Review: A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers

a closed and common orbit coverA Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers (UK link, US link) is a sequel to The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet. The interesting thing to note though is that it follows a completely different set of characters. The main characters of Common Orbit, Sidra and Pepper, appear in Long Way, but only in a few places. On the flip side, the main characters from Long Way are mentioned a few times but they never actually appear in Common Orbit. This means it’s possible to read Common Orbit without having first read Long Way. If you do read the books out of order, then the events of Common Orbit will give spoilers for a single plot thread of Long Way but not the main plotline. I heartily recommend both of these books and you can tackle them in whichever order you choose.

A Closed and Common Orbit is a story about figuring out who you want to be and making a purpose for your own life – which doesn’t have to be a purpose given by an outside force. It has two plotlines interwoven. The “present” plotline is focused on Sidra, an artificial intelligence program recently, and illegally, installed in a kit designed to mimic a human being. She has to deal with her new body, the restrictions imposed on her by her programming, and the fact that getting caught would mean her death. She navigates her new existence with the help of her friends Pepper and Blue, and later a new friend Tak (not to be confused with a character of the same name in the previous book). The “past” plotline tells of Pepper’s history. She was originally Jane 23, one of a group of girls genetically engineered to work in factories, her entire life focused on the tasks she was given. At the age of 10, she had never seen the sky and had no idea that there was a world outside her factory. This plotline tells of her escape from the factory and how she grew up, learned the skills she needed to survive, and came to the place where she is first encountered in the previous book.

The two plotlines come together towards the end of the book with the events of the past plotline becoming critical to the present plotline.

While there is some action, the story is primarily a character-driven one, dealing with the emotional growth of these two people, how they cope with their circumstances, and how they choose to define themselves. There is an underlying layer around the subject of exploitation, with both Sidra and Jane created for the purpose of performing task for their “owners”.

The story is very well written so that it tugs on the heartstrings and makes the reader invested in the lives of these characters who have gone through some awful things. The book deals with the after effects of those things – with characters having panic attacks and nightmares, struggling to deal with massive changes as they come out of traumatic events into somewhere safe. Even in the rich and imaginative setting, the emotional reactions of the characters feel grounded in reality.

Well worth a read and, as I said at the start, you can pick these books up in whichever order appeals to you. I found I actually liked this book better than Long Way, which surprised me because I really enjoyed that book too. Five stars. This one has been added to my favourites list.

Alien aliens

I recently read The Long Way To a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers (UK link, US link), which is a great book for a lot of reasons, but one thing I particularly liked about it is that the aliens really felt alien. That may seem like a strange thing to say, but sometimes in science fiction you get alien species that are basically humans but with pointy ears or green skin. Some are given characteristics of a minority group for the sake of analogy, and some get exaggerated physical traits or, sometimes, mystical powers, but in a lot of ways they feel like humans.

One particularly common example of this is in terms of gender, sex, and physical relationships. In films in particular, but sometimes in books, alien women look like human women but with some superficial appearance changes. Alien races appear attractive to humans in standardly human ways. Alien races have two genders and follow stereotypical patterns of gender dynamics. It is as though every species in the universe is based on the template of white, European gender dynamics.

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is a refreshing change from this approach. In this book, there are several alien species, and there is an emphasis placed on how different gender and sexuality would be for these different species. So there is a species where every member of the species starts out female but becomes male later in life. There is a species that coexists with a parasitic virus so they are all referred to as they because they consider themselves a joint organism – the host and the virus. There is a species that has three different families as a standard – the family that raises the children is not the same as the family that provided the genetic material. This species doesn’t consider children to be people until they reach adulthood.

There is a sense of a vast and complicated universe, with every species having their own biology that influences their behaviour and attitudes. This is a complete contrast to another book I read recently (which I won’t name because I didn’t enjoy it) where every single character from half a dozen different species would have fit right in with a gathering of middle class white Americans (plus every single character in the book was male, except for the protagonist’s love interest who showed up for about a page and a half).

When it comes to science fiction, that old adage of “write what you know” is less applicable than ever, because the point of science fiction is to explore the unknown. When writing alien species, we should think about the variety of biology that exists even on our own planet, and imagine the implications of a sentient alien race having more in common with say bees or clownfish than humans. Those differences can be in everything from their methods of communication (the aliens in The Bride by Janine Ellen Young (UK link, US link) live in a vacuum so they don’t have verbal communication but communicate using viruses), or in terms of family dynamics (in Remnant Population by Elizabeth Moon (UK link, US link) the alien young are protected by an older person who doesn’t have offspring of her own), or in terms of gender and sexuality as discussed with regards to The Long Way To a Small Angry Planet. When coming up with an alien race, let your imagination run wild or look at some of the weirder species on Earth for inspiration and design aliens that really feel significantly alien from us.