Book Review: A Closed and Common Orbit
Here's another Hugo nominee, and it's better than first book in the series, a feat it somehow manages with even less plot.
A Closed and Common Orbit takes place starting immediately after the events of The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. Pepper takes Lovelace, the AI now housed illegally in an artificial body, back to her planet and helps her as she struggles to find her own identity and way of interacting with the world. In flashbacks, we learn more of Pepper's history as a cloned, enslaved human on an isolated world, and her longshot attempt to escape to freedom.
Becky Chambers has SUCH A GIFT for character work. It's truly inspiring; both this book and its predecessor have taught me so much about how to create and write compelling characters. The cast is narrower here than it was in The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, honing in tightly on Pepper and Lovelace. And honestly, if you asked me to pick which storyline was my favorite, Lovelace/Sidra learning to exist among other sentient beings or hearing Pepper's backstory, I don't think I could tell you. I love them both. I love this book.
The depiction of how Lovelace (who takes on the name Sidra) struggles with having a body is incredibly nuanced. Chambers thinks out how an AI, used to being installed on a ship, with many cameras for eyes and no physical body, would react to suddenly being confined to a single, small body. Sidra fears open spaces. She misses being constantly connected to Chambers' equivalent of the Internet. Even more, she struggles with having to keep parts of herself hidden, because her body is illegal and would get her, Pepper and possibly more people in serious trouble. She has to act human at times, even when she feels the least human.
At the same time, this book presents the compelling tale of how a cloistered girl wakes up to the world around her and becomes determined to escape. Pepper, who used to be Jane, grew up and worked in a factory, with no knowledge of the outside world - until an explosion blows a hole in the wall. Pepper escapes into a huge junkyard where she finds a ship with a sentient AI, which becomes her surrogate parent as she attempts to fix the ship and get off-world. It's simultaneously a cruel tale and one filled with hope.
These stories weave together beautifully because they're about becoming true to oneself - becoming the person you're meant to be. They're about friendship, and not just friendship between humans but between all sentient beings. Love isn't confined to flesh and blood, and that's as true in our world as it is in Chambers' future.
All that being said, again, there's not much plot to go on. Pepper's backstory is one long junkyard salvage to get off world, while Sidra spends her time in small interactions with other beings. The realization that the climax would hinge around finding Pepper's AI "mom" only comes about halfway through the book - that goal isn't established upfront, and the characters don't actively work toward it that we see.
But you know what? This might just be the rare case where that doesn't really matter. The writing is exquisite, and Chambers' worldbuilding continues to impress with its originality and diversity. Port Coriol hums with life, and watching Sidra navigate through it is a joy. The book's conclusion is small, but holds great emotional weight for the characters, and that gives it a quiet power that many other books lack in their bombastic climaxes.
So my verdict? A Closed and Common Orbit is a story well worth your time, and it deserves the Hugo nomination it earned.