A Closed and Common Orbit Is Space Opera of the Heart

To risk the sci-fi cliché. Becky Chambers zoomed like a rocket into the genre scene a few years back with The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, a book whose success was as improbable as its title: initially launched via Kickstarter, it was later picked up by publishers in the U.S. and the U.K., and went on to earn award nominations and legions of loyal fans.

A heartwarming, character-driven space opera about a ragtag crew of the Wayfarer, a ship that drills holes through space-time for transport and shipping, Chambers’s debut is about the driving power of friendships, love, common ground, respect, and cooperation in a future in which all manner of species have found a way to work together in galactic community. A Closed and Common Orbit doesn’t pick up with the crew of the Wayfarer; it’s more companion novel than sequel, shining the spotlight on several tangential characters in a novel that explores notions of sentience, gender identity, sexuality, relationships, and more.

(Warning! Some spoilers for the ending of TLWtaSAP follow.)

At the end of the first book, the Wayfarer‘s AI, Lovey—short for Lovelace, naturally—was poised to be transferred into a synthetic body in order to be with the man she loved, ship technician Jenks. Due to a terrible catastrophe, Lovey had to be rebooted; when she came back online, her unique personality was gone, and she didn’t remember Jenks. Knowing it would be too painful to remain on the ship in place of Lovey, the rebooted Lovelace was downloaded into the synthetic body intended for her predecessor, and made the decision to leave with a friend of the crew named Pepper, a human with tech-modifications who promised to help her adapt to life in a human body. A Closed and Common Orbit picks up right after their departure, as Pepper takes “Sidra” (the former Lovelace’s chosen name) home to see her partner, Blue. And so, the work begins. From there, the novel trades point-of-view chapters between Sidra, working to overcome her programming and become her own person, and Pepper, who has her own reasons for feeling sympathy for a wayward artificial mind..

Chambers is chewing on age-old science fiction concepts here, but in ways that feel fresh and engaging, recalling Ann Leckie’s Ancillary novels, minus, by design, the massive, world-shifting stakes. While concerned with many of the same concepts—artificial intelligence, autonomy, sentience, identity, gender assignment—Chambers focuses her exploration through the lens of characters and relationships. Sidra cannot stand living in a singular body, which continues to feel alien and removed from her; she constantly refers to her interactions within it asif it is a thing apart: “the kit’s hands,” or “the kit felt.” When she befriends an Aeluon named Tak, a species that is intersex, continually shifting genders every few weeks, their discussions help Sidra begin to accept her own circumstances, and carve out her identity. Sidra’s journey is one of acceptance and loss; as she grieves her lost purpose and body, Pepper, Blue, and Tak help her learn how she can live as she feels she must.

Pepper’s journey is much darker. In unpacking the character’s past, Chambers’s writing grows stark, as we learn how Pepper escaped captivity from a cloning facility where she toiled to clean scrap for her masters, known as the Enhanced. Upon escaping, she fled into a junkyard for derelict ships, run by an AI known as Owl; it is this machine mind that raises the young Pepper, and guides her off the planet.

These twin voyages of self-discovery resonate with emotion, as each young woman is forced to reckon with rejecting the lives they were literally made for. While Sidra’s journey is about acceptance, Pepper’s is all about survival, and fighting, through technology and ingenuity, to escape those who would control her. With these two threads, Chambers has woven another deeply emotion work of space opera; one without a galaxy-spanning war, but not without climactic conflict.  The vibrant lines drawn between lives prove as compelling as laser battles and widescreen explosions. If you yearn for science fiction with heart, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better candidate this stellar novel.

A Closed and Common Orbit is available in print on March 14.

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