A Closed and Common Orbit

Becky Chambers

Book cover

As the title suggests, this book has a much narrower “narrative orbit” than the first Wayfarers book, “The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet.” It follows two different stories unfolding at different times (with a link that is clear fairly early on, and not meant to be mysterious), and features a much smaller cast of characters than the first–there are basically five meaningful characters across both stories (though one of them is extensively observed in both, at different ages).

I was impressed that Chambers didn’t simply try to repeat the successful formula of the first book, but rather took a risk doing a very different story. Similar to the transition from Star Trek TNG to DS9, CCO explores the consequences of staying in one place rather than always being on the move. In parallel to the change in setting, I found CCO to have a more thematically focused plot. The two stories explore obverse sides of the same coin: a human being raised by an AI, and an AI being “raised” by humans. Chambers’ approach to exploring AI psychology is far less risk-taking than Ann Leckie’s (more Data, less Borg), but I found it more effective–like Data, the AI Sidra is a character that is really there to help us explore what it means to be human, and while that could be interpreted as a lack of imagination or even a bit of chauvinism, ultimately that’s the reason I’m really reading a novel in the first place.

What CCO does provide in the way of continuity is Chambers’ trademark warm/humanistic style of sci-fi, which I’ve seen disparagingly (and genderedly) referred to as “unicorns and rainbows” sci-fi–in which the characters, while all having their problems, are earnestly trying to get along. I think it’s really just reader preference whether this style works for you or not, but it’s also interesting to me to draw a comparison with a book that, on the face of it, has a completely different style–Andy Weir’s “The Martian.” (I could also throw in Clarke’s “Rendezvous with Rama.”) While Weir’s style is more stereotypically masculine sci-fi, in the sense of dealing with technical challenges rather than human relationships, “The Martian” also features no evil and no individual antagonist, but rather a struggle against difficult external conditions. I think a lot of people, myself included, found “The Martian” to be an uplifting read for this reason. (It’s interesting to note that the story in CCO of Jane and Owl on the broken shuttle is very similar to “The Martian” in its formal structure.) Ultimately I enjoy both, but I give the edge to Chambers because I think the added element of human relationships makes the story more complex and interesting.

My only real complaint with CCO is that, by narrowing the scope of the story compared to LWTSAP, it loses some of the sense of wonder, discovery, and diversity that pervades the first volume.

My Goodreads rating: 4 stars