AI need some body to love
It’s incredibly rare for my lady and me to go straight on to the second in a series the moment we finish the first, especially if I need to be writing a review of the first book. Furthermore, on the rare occasions it has happened, it’s usually with authors like Robin Hobb, authors who leave their protagonists hanging off a particularly grim cliff so that leaving them dangling there feels nothing short of sadistic.
In the case of A Closed and Common Orbit though, we simply didn’t want the world of the first book to stop or to say goodbye to Ashby, Ohan, Jenks and the rest of the Wayfarer’s crew or to the world they came from. Unfortunately, in one sense Common Orbit disappoints straight off, since we don’t meet any of the Wayfarer’s crew again here, though the characters we do meet are certainly lovable in their own way.
The story revolves around Pepper, Jenks’s friend and owner of a scrap parts and fixit shop on port Corial, and Lovelace, the default personality of the Wayfarer’s AI, now downloaded a humanoid body and taking the name Sidra. Alternating perspectives, the story shuttles between Sidra’s experiences learning about herself and the world whilst trying to remain under the radar since AI’s in humanoid bodies are illegal, and flashbacks to Pepper’s childhood when she was called Jane23; a factory slave on a dystopic planet.
Though we do miss the Wayfarer’s crew, one thing which equally becomes obvious from the start is that Chamber’s ability to create engaging, likable and occasionally exasperating characters didn’t stop with the ship’s departure.
Sidra’s perspective is a truly unique one, and I appreciated the way that Chambers dealt with so many aspects of being an ai, and even of her interactions with her body in a thought provoking way, such as her discomfort in not having multiple cameras to look through as she would in a spaceship, or her mild agoraphobia about the outside.
Sidra also creates drama in the more mundane problems of anyone living with another well-meaning person and having occasional differences of opinion, indeed Chambers ability to play with very human (or nearest equivalent), realistic issues mingled right alongside her exploration of sf concepts was truly exceptional.
As a contrast to Sidra’s story there is the story of Pepper’s past, with Pepper’s efforts to help Sidra explore herself and the world around her contrasting sharply with the frighteningly regimented, rigidly controlled factory where Pepper grew up. While on the one hand we know where Pepper’s story ends up from what Jenks told Rosemary in the first book, as is usual with Chambers the journey is more than the destination, in particular I admired the way Chambers showed how Pepper’s experiences as a child gave her the skills and attitudes she has as an adult, including an almost preternatural ability with fixing technology and a firm belief in AI rights. It is also in Pepper’s story where the book becomes necessarily rather grimmer in tone, albeit mostly as a backdrop to present more heart-warming character moments and friendship along the way.
Chamber’s style remains as light and readable as ever, though she still occasionally pulls out a colourful piece of description or a turn of phrase to give her universe a bit more flair. I especially appreciated her descriptions of the rather unique ways Sidra’s body experiences taste and smell.
Though most of both Sidra’s and Pepper’s stories are set on single planets, and the book’s title plainly refers to the close proximity of the characters, the character based comedy, (even in grimmer parts of Pepper’s story), light tone and above all the colourful, multispecies setting of Port Corial didn’t make the book feel overly claustrophobic, even compared to the galactic journey of the Wayfarer in Angry Planet.
I also appreciated the occasional touches of dry, observational humour, such as the transcriptions of Pepper’s discussions on various tech forums which definitely showed some knowledge of the way internet forums, especially those populated by geeks, often tend to run.
The major problem with the book is one of pacing. Whilst in Angry Planet Chambers was able to make the action episodic, and so you didn’t particularly mind that things felt a little directionless, here, dealing essentially with two main characters each in a separate story, she wasn’t as able to make things quite as instantly compelling as the first book. True, the appealing characters, witty humour and vibrant setting were good things on their own, but often pacing wise matters did feel a little too leisurely. Of course, there is no overall destination as in the first book which almost guarantees the pace will feel different, still, where the structure here is more a novel than that of a miniseries, Chambers could’ve probably done with keeping matters moving a bit more smoothly rather than just relying on the appeal of her characters.
One contributing factor to this, is that once again Chambers constant recitation on the advantages of free choice in identity, and the exploration of pleasant multiculturalness did get a little heavy handed especially when she introduced Tak, Sidra’s friend and professional tattoo artist to explain how a person’s body should reflect who they are; something which was doubly odd to read as a disabled person who has to make do with the body they have. Of course, it is entirely possible that in a universe of cybernetic implants and body modification physical disability no longer exists, still, Chamber’s sermon on the virtues of bodily choice seemed a trifle too prescriptive to take completely at face value.
It is also with Tak that we see another comfortably alien race in detail, the silver scaled Aeulon, learning of their professional fathers and parenting practices, and an accepting attitude rather at odds with Ashby’s supposedly risky relationship with an Aeulon shown in the first book. Once again, Chambers creation of alien cultures felt a little too positive.
That being said, Tak is as three dimensional a character as the rest of the cast, and Tak’s occasionally problematic relationship with Sidra is an interesting one to watch evolve.
Speaking of relationships, one character I was sad didn’t get more attention was Pepper’s partner; the artistic blue. I was extremely sorry that Chambers glossed over their first meeting given how important Blue is in Pepper’s life afterwards, indeed part of me wonders if Pepper’s story could’ve been paced differently to allow for more progressive characterisation (especially since there are comparatively few characters in Pepper’s half of the book), particularly because, despite the supposed illegality of Sidra’s existence and the honesty protocol which prevents her from lying, pepper’s story definitely has the most urgency.
For all that the pace is slightly less than gripping, the book’s final climax is extremely well delivered, bringing both stories together, adding a particularly nasty element of hazard and tying up loose ends well, I am also fairly sure given how the book ended that the third in the series will deal with other characters, perhaps returning to the Wayfarer’s crew. Whilst the ending was almost a fairy tale one, the characters are so likable that their success is something which you can only applaud. Indeed, possibly more so than angry planet, Common Orbit definitely has a “feel good” style of ending, but one absolutely works.
In general, those things that made Angry Planet such an awesome book, lovable characters, frequent humour, a bright universe and a surprisingly upbeat tone which rarely steps into the cloying are very much in evidence here. Unfortunately, where the book falls down is its reliance on character to make up for a rather meandering plot and Chamber’s own intensively sunny viewpoint obtruding a little too obviously, problems which were present in Angry Planet but not quite as much of an issue.
All that being said, Sidra, Pepper, and I would probably guess Becky Chambers herself, are all lots of fun to share a universe with, one which you’ll certainly come out of with a smile.
Following on from the events of A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, we leave the main cast of that story, to follow Lovelace, an AI who awoke in the last book in a synthetic body and is traumatised by this, and Pepper, who has promised to help Lovelace adjust to this new situation.
The book is neatly structured between Lovelace’s present and Pepper’s past. We get to know more about both of these characters as they get to know each other and working out where their boundaries are. Pepper early on advises Lovelace to choose a name and even this is a learning experience as Lovelace tries to work out why Pepper cannot name her.
As we learn more about Pepper and how she came to be who she is, we find out that Pepper’s story is also quite unconventional. Pepper used to be a Jane, who was created on a planet that genetically bred people to do certain tasks and never question their station. Pepper’s backstory is quite tragic, but also shows that you do not have to conform to a life another person has decided for you, but because of this, she has also had to find her own place within a much larger universe.
Once Lovelace decides to be called Sidra, we see that it is not as easy for her to fit into this alien world which is no longer confined to a ship. Sidra has to cope with sensory deprivation as she learns to see out of eyes rather than the multiple cameras and sensors she was designed for. Sidra is no longer sure what her purpose in life is, as she tries to adjust to her new life living with Pepper and Blue and working with Pepper in her shop. Sidra needs to be low key and fit in, as being a sentient AI is illegal across the galaxy.
With the chapters switching between the past and present, we are taken on an emotional journey that puts both Pepper and Sidra at risk. As Pepper and Blue want Sidra to feel welcome, and as she is not a prisoner, they all have to deal with the consequences when Sidra makes friends with the Aeluon, Tak. This book is a journey of self-discovery, learning how far you will go for your friends and the risks you will take for each other. It is also an interesting treatise on what is sentience and being true to your own nature. It also hinges on accepting the differences of others, what is good for one person may not work for another.
I really loved A Closed and Common Orbit and although I thought I would miss the characters from the previous book, after the first chapter I was engaged with the new direction this book was taking as both Sidra and Pepper are so compelling that you find yourself being drawn into their world with all of its intricacies, leaving you with little time to think about Jenks, Kizzy and the others. There is a lot of detail throughout the story which never leaves you feeling overwhelmed, even if you find yourself with a bit of wanderlust wishing you could visit these places. Chambers brings so much warmth to her characters that I never want the story to end. I am looking forward to finding out what she will write next.
Michelle Herbert, 9/10
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