Book Review: A Closed and Common Orbit

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A Closed and Common Orbit (Wayfarers #2)
By Becky Chambers
Science Fiction
365 pages
First published in 2016 by Hodder and Stoughton

From Goodreads: Lovelace was once merely a ship’s artificial intelligence. When she wakes up in an new body, following a total system shut-down and reboot, she has no memory of what came before. As Lovelace learns to negotiate the universe and discover who she is, she makes friends with Pepper, an excitable engineer, who’s determined to help her learn and grow.

Together, Pepper and Lovey will discover that no matter how vast space is, two people can fill it together.

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet introduced readers to the incredible world of Rosemary Harper, a young woman with a restless soul and secrets to keep. When she joined the crew of the Wayfarer, an intergalactic ship, she got more than she bargained for – and learned to live with, and love, her rag-tag collection of crewmates.

A Closed and Common Orbit is the stand-alone sequel to Becky Chambers’ beloved debut novel The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and is perfect for fans of Firefly, Joss Whedon, Mass Effect and Star Wars.

my thoughts July18

It’s not easy for a writer to follow up a book that was as universally praised and adored as The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet was. Sophomore slumps are a thing, and the second part of a trilogy tends to be the weakest. But A Closed and Common Orbit was nominated for several major awards, including the Hugo Award for Best Novel and the Arthur C. Clarke Award.

Upon seeing the synopsis and how this book did not deal with the Wayfarer and its eccentric crew, my reaction was a resounding, “Hmm..”. But I gave it a try. I liked Lovelace and was curious where the events of the first book would take in her the sequel.

After an emergency forces the Wayfarer’s crew to perform and complete system shut-down and reinstall, Lovelace’s memory banks are completely wiped out. She’s still a sentient AI module, but her connection to the crew is gone forever. Upon being offered a way out in order to spare the crew the very real pain of working with a same-but-different crewmate, Lovelace downloads herself from the ship’s mainframe into a ‘kit’, a synthetic body with an AI brain. Basically, a self-aware android. These kits are highly illegal, and anyone who is caught possessing one is sent to prison for years. The kits are destroyed- whether they have a sentient AI within them or not.

Lovelace and Pepper- the woman who offered to download her into the kit- decide the risk is worth it. They leave the Wayfarer together and head for Pepper’s home, there to make what they can of a life for Lovelace in her new state.

It is at this point where the narrative begins to diverge. In The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, we get a synopsis of Pepper’s life. She was a genetically modified child on a planet where she and hundreds of other genetically modified children were used as slave labor. When the story diverges in A Closed and Common Orbit we get a better understanding of Pepper’s life, as the story alternates between the present, with Lovelace, and Pepper’s early life, detailing how she escaped slavery and then made it to the stars.

I’m not generally a fan of flashbacks as a narrative device, especially when they’re presented as chapters alternating between past and present. This presentation disrupts the flow of both narratives, and too often the author is trying to explain something about a character’s early life that doesn’t really need explaining. Occasionally the flashbacks neatly dovetail into the ‘present’ part of the narrative and justify their existence, but I don’t think that happened in A Closed and Common Orbit. The flashback chapters were from Pepper’s point of view while the present-day chapters were from Lovelace’s, and while they do eventually mesh to resolve the plot, the element that it turns upon feels almost like an afterthought.

That’s not to say that A Closed and Common Orbit isn’t a well-written or thoughtful book. It deals with a variety of issues that affect us today: how do you move forward when your past is gone and you can’t go back? how do you learn to feel at home in your own body? how to you explain to those around you that you’re not comfortable in your own skin when they simply can’t fathom this fact? what makes a person a person?

I suppose, in the end, I was disappointed by the disappearance of the Wayfarer and its crew. Through 400+ pages, I had grown to love the little band of misfits and was madly curious about how they would deal with the changes inflicted upon them in the first book. I had so many questions that needed answers, and I received none of them.

A Closed and Common Orbit is a perfectly fine book that expands upon the universe Chambers built in The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, but it wasn’t the book I was hoping for. While I appreciated the continuation of Lovelace’s story, Pepper’s side of the book held little of interest for me. Book three, Record of a Spaceborn Few, is also not about the Wayfarer’s crew. I will likely give it a try, as well. Becky Chambers’s writing is quick, light-hearted, and easy to read, though she does not shy away from difficult topics. I will look forward to further installments with the hope that, one day, she will return to the Wayfarer.

My rating:
Three Stars

5 thoughts on “Book Review: A Closed and Common Orbit

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