A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers is a science fiction novel of such literary quality yet such approachable prose, characters, and relationships that I honestly feel like it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read. I don’t say this lightly. I loved the previous book in the series, A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet (my review), and consider it a solid rec, but this one surpasses it by adding some really powerful themes and messaging to the already cool worldbuilding and cozy interactions.
The book focuses on the convergence of two storylines, an AI who lives with some discomfort in an illegal human-looking body, and a flashback timeline to the childhood of the human tech who’s taken her into her family. The human woman grew up as a slave child in a factory on what is probably Earth, but she escapes and makes a life for herself thanks to her own inner strength and the love and compassion of another character.
The major themes of this book, besides the obvious platonic love and “found-family” gloriousness that its predecessor did so well but this one even more intensely, include bodily autonomy, consent, and respect without objectification. One main character, after all, is an artificial intelligence. What’s that like for her? How can she deal with being stuck in a human-looking body instead of living in the walls as a ship’s computer? She didn’t choose this — not freely (she was pressured into it as a result of events at the end of the previous book.) How can she gain more control over herself when there are shackles programmed into her brain?
How can she get her friends to treat her fully as autonomous–they’re doing their best, but you know the drill with allies. Sometimes allyship can be asymptotic. There’s a scene where she’s candid with a new friend that their response to her seems unduly focused on her unusual status. They agree to modify the situation by agreeing that she can ask them as many questions as she wants about them, too, and she adds that it would be nice to answer some questions that aren’t about being a computer.
The human woman’s story is one of resilience and persistence in the face of the worst. It’s easier to digest than it might have been, since from the beginning of the book we see that as an adult she’s living comfortably with loved ones. One sees echoes of Jane Eyre’s time in the orphanage, both in the name “Jane” (which she changes as an adult) and in the fact that there’s another little girl whose friendship very much reminded me of Helen Burns.
One also really feels the state of mind of both the human and android protagonists through the author’s use of language. The android overwhelmingly thinks of anything her physical body does as being done by “the kit” — i.e. “the kit smiled.” It’s not her, in some fundamental way. This is important and ends up being meaningful. And the human’s language too — when she’s a slave child in the factory, her language is limited to the language she would have known. “She taught Jane about something called music, which was a weird bunch of sounds that had no point but made things feel a little better.” As she grows the reader watches her use of language grow, too.
But the heavy is mixed with light. Chambers’ space world is colorful and exciting, populated by a variety of alien cultures that coexist in diverse splendor on the present-day’s port planet. When the AI character eats or drinks, her programming replaces her missing senses of taste and smell with beautiful images that correspond with the flavors she’s supposed to be experiencing, so that she’s able to enjoy them hedonically like her friends are.
You know how in the real world, tattoo artists have a rule about not serving you if you’re under the influence? One of the major supporting characters in this book–the bigender character Tak, who uses he or she pronouns that change from scene to scene–does ink for a living, and they make an exception to this rule — Aandrisks, a species of sentient reptilians. Why? Because Aandrisks shed their scales, so even if you sober up and realize “Oh, shit, who the hell is Larry?” you only have to live with it for a few weeks. I love that this series has the kind of worldbuilding that thinks of these things.
Plus, you have details like, when faced with the mockcusation that another bartender has him beat for fastest in the port, a minor character tosses off “He’s got tentacles. That’s hardly fair.” Or a bar serving a certain alcoholic drink that’s described as being made from Whatever we could grow this year, plus water.
At one point, an alien responds with alarm to the human main character crying happy tears, to which she replies: “Humans do this when–when we’re feeling a lot of things.” His shocked response: “You leak?”
This is a Space Book that’s mostly about how characters feel about themselves, about life, and their relationships with each other. Instead of wars between alien species — which are referenced as history, so it’s not like this is a war-free universe — we see injustice on a more personal level, and we witness battles against loneliness, alienation, insecurity, and loss instead, with plenty of warm fuzzies to smooth the journey. This genre, I like it. Another.
These stories may take you to some dark places, some more distressing and some merely a little sad in a familiar way, but Orbit delivers on a happy ending that’s both complete enough to be satisfying and messy enough to feel realistic. And if you’re anything like me, that happy ending will feel so meaningful because you’ll want it for them so badly as a result of the currents of the book..
Incidentally — this is more of a spinoff than a sequel to Long Way because it’s about characters who are barely present in the earlier book and not a continuation of the earlier book’s MC’s story.