“If you believe you have control, then you believe you’re at the top. And if you’re at the top, then people who aren’t like you… well, they’ve got to be somewhere lower, right? Every species does this. Does it again and again and again.” ~ Becky Chambers, A Closed and Common Orbit
A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers
Published by Harper Voyager, 2016
Genre: Science fiction
Re-readability: This one didn’t have the same staying power as the first book did for me.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Reviewed by Pete
Becky Chamber’s follow up to The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet (one of my favorite books ever) did not quite live up to my expectations, but it was still a fun ride.
So I said this review is spoiler free, but talking about this book is impossible without spoiling a major plot event from the first book. But after that, it will be spoiler-free.
Sidra is an AI in a “kit”—an artificial mechanical human so realistic that no one—even advanced scanning equipment—should be able to tell that it’s not a real human. These kits are illegal, and Sidra wasn’t even the one who decided to get the kit.
In a previous life, she was the AI Lovey on the Wayfarer. After the ship took serious damage, and emergency reboot was required, and in the process Lovely lost her memories and her personality and became a brand-new AI.
Sidra still chose to move herself into the kit, though it was meant for someone else, and she quickly finds that it’s not an ideal situation for an AI.
Pepper is Sidra’s chaperone (for lack of a better term) while Sidra learns about the cultures and beings of Port Coriol. It doesn’t take long for Sidra to learn about the constraints and frustrations of having a single body with just one camera, and the difficulties of maintaining friendships.
We get a look into Pepper’s past, when she was a young girl named Jane in a plant filled with girls like her who spend their days sorting through discarded parts and machinery in a sealed plant. Jane escapes from the plant and spends years living inside a discarded ship with an AI named Owl, who becomes a parent figure for Jane.
While I really liked Jane’s story arc, I felt that it ended a bit abruptly, as if there were some missing chapters that weren’t included in my copy.
I enjoyed both plotlines equally, so I never minded when the perspective shifted once again. However, this book lacked the cozy, warm-fuzziness of the first book in the Wayfarer series. Chambers’ writing was as strong as ever, and the Galactic Commons continues to be a fascinating and life-filled universe, but I missed having a large and colorful cast of characters.
One issue I have with this book is its motif of treating AI as individuals with rights. I won’t go into it too much (because it would quickly turn into an essay), but I do not believe that just because the emotions and self-awareness of a machine are indistinguishable from those of a human we should give that machine rights and the same respect we would give an individual. I have read three or four books that argue the opposite in the past year, and while it’s a cute idea and makes for a good story, I think it is a morally flawed one that I have trouble empathizing with.
This last detail may have been what kept me from enjoying this book as much as the first. But it was still a well-written story, and I absolutely intend to pick up the third book soon.