Published last year, A Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers is a breath of fresh air in the genre of science fiction. Sci-fi has long been languishing in multiple dystopian visions exploring just how wrong our world, and many others, could possibly go. A Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is an unabashed space opera, a bit short on plot, but well outfitted with a wonderful world populated by interesting and relatable characters. The novel was nominated for the Kitschies Award for Best Debut, the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction, the Tiptree Award, The British Fantasy Awards for Best Newcomer, and the Arthur C. Clarke Award. Now Chambers is back with her follow-up novel, A Closed and Common Orbit, and it is glorious!
Lovelace is the AI (artificial intelligence) for the Wayfarer, a small ship that creates stable hyperspace lanes or wormholes. Due to a series of circumstances, recounted in A Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, Lovelace was subjected to a total system shut-down and reboot. When reactivated, she finds herself housed in a “kit,” an illegal, artificial, human-like body, with no memory of what happened before her re-activation or how/why she is where she is. Lovelace is taken off the Wayfarer and home with Pepper, the tech who installed her in the “kit.” Lovelace moves into the spare room in Pepper’s, and her partner Blue’s, home in the Sixtop district of a small, out of the way world. If she is discovered to be an AI in an illegal body, the consequences will be disastrous for her, Pepper, and Blue. But the biggest challenge facing her is this: Lovelace, THIS Lovelace, didn’t ask for these circumstances and she is fairly certain she doesn’t want to stay in the “kit.” Since it is a purpose for which she wasn’t designed, why would Lovelace want to try and be anything other than what she actually is, especially human?
Using story elements from A Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet as a jumping off point, Becky Chambers’ sophomore effort is a dazzling and engaging exploration of what it means to be an individual (while it is tempting to use the word human, in Chambers’ marvelous world of the Galactic Commons, human would simply be too limiting). Concurrent to the telling of Lovelace’s trials and explorations of individualized sentience in an uncomfortable housing, Chambers also tells the story of a young girl, Jane 23, bred and born, literally, to sort scrap in a factory. When Jane 23 finds herself outside of her prescribed environment, she is forced to exceed her programming, providing a biological counterpoint to the challenges facing Lovelace. Chambers also uses these two stories to explore ideas of how we determine who or what is sentient. She also questions if someone is sentient, can or should they, whether biological or artificial, ever be considered “disposable?”
As in her previous novel, Chambers populates this novel with fascinating characters who all have their own demons and challenges to face and, if possible, overcome. There are fewer characters in this cast, but the novel covers much more ground as it explores issues of personhood, attachment, and our responsibilities to those we love. In many ways, A Closed and Common Orbit is every bit as good as Chambers’ debut novel. And THAT is a notable accomplishment.