Happy September, readers! We’re starting off the month with a slate of great books, including this one.
My only complaint about A Closed And Common Orbit is that it didn’t reunite us with the crew of the Wayfarer who featured so endearingly in the first novel of the series, A Long Way To A Small Angry Planet. ALWtaSAP was a sheer marvel of a book, devoid of a chosen-one narrative while still providing an engrossing story revolving around a wonderful ensemble cast set in a multi-species universe. I placed a hold on ACaCO as soon as I was done with the first because I so badly wanted to keep following that crew around the universe. So it was a little bit of a disappointment to learn that only one of them shows up in these pages, and only as the subject of a letter never sent.
Once I got over that, it was an absolute delight to plunge back into Becky Chambers’ thoughtful, large-hearted writing. This second Wayfarers novel revolves around Pepper, a gearhead ally of our beloved ship, and Sidra, a sentient Artificial Intelligence housed in a synthetic humanoid body crafted well enough to fool anyone into thinking she’s an actual human. This is, unfortunately, highly illegal, and Sidra has to fly under the radar while she adjusts to her new life, slowly coming to terms with her body even as she misses the connectivity of being part of a ship. Pepper provides her with a place to stay and a job, and you slowly discover why over the course of her flashback chapters.
This was one of the most deeply felt explorations of Artificial Intelligence and sentience I’ve ever read, going beyond the simple, sensationalist ideas of sex and slaughter to really consider what love means, how people fit into societies, and how everyone is programmed, after a fashion. Ms Chambers is smart to juxtapose Sidra and Pepper’s stories, teasing out the similarities and differences for greater impact in making her case for the personhood of sufficiently advanced AI. She also beautifully encapsulates the human experience in several simple but searingly to-the-point paragraphs, marking her, in my opinion, as one of the greatest philosophical minds working in science fiction today.
Even so, I admit that I could not rate this novel as highly as ALWtoSAP simply because this book, while just as beautifully written, lacked the laugh out loud humor of its predecessor. And that’s fine, because it’s a sensitive exploration of two women struggling to find themselves, and that isn’t the kind of thing that easily lends itself to rip-snorting laughter. I’m just worried that between this book and To Be Taught, If Fortunate, Ms Chambers might be sacrificing a lightness of wit for a cloyingness of sincerity. I suppose I’ll have to read the next one to check on her trajectory!
Doug read this the year it was nominated for a Hugo. You can find his thoughts on ACaCO here.