Book #124: A Closed and Common Orbit (2016)

acacoauthor: Becky Chambers
language: English and some invented languages
length: 789 minutes (13 hours, 9 minutes)
finished listening on: 2 December 2016

This is the second book in the series of The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. When I finished that book back in September, the sequel hadn’t been released yet. I think it came out in October. Like its predecessor, it’s coincided with an uptick in the amount of cycling I’ve been doing (during which time I generally have it on), as I’m finally getting over various muscle injuries I’ve had during this year. Indeed, I had injured my elbows back in September because of bad posture on my bike, so I’ve now been able to fix the bike position and other stuff.

So I say it’s a sequel, and that’s only kind of true. It’s following two minor characters from the previous book – Pepper, a techie with a mysterious past, and the AI Lovelace, known as Sidra from about the second or third chapter, who was rebooted at the end of the last book with a scrubbed memory, much to the despair of all the other characters. Basically, Pepper convinces the AI to be reinstalled into a body-kit, like a hyper-realistic android, and then this story is about her journey as she settles into her new body, and the people she meets. In alternate chapters, it also looks into Pepper’s origin story as Jane 23 – a slave clone on a decadent world, sorting through junk in a scrap yard in a world populated by “Enhanced” humans. Sounds like something out of the Hunger Games.

Both characters’ arcs are about finding identity, similar to some of the themes of the first book, finding friendship, and feeling comfortable in one’s own skin. It’s coming-of-age, essentially. Sidra’s story is often about being the “ghost in the machine” – she never feels connected to her body, doesn’t feel ownership of it, until really the end of the book. Part of her journey is literally hacking into her programming to be able to tell lies, and this seems to be one of the keys to her feeling in control of her body. Jane/Pepper’s story is more about finding one’s purpose in life, which is reflected to an extent in Sidra’s story, with a hefty dollop of PTSD and the other effects of an abusive childhood – especially at first, as not having a task to do would lead to punishment in her factory.

Compared to the last book, it’s less of a space opera and more of an interpersonal drama set nominally in space. There are maybe five characters we need to care about throughout, which is a lot less taxing to keep track of, and they don’t really go off-world – no journeying through hyperspace like before. But Chambers uses the opportunity to explore the cultures of her invented universe a lot more, and various cultures are mentioned and expanded that weren’t before. It’s like a warm embrace welcoming me back into her world – it’s only been a few months since the last one, and even then it’s nice to come back into it, with all the unique words and expressions that her future people use.

If I’m to give any outright criticism of the book, as I did before with The Long Way…, it’s going to be mostly nitpicking. Perhaps I wasn’t fully satisfied with the genders again (and the narrator is still awkward saying the epicene pronoun xe) – this time we see that the Aeluons have four genders, but I’d prefer to say four physiological sexes or phenotypes. The extra two genders are basically bigender and agender in our modern context, but they’re actually physically different from males and females.

Anyway, one character Tak switches between male and female every other scene, similar to the character Corey/Kory in The Art of Breathing, which I listened to last year. But unlike that, where the male and female represent different sides of the character and their psyche, I didn’t perceive any significant difference in the way that Tak is presented or the way other characters react to them in one gender or the other. It’s more a game of working out which pronoun the character is using in each chapter. Basically I think I’d have liked a more in-depth look at how this affects the society and the characters.

But those are pretty minor points, and they’re not the main thrust of the story. Just like The Long Way…, it’s a great female-driven sci-fi-esque story about friendship and found family, and that alone should be enough to recommend it. It’s also funny and sweet in equal measures, and towards the end I couldn’t stop listening (some other audiobooks, I can only withstand about an hour at a time before I start tuning out). OK, perhaps a bit saccharine at times, but nonetheless a great listen. The two books are standalone, and one can really read them in any order, but I think the previous book is a better starting point overall. It will fill in a lot of background that’s missing from this book, and it’s a more conventional sci-fi story. But this is a really good book.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: