A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers

Reviewed by Annabel.

wayfarer-2Although this is the second book in a series, given that its two main characters were subsidiary supporting ones in its predecessor, you could read it as a standalone. However that would be to miss out on all the fun of discovering the crew of the Wayfarer, the central ship of The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, and the galaxy full of other sapient alien species.

The Long Way…, published in 2015, has been one of the great discoveries of recent years – a self-published kick-starter debut that was picked up by a big publisher and went on to be longlisted for the Baileys Prize and shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award this year. It was loved but also derided in some quarters for not being serious enough. I loved it precisely because of its optimistic and fun outlook, very much in the mold of classic Star Trek meets Red Dwarf.

Second novels are notoriously difficult, but Chambers sidesteps that issue by basically starting this one exactly where the first one left off. It is a continuation, but it immediately takes a different road.

The first book ended with the Wayfarer’s AI, Lovelace, having had to reboot after the ship was damaged. In doing this she lost all of her evolved personality – she had been in love with comp tech Jenks. Rather than make him suffer, she elects to leave the ship and is transferred into an (illegal) AI body kit. Pepper is the visiting engineer helping repair the ship who takes Lovelace off with her to make a new life on Port Coriol, working with Pepper and her partner Blue.

‘How’s it going?’ Pepper asked, glancing over from the pilot’s seat.

It was a direct question, which meant Lovelace had to address it. ‘I don’t know how to answer that.’ An unhelpful response, but the best she could do. Everything was overwhelming. Twenty-nine minutes before, she’d been housed in a ship, as she was designed to be. She’d had cameras in every corner, voxes in every room. She’d existed in a web, with eyes both within and outside. A solid sphere of unblinking perception.

But now. Her vision was a cone, a narrow cone fixed straight ahead, with nothing – actual nothing – beyond its edges. Gravity was no longer something that happened within her, generated by artigrav nets in the floor panels, nor did it exist in the space around her, a gently ambient folding around the ship’s outer hull. Now it was a myopic glue, something that stuck feet to the floor and legs to the seat above it.

More than anything else, Lovelace misses not being permanently connected to the ‘linkings’, the galactic-wide-web. However, it’s not just the physical limitations of living in a kit that causes Lovelace problems; she’s never been anywhere else than on the Wayfarer before. She doesn’t know the world outside, and is soon overloaded with external stimuli. She will also have to learn to hide herself in full view, to be the Earthen human matching her body kit.

One of the first decisions Lovelace makes is to choose a new name for herself. She picks Sidra for her new life. Alternating with the bildungsroman chapters of Sidra’s story we are told another narrative from twenty years previously.

This is the story of Jane 23, who is ten-years-old. Jane 23 doesn’t know it, but she is a genetically tweaked clone, a slave in a factory controlled by strict robot ‘Mothers’ processing scrap. One day, Jane escapes and outside on the planet finds an old abandoned shuttle with a still-working AI called Owl. The AI adopts Jane and helps her survive outside the factory. Jane starts the long job of repairing the shuttle – it’ll take years. Jane faces many challenges, not least avoiding being killed by the wild dogs outside, but also finding enough food to eat – including wild dog. I won’t say any more about Jane to avoid spoiling.

The strength of the first novel was its optimistic outlook in a multi-species space milieu. This follow up gives us more of the same in Sidra’s timeline, as the AI develops her own personality again, grows up (so to speak), and makes friends. This does allow the author to info-dump on us – as she did in the first novel with a space-newbie crew-member – but it is mostly done in a good way. Jane’s timeline is somewhat bleaker with a dystopian feel to its start, then turns survivalist as Jane and Owl against the world, needing each other to stay alive. Chambers is able to bring the two separate stories and timelines together in a fun conclusion to this novel.

I hope there are more Wayfarer books to come. The first two have been easy to read character studies, pure enjoyment, which you don’t often get in space operas. It’s good to read something that is this much fun sometimes.

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Annabel is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

Becky Chambers, A Closed and Common Orbit, (Hodder & Stoughton, 2016). 978-1473621442,  384 pp., hardback.

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