Modern Classic: A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers

It’s very rare to find a sequel to an already superb book, which maintains the quality in some respects and actually increases it in others.  The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet was an excellent, endearing book with great worldbuilding and character development.  A Closed and Common Orbit surpasses its predecessor.  It offers a very pleasant, upbeat prose that flows even more easily than in the first book, as well as excellent character development.  It lacks in action, but that’s exactly what I expected in this book, so I wasn’t disappointed.  Orbit is a hot chocolate drink in your cozy chair during a cold night, not a few pints of beer at your local pub.

Where The Long Way was about a physical journey by a group of characters, Orbit is about the journey through life, or character development, of its two protagonists.  They are Pepper and Sidra.  Pepper was a minor character in the first book, helping the crew source some technology for their journey, and at the end of the book helping them to rescue the ship’s sentient A.I.  That rescue fails: the A.I. is reset to its factory settings, losing all its memories, personality and affection to one of the crew members.  Pepper takes the A.I. and installs it into a humanoid body.  The A.I., after some consideration, names itself Sidra.

The book consists of a series of alternate chapters, detailing the personal growth of both Pepper and Sidra, and juxtaposing their personal journeys.  Pepper grew up as a genetically engineered low-class factory worker on a planet.  She escaped her factory as a child and spend nine years in a scrapyard the size of a continent, living in an abandoned space shuttle and fixing it so that she could escape.  Sidra, on the other hand, has different worries.  She’s been designed to serve as a ship A.I., having distributed consciousness and access to a multitude of cameras and other sensors.  Her body feels too restrictive to her.  To make matters worse, her existence is highly illegal, and if anyone found out what she was, she’d be disassembled, so she needs to behave as a regular human.

Pepper’s only companion is the A.I., residing in the shuttle she occupies.  The A.I., Owl, becomes her mentor, and sets up to teach her and care for her.  Pepper develops a daughter-like affection for Owl.  As she goes through puberty, she her attitude towards Owl changes, but as she matures, she gets to appreciate her again.  Once they escape the planet and are rescued, the ship is taken away from Pepper and disappears forever.  Owl is lost.  This is the main trigger that prompts Pepper to adopt Sidra, give her space to live and work.  She decides to educate Sidra in human customs and behavior.  Sidra’s personal growth mimics that of Pepper’s.  Even though she is in an adult body, her mind is undergoing rapid growth, and she experiences something akin to puberty within a much shorter time span than Pepper.  She also rebels, but the small misadventures stemming from her mistakes don’t harm her.  They shape her and help her find an unlikely best friend in an elderly alien, Tak.

Towards the end, the book takes a wild turn.  Pepper finds the whereabouts of the space shuttle from her youth and sets with Sidra and their respective friends to steal the ship’s A.I.  The success in this adventure brings all of them together, resolves all their small conflicts and results in one large happy family.

As was the case with the previous book, Ortbit offers a very pleasant read.  Despite some minor crises, there is nothing really threatening the characters.  I developed strong emotional attachment to the protagonists, which just proves how good Chambers was with their portrayal, and I really appreciated that I didn’t have to feel anything negative, such as anxiety or fear while reading the book.  Chambers herself professed her preference for comforting stories, when Tak said in the book: “I don’t find bad things happening to people to be particularly entertaining.”  This very well describes the philosophy of the author’s writing in this novel.  I share the sentiment, and thus I really enjoyed this aspect of the book.

The main difference between the first and second novel is in scope.  Where The Long Way was a mile wide and an inch deep, Orbit is the opposite.  Unlike its predecessor, it focuses on a very limited amount of locations, and explores the worldbuilding into minute detail.  The same is true about character development.  With only two protagonists, and the parallel storylines focusing on their personal growth, character development is the primary focus of this work.  Sidra’s development, in particular, is superb.  That may be because there are very limited external impulses that shape her, and instead much of her growth is related to accepting and coping with the limitations her new body offers.  I posit that in the niche space of artificial human character development, Chambers sets a very high standard, surpassing even the multiple Hugo winner Murderbot series.

I personally cannot find a single flaw with this book.  The writing has improved over its predecessor and flows even more easily than before.  The worldbuilding is inventive, rich and detailed.  The characters are likable and very well developed.  The story is evenly paced, and I appreciated the slow progress towards the end.  Speaking of the end: the jump from character development to the heist action was a little jarring at first, but at the end offered a closure I wouldn’t even suspect I needed while reading the book.  All in all, I can declare A Closed and Common Orbit another modern classic, and I admit that I’m slowly developing my own character towards becoming an unabashed Becky Chambers fan.

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