Well, a couple of weeks after reading Becky Chambers’ excellent “The Long Way To A Small Angry Planet“, I was in the mood for more of this awesome series and decided to splash out on a second-hand copy of the 2016 sequel “A Closed And Common Orbit”.
Although this novel is technically a direct sequel to “The Long Way To A Small Angry Planet”, it almost certainly works as a stand-alone novel too because it focuses on a different group of main characters. Still, it is probably worth reading the previous book before this one since it’ll fill you in a bit more about all of the awesome background details of this series’ fictional “universe”.
Anyway, let’s take a look at “A Closed And Common Orbit”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS (including for book one).
The novel begins with a document listing the Galactic Commons’ laws against housing sentient A.I in realistic robotic “body kits”. Then, on board a shuttlecraft travelling away from the interstellar tunnelling ship Wayfarer, the ship’s recently rebooted A.I. core, Lovelace, is still getting used to her new artificial body. She is helped out by a freelance technician called Pepper who is doing a favour for Lovelace’s former partner, Jenks. They are headed for Pepper’s home planet of Port Coriol. But, getting used to living in a single, disconnected human body is difficult enough for Lovelace, let alone blending in as a human. Pepper says that she is willing to help, given that she was raised by an A.I.
Meanwhile, there are flashback scenes – set twenty years earlier- following a cloned girl called Jane 23 who works as a child labourer in a scrap reclamation factory run by cruel robot overseers called “Mothers”. After an accident in one of the sorting rooms blows a hole in the wall, Jane sees the sky for the first time. She decides to escape with the help of her bunk-mate Jane 64 and, although things go well at first, the two are separated and Jane 23 finds herself chased through a giant continent-sized scrapyard by a mutated dog. Suddenly, a voice calls to her and tells her to hide in a nearby doorway. It is a derelict shuttlecraft, the only occupant a lonely A.I. program called Owl.
One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that although it is just as well-written, atmospheric and unique as “Angry Planet” is, it was often slightly less of a “feel good” novel than I’d expected. Still, it contains some of the most realistic characterisation and worldbuilding that I’ve seen in a while and the story gradually becomes more and more compelling as it progresses. It’s a powerful and often serious small-scale character-based drama, with a dystopian flavour to some parts of it. Still, it’s one hell of a well-written one!
I should probably start by talking about this novel’s sci-fi elements, which carry over from the previous book. The story is set within a planetary alliance called the Galactic Commons, peopled by several species (Alueons, Harmagians, Aandrisks, Laru, Sianat, Humans etc…) who all come across as very creative and realistic. All of the usual sci-fi stuff (eg: space travel, A.I. etc…) is there too, but with this novel’s unique style. This is one of the best, most immersive and most well-thought out sci-fi universes I’ve seen in a while and it is an absolute joy to revisit it. Although, again, you’ll get more out of the setting if you’ve read “Angry Planet” first.
Interestingly, although this novel still contains some focus on the importance of culture (with, for example, a segment about the important role a holographic TV show played in both galactic relations and on the development of one character) and the story contains some of the most complex, realistic and well-written emotional drama I’ve seen in a while, it is a slightly more tech-based story than “Angry Planet” was.
A lot of the story focuses on Lovelace’s experiences of the world as an embodied A.I. and how she gradually works out how to adapt to life and rewrite herself into something more human. Not only does this give the story an interesting cyberpunk flavour (vaguely reminiscent of something like “Blade Runner 2049”, the TV series “Humans”, a game called “Dreamfall: Chapters” or Annalee Newitz’s “Autonomous“), but it also links in to a lot of the novel’s themes too.
Not only is this a novel about being an outsider in an indifferent, uncaring and/or hostile place (which can be seen as a metaphor for a lot of topics), but the novel’s scrapyard scenes also comment about the dark side of capitalism too (and it’s interesting to think that this story was written before “Blade Runner 2049”). The story is also very much one about finding and defining your own idenity, in addition to the usual stuff about the value of friendship and a wonderfully subversive theme of thinking for yourself when confronted with stupid/badly-written/ideological and/or outdated rules. All of these themes are handled a bit more subtly and confidently than in “Angry Planet”, lending the novel a more mature – and less preachy- tone 🙂
And, although the novel focuses more on technology than “Angry Planet” does, this is still very much a “humanities”-focused sci-fi novel – with decent amount of emphasis placed on things like experiences, emotions, social situations, friendships, creativity etc… in a way that you don’t really see that often in the sci-fi genre 🙂 Seriously, this alone is one reason to read this series. This is, of course, backed up by some absolutely stellar characterisation too. Not only do all of the characters feel like real, flawed people with genuine emotions and backstories that shape their lives but the interactions between them are also a lot more realistic and nuanced than you might typically expect in the sci-fi genre. This is a novel where you’ll care so much about the characters that it is nearly impossible not to cry during one later moment.
In addition to the scenes showing the limits of Jane 23’s early education and her quirky mother-daughter relationship with Owl, another absolutely stand-out character moment is how Lovelace experiences the world. Busy social situations overload her senses, leaving her confused and uncertain about what to do. Every piece of body language feels awkward and contrived (especially since her robot body does some of it automatically) and not being connected to the internet or an array of ship’s cameras makes her feel claustrophobic. I cannot overstate how well-written these segments are and, if you’re even vaguely introverted or awkward around people, then she’s probably one of the most refreshingly relatable characters since Rosa from “The Blackwell Legacy“.
In terms of the writing, the novel’s third-person narration is as great as ever 🙂 It is informal enough to add intimacy and realism to the story, whilst also being descriptive enough to make everything feel “real” too. All sorts of things are described expertly and the story also has a fairly distinctive narrative “voice”, which also helps to add more personality to everything. Although this novel’s narration isn’t the most fast-paced you’ll ever read, it is probably some of the most immersive that you’ll see these days.
As for length and pacing, this novel is fairly good. At 364 pages in length, it is neither too long nor too short. As you might expect from this series, the story’s pacing is mostly on the slower side of things – with the atmosphere, the writing, the characters and a few moments of suspense keeping everything compelling. As as the story progresses, the tension and pacing ramp up a little more – with a more focused single storyline gradually beginning to emerge. I’m probably not doing the pacing justice here, but if you go into this story expecting a drama rather than a thriller, then you’ll probably appreciate the pacing more.
All in all, this is an excellent sci-fi novel 🙂 Yes, it’s a little different in tone to “Angry Planet”, but it still contains many of the things which made that novel such a great and refreshingly different piece of science fiction. If you want interesting realistic futuristic characters and locations, and the kind of powerful and profound story that doesn’t appear all that often, then this one is well worth reading 🙂 Likewise, if you enjoy the TV show “Humans”, the “Longest Journey” game trilogy and/or possibly “Blade Runner 2049”, then this book won’t be entirely unfamiliar 🙂
If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get a five.