Thursday, October 12, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: A Closed And Common Orbit by Becky Chambers

 A Closed and Common Orbit was nominated for the 2017 Hugo award for Best Novel (losing to N.K. Jemisin's The Obelisk Gate). It is the second book in the Wayfarers sequence, following 2014's The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet The two are clearly related, existing in a similar universe but they have very few characters in common so it is difficult to consider the book a direct sequel; to me the two books feel very different.  For  example, I was mostly unimpressed with  The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and thought it was overly cute and was put off by what I felt was its overuse of alien cultures and creatures in a voyeuristic way. I was much more engaged with the characters and story told in  A Closed and Common Orbit.

This second book reduces the set of characters that the story  told in The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is focused on to basically two: Sidra and Jane 23. Sidra is the artificial intelligence (AI) that makes an entrance at the end of the first book. She has been placed into a humanoid body and has to get used to having the number of inputs reduced so dramatically from several dozen on a standard spaceship to the five (sight, sound, smell, taste and touch) commonly associated with sapients.

Sidra is taken in by Pepper (and her friend/partner) Blue after she decides to leave the Wayfarer spaceship from Book 1 and go live at Point Coriol, a multi-species space port, with them.

The main plot in Book 2 involves Sidra trying to acclimate herself to her new situation of an intelligence that was intended to run and manage a ship full of people and finds herself trapped in a single human body. The other thread of the plot is the story of Jane 23, a very young girl whom we discover is working in a factory to fix up scrapped electronic parts with dozens (or hundreds?) of other girls like her whom we eventually realize are probably clones who are being horribly exploited as cheap, dispensable labor. 

The structure of the story in  A Closed and Common Orbit is alternating chapters featuring Sidra's story followed by Jane 23's story. It is a very compelling device. Oftentimes when this is used (I'm looking at your George R.R. Martin and James S.A. Corey!) with several characters one finds that some of the characters' stories one is much less interested tha others, so when one sees the character name at the head of the chapter one groans or squeals, deending on one's interest. With just two characters I found myself equally interested in both stories, so I was always engaged in the book.

There are also several supporting characters, such as Owl (an AI that Jane 23 comes to live with and consider part of her family), Tak (a friendly alien that Sidra becomes close to in Port Coriol) and Pepper and Blue, the people that Sidra lives with and who help keep her secret that she's an escaped AI living in a humanoid body (which is considered a very serious breach of law and culture).

The story raises a number of really hard questions about how biological life forms should treat artificial intelligence (silicon-based life forms?). It is also a suspenseful story of survival (Jane 23 is a very sheltered ten  years old when she sets off on her own i.e. escapes her enslavement). One common theme from the first book which appears in this one is the diversity of alien life and the live-and-let-live ethos of a multi-species civilization. In the first book I felt like there was a bewildering number of different species that the author included to primarily titillate the reader. However in the second book I think the inclusion of alien characteristics and their practices was more subtly incorporated into the story this time and did not distract from the two main stories,  both of which were quite compelling.

I don't want to discuss the actual plot of the book. But one clear strength of Book 2 is that there are multiple story arcs to engage the reader while in the first book the story  seemed like more of a travelogue as we were exposed to various members of the crew of the spaceship and not much actually happened. That is definitely not the case in  A Closed and Common Orbit.

Solid 4.5 stars on the Goodreads scale.

Title: A Closed and Common Orbit (Wayfarers, #2).
Becky Chambers.
Paperback: 365 pages.
 Hodder & Stoughton.
Date Published: October 20, 2016.
Date Read: October 1, 2017.


OVERALL GRADE: A- (3.67/4.0).


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