Book Review: A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers
Mogsy’s Rating: 4 of 5 stars
Genre: Science Fiction
Series: Book 2 of Wayfarers
Publisher: Harper Voyager (October 18, 2016)
Length: 464 pages
In the same spirit of The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, its sequel A Closed and Common Orbit likewise tackles the themes of life, love, and the exploration of interpersonal, social, and cultural ideas. However, if you’re jumping on board this one immediately following the first book, you might also find yourself surprised by the many differences. The greatest departure is perhaps the novel’s format and style, which tightens the scope of the story to focus on the only two characters returning for this follow-up (explaining its standalone status and why reading the first book is not a requirement before tackling this one). In spite of this though, I have to say I most definitely enjoyed this book even more than its predecessor.
We first met Lovelace and Pepper from The Long Way, and while they might not have been among the key perspective characters, they nonetheless quickly won over readers’ hearts. Now through their eyes, we get to experience another chapter of the Wayfarers saga, continuing the story from another point of view. Without going into too much detail, Lovelace was once the A.I. of a starship, but due to complicated circumstances her programming had to be transferred into a highly realistic (and also extremely illegal) synthetic human body called a “kit”. Having been “reborn” into this new life, she also decides to take on a new identity, adopting the name Sidra. With her friend Pepper, the tech wizard who helped download her consciousness into her body kit, the two of them begin to work out how they will go about integrating Sidra into the greater galactic society without setting off suspicions or attracting attention from the law.
At the same time, this present narrative is interspersed with another story from the past, one following the incredible journey of a young girl named Jane 23. This was Pepper’s childhood, which began in a facility whose sole purpose was to churn out bio-engineered clones for use as cheap and disposable labor. The clones are treated poorly, kept sheltered and ignorant, and only taught enough to perform their functions. Though eventually Jane manages to break free of the factory, her struggles continue as she learns the hard way about the truths of the galaxy.
As much as these two narratives may differ on the surface, beneath them lies several unifying themes. The parallels are ultimately what makes this book so meaningful. Both Lovelace/Sidra and Jane/Pepper came into this world as creations, meant to serve a purpose. There are also those in the galaxy who don’t consider them human, or at least deserving of the full rights granted to citizens of the Galactic Commons. And yet, as we read of their hopes and desires, it is clear there’s more to being an artificial intelligence or a clone. As soon as Sidra and Jane are freed from their respective constraints, they face that age-old question that has been asked by sentient beings since the beginning of time: “Now what?”
This book is about learning who you are. It is also about taking control of your own destiny. It is about family, friendship, and finding a place to belong. In a galaxy so large, where aliens of all different shapes and sizes mingle, where all kinds of cultures and traditions co-exist, you would think it should be easier for those who feel on the outside to find acceptance, but the reality is much more complicated. Sidra and Janes’ stories illustrate how personal contentment also first needs to come from within, and I loved how their experiences mirrored and played off each other as they both reached to gain a deeper understanding. It’s touching and heartbreaking at the same time–a lot like the tone of the first novel.
Furthermore, even though the original crew of the Wayfarer do not return, I think readers will be equally charmed by the wonderful personalities of Sidra and Jane. Admittedly, there wasn’t as much to see or take in as the first book, and we followed only a few characters rather than an ensemble cast, but to tell the truth, Closed and Common worked better for me. Granted, The Long Way was arguably more about the character relationships than the overarching plot, but I had wanted more in terms of story and conflict. This sequel gave me a lot more of both, in addition to being more focused and coherent. In my opinion it’s also more cleverly written because of the connections and shared themes in the two narratives, leading to more reflection and feeling.
If you’re looking for feel-good science fiction, look no further than Wayfarers. Even though A Closed and Common Orbit is a standalone, I’d still strongly recommend reading The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet first. This will, after all, be a universe you’ll want to visit again and again, and it only makes sense to begin with the phenomenon that started it all. I can’t wait to see what Chambers has in store for the future of this series.