loved that the body kit came complete with involuntary physical responses such as panic attacks for that fully authentic experience (gee thanks, inventor dude) and a snide user manual covering personal hygiene and not showing off your party tricks at actual parties (remember folks, just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should if you don’t want to be arrested and decommissioned).

That said, I found this more an emotional (and yes, sentimental) rollercoaster than a comic entertainment, which I didn’t mind a bit. It runs the gamut from teenage angst and acting out to confronting your issues and figuring out how to live with them. It questions nature vs nurture and whether a feeling is less valid for being the result of instinct/programming rather than choice/practice. It’s also about found family and friendship, and how we make a place for ourselves in the world (crucially, our heroines do their own rescuing; this is all about agency).

Those who felt Small Angry Planet was slow / just a bunch of people sat around talking are likely to be disappointed again here. Sure, there’s an epic story of a young girl surviving a terrible environment and a tense tale of an AI who will be destroyed if her deception is revealed; but really, it’s a tour of all the feelings and a praise song to respect and consideration.

Expect to be punched in the feels. Repeatedly.


More detailed musings (and more spoilers) in the weekly posts from our December read-along: Week 1 | Week 2 | Week 3 | Week 4