A Closed and Common Orbit
A Closed and Common Orbit, by Becky Chambers, is the kind of sequel that follows two characters from the first book, The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet. So it can be read on its own– although if you do read it, it’s hard to believe you wouldn’t then want to pick up the first one.
The two characters are Pepper, the mysterious tech expert, and the character formerly known as Lovelace, the ship’s AI who has been illegally transferred into a body “kit” by a human she loved but no longer remembers.
The chapters alternate between the story of how Pepper got to the point when she met the AI and the AI’s story. Occasionally there are technical specifications and emails, which elucidate and enlarge parts of the story, and they culminate with an illustration of something that the person who raised Pepper said to her when they looked up how to conduct a funeral: “Just because someone goes away doesn’t mean you stop loving them.”
The universe of these books continues to be detailed and fascinating, as when the AI, who has named herself “Sidra,” follows Pepper and her friend Blue onto an underwater train car labeled “Human” and asks
“why don’t different species sit together?”….Segregated transit cars didn’t mesh with what she’d read of the Port’s famed egalitarianism.
“Different species,” Blue said, “different butts.” He nodded toward the rows of high-backed, rounded seats, unsuitable for Aandrisk tails or Harmagian carts.
Or when Pepper explains why an interactive video game is important:
“This was the very first kids’ sim to have an Exodan and a Martian not just occupying the same ship, but being friends. Having adventures, working as a team, all that fuzzy stuff. That may not seem like a big deal today, but forty standards ago, that was huge. A whole generation of kids grew up with this, and I shit you not, about ten standards later, you start seeing a big shift in Diaspora politics. I’m not saying this sim is solely responsible for Exodans and Solans not hating each other any more, but Big Bug was definitely a contributing factor in helping us start moving past all that old Earth bullshit.”
Sidra, as an AI who is newly experiencing life as a human, often provides a close look at the world she is living on:
“She watched as a group of Aeluon children blew handfuls of glitter over each other, dancing excitedly but making no sound at all. She watched as a massive Quelin—an exile, judging by the harsh branding stamped along her shell—apologised profusely for getting one of her segmented legs stuck in some decorative fabric draped around a vendor’s booth. She watched service drones flying drinks and food orders back and forth, back and forth. She wondered if the drones were intelligent. She wondered how much they were aware of.
And Sidra’s friend Tak, a tattoo artist, provides context for some of what Sidra has read:
“Just about every species mods themselves somehow. Quelin brand their shells. Harmagians shove jewellery through their tendrils. My species and yours have both been tattooing for millennia.”
There is a plot, which develops in parallel, from the story of “Jane 23,” which is how Pepper was designated on her home planet, and from the story of how Sidra adapts to life in her body “kit.”
There’s some social commentary:
“The easiest way to stare reality in the face and not utterly lose your shit is to believe that you have control over it. If you believe you have control, then people who aren’t like you…well, they’ve got to be somewhere lower, right? Every species does this. Does it again and again and again. Doesn’t matter if they do it to themselves, or another species, or someone they created.”
Most of all, there’s lots of character development. Near the end, Sidra the AI—who has learned how to store enough memory to keep herself sane, how to lie, and how to discover her own purpose (rather than her originally programmed one)– says to Tak the Aeluon:
“Al of you do this. Every organic sapient I’ve ever talked to, every book I’ve read, every piece of art I’ve studied. You are all desperate for purpose, even though you don’t have one.”
It’s a wonderful book, a worthy successor and a good independent story. If you liked the first one, you should read it. And if you haven’t read the first one yet, there’s no time like the present.