A Closed and Common Orbit, by Becky Chambers

Harper Voyager, © 2016
ISBN 9780062569400
Print length 384 pages, $16.99

This stand-alone sequel to Becky Chambers’ debut novel, The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, begins 28 minutes after a sentient AI personality has been transferred from the body of a ship to a human-like body. Nothing could have prepared her for such a drastic change—where she used to have wide-ranging vision and sensory input all through and outside the ship, now she is limited to input provided by her smaller body, her visual range reduced to a “cone” of visible space directly in front of her face. Not only is she completely unprepared for the adaptation and totally naïve in the ways of the world, she’s on the run from the authorities. Encasing an AI in a body kit is highly illegal. She has no idea how to navigate as a human through the colonial settlements without giving herself away, which could make things problematic. Except for her friend Pepper, she would never survive. At Pepper’s direction, she takes a human name (Sidra) and a job (working in Pepper’s junk shop), and begins learning what it means to be human.

In a second storyline, we meet Jane 23, a young slave child in a factory run by the Mothers, anonymous robots who keep the girl slaves in line and see that the quotas are met each day. 23’s simple thoughts range into dangerous territory, wondering about esoteric questions like the world beyond the factory until one night she finds herself outside the building and, when the Mothers discover her escape, running for her life. But 23 doesn’t know how to survive on her own. She’s hungry and cold and in fear of the wild dogs that roam in packs until she stumbles onto an old downed spacecraft whose AI, Owl, still functions. Together, Owl and 23 survive the harsh conditions on the planet until they can find a way out together.

Seemingly two separate tales, these stories collide in ways both subtle and direct. Chambers once again nails the interpersonal relationships in an intimate way that stirs the imagination and the heart equally. Rather than focus on war or crime or violence, the plot in both Chambers’ novels centers on the characters; but Closed and Common Orbit gets even closer to shine a warm light on their most vulnerable moments.

The story is told through the eyes of Sidra and Jane as each navigates her way toward salvation, contentment and safety. Though not directly connected to the initial book in the Wayfarer series, Common Orbit is set in the same universe and shares many details. If you loved the interaction with other species so prevalent in Long Way, you’ll find plenty more here. Sidra’s home with Pepper and Blue centers on an interplanetary market, of sorts, which is introduced in book one. It’s a place where almost anything can be bought.

Through Jane and Sidra, Chambers explores prejudice, personal rights, sentience, and what it means to be human. Once again, there’s no specific antagonist; instead the enemies are the Mothers, the dogs, failing equipment, the laws that would separate Sidra from her body and penalize Pepper for daring to help her in the first place. Sidra’s predicament forces others around her to see in new ways, and to realize that one’s own perspective is not so easily or comfortably thrust on another without consequences.

Common Orbit continues the feeling of Long Way in that it’s a moving, inspirational tale that takes an honest look at interpersonal relationships and challenges our authenticity—to ourselves and to each other. It was truly an enjoyable and uplifting read.