A Closed and Common Orbit – Becky Chambers
Release Date: 20/10/2016
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Pages: 364pp RRP: £14.99 (Hardcover)
Kindle edition available here (£9.99)
I thoroughly enjoyed A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet. Becky Chambers invited her readers into a universe that whilst it had a somewhat utopian undercurrent, felt fun to explore through the journey she took her characters on. When A Closed and Common Orbit was announced, I was curious to see where she would go from there. It’s safe to say that the newly christened ‘Wayfarers’ series is growing into something great.
Having transitioned from having a self-published novel that developed a cult following online (with an eventual major release upon being acquired by Hodder & Stoughton), this is the first of Chambers’s works to get a major initial release treatment. The ‘Wayfarers’ series, as it is now being dubbed, depicts a grimy, lived-in galaxy filled with complex characters drawn from unique and diverse species, with clear nods to shows like Firefly and Star Trek informing the work. Whereas A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet can be seen as Chambers giving the reader a guided tour of the universe she’s created, the overlapping sequel A Closed and Common Orbit feels far more intimate; more of a detailed character study within that universe.
The story follows the characters of Lovelace and Pepper, and how their journeys of self-discovery are interwoven. Pepper, the well-travelled mechanic, engineer, and pilot is the focus for half the novel – in particular the depiction of her nightmarish childhood as ‘Jane23’, and the slavish existence she endured in a recycling facility manned by robots. Lovelace, a former spaceship AI now on the run, is the focus for the other half of the narrative. At the opening of the tale, she has to be downloaded into a humanoid robot, and adopts the name ‘Sidra’. Sidra’s development over the course of the novel is fantastic to watch. Chambers really excels at showing the transition from a state of claustrophobic panic to cautious self-discovery. One particular sequence stands out, where Sidra confronts the problem of forgetting; having been formerly connected to a vast network, the limitations of her humanoid frame (especially its limited storage space), and even the idea of having to forget something, is a frustrating reality for her to confront, and Chambers handles this expertly. Small moments like these are scattered throughout the novel, and they’ll stay with you for some time after you’ve finished reading it.
If I had to find any downsides to this novel, it’s that it suffers from the same issue that its predecessor did: it doesn’t seem to depict any real downsides or conflict regarding the diversity of its cast of characters. The earlier point about the influence of Star Trek is apt here, given that Gene Roddenberry famously decreed that members of the Federation (largely seen through the crews of ships in the franchise) couldn’t be prejudiced or engage in interpersonal conflicts. As likeable as her characters are, this point sticks out in Chambers’s novel. Perhaps it says more about the cynic in me, or that I’m used to consuming a different strain of science fiction, but it did feel a little jarring.
Despite this, simply put, I felt genuinely happy after reading A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, and I felt happy after reading A Close and Common Orbit. I’m looking forward to the next entry in the series (especially with regard to the choice of narrative focus), and I highly recommend that you give this entry a read.