Book Review: ‘A Closed and Common Orbit’ by Becky Chambers

Books Reviews
The UK and US Covers: Which do you prefer?

“I have so many things I want to ask you. You’ve got me thinking about things I’ve never chewed on. It’s not comfortable, realising that you’ve been wrong about something, but I suppose it’s a good for thing to do from time to time.” From A Closed and Common Orbit. A philosophy I wished more of us lived by.

Last December I chose The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers as my book of the year. Now she’s returned with a companion novel. One with a similarly cumbersome yet beautiful title,  A Closed and Common Orbit. The two books are sequential, but both stand alone if read in isolation. Having said that, reading Angry Planet definitely informs Common Orbit, and I think you’ll have an improved reading experience if you read the books in the order in which they were published. This is no hardship; if you haven’t read Small Angry Planet yet, I envy you. I’d love to be able to read it for the first time again. It’s an amazing novel.

But what about the follow-up? Chambers is clearly in the “difficult second novel” predicament here. In her first novel, she managed to write something completely fresh, yet entirely comfortable. It’s a love letter to complex relationships that works on every level. How was she going to follow it up? Ape Angry Planet too much and Common Orbit would fall flat. Deviate too much, and we might lose what was so great about the original. I won’t lie to you; I didn’t enjoy this follow-up as much as the first book–the curse of great expectationsNevertheless, A Closed and Common Orbit is a fine piece of science fiction.

Warning: Mild spoilers for Angry Planet, coming up.  

For this book, Chambers shrinks down her cast. The book features incidental characters that appeared in the original novel, plus the living embodiment of the AI, Lovelace, whose tragic animation closed out Angry Planet. Chambers pares down the cast for this book, but it is still a story about human interaction and interpersonal relationships. Where the book is science fiction (other than being set hundreds of the years in the future, with alien races and a human diaspora) is in the examination of the boundary between humanity and artificial intelligence. At what point does the latter gain the former?

The story has two main threads. The first continues immediately after Pepper and Lovelace leave the Wayfarer. The other, set thirty years earlier, follows a young clone named Jane as she comes to terms with the sudden broadening of her world. Much like the first book, there is no overreaching enemy or antagonist. Instead, we have conflicting motives, bad choices, and the need to belong to propel the narrative forward–three very human characteristics. Much like the original novel, it’s how the characters deal with their adversity that makes the story shine.

With my GeekDad hat on, there is one section of the book that I read with great interest. There’s an alien race in which childcare is a full-time job, and, in order to be a parent (in the non-biological sense,) you have to study at university.

“Have you always been a parent? Professionally speaking, I mean.”

“Oh, yes. It takes a lot of schooling, so if you don’t get started early, it can be hard to catch up.”

“What kind of schooling?”

There are two different layers to it, “…’At the core, you’ve got to get university certification for parenting, just as you do for, say, being a doctor or engineer. No offence to you or your species, but going into the business of creating life without any sort of formal prep is…’ He laughed. ‘It’s baffling.'”

Now I know why I feel so unqualified to be a parent most of the time!

Throughout Chambers’ writing, there is a deft examination of what makes us human, where we succeed and how we fail. I think, for me, this is what makes her books so great. As I said at the beginning, A Closed and Common Orbit isn’t quite as good as Angry Planet, but it is still a wonderful book. Sweeping in scope but human at heart, it is a very moving examination of what we all crave most: acceptance.

I received a copy of this book for review. Many thanks to the team @hodderscape for sending me a copy. 

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