As usual, I read the first in a series and then promptly don’t get around to the sequels. Fortunately, A Closed and Common Orbit is advertised as a “standalone sequel” and definitely fits that bill. You can read this without having read The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (though why would you want to skip that?). Indeed, I had largely forgotten the events in that book that resulted in Lovelace’s embodiment and departure from her ship. So I kind of came to this book with fresh eyes. Nevertheless, Becky Chambers remains a delightful writer who embraces using science fiction to tell very human stories, even when her characters are alien.
The Lovelace AI that now has a stealth android body chooses the name Sidra. She accompanies Pepper to Port Coriol, a cosmopolitan planet where Pepper lives with an artist named Blue. The three of them form a kind of family unit, with Sidra living with Pepper and Blue and working, at least for now, with Pepper at her tech mod shop. Meanwhile, Sidra struggles to deal with the limitations and expectations of embodiment, from not being constantly connected to the linkings to making new friends. The story alternates chapters between Sidra’s new life and telling the backstory of Pepper, who was born Jane 23 on a planet that used genetically-engineered children for menial labour.
Almost immediately what I noticed about this book is the care Chambers puts into how she describes Sidra’s embodiment. When describing how Sidra moves, it’s never “I moved my arm.” It’s “I moved the kit’s arm.” Sidra sees her body as the kit, as something separate from her identity. This is an entirely understandable reaction, and I love how Chambers manifests it on the page for us. In the same way, some of the moments where Sidra tries embodied experiences—like eating or drinking—for the first time are gratifyingly amusing, but they are also always portrayed with a kind of sympathy as well. Sidra’s embodiment has humorous aspects to it, but she is never intended to be the butt of the story’s jokes.
The parallel story of Pepper’s past is equally as fascinating to me. Imagine growing up so completely isolated—when Jane 23 escapes from the factory where she works and lives, she is utterly alone except for the companionship of a somewhat limited shuttle AI. I love how Chambers describes their relationship and how it changes as Jane grows into a moody adolescent. The inclusion of the children’s sim that Jane can access (albeit only a single episode) is a really nice touch that helps define this world even more.
I know some readers are going to be disappointed that this book departs so cleanly from the characters of the first book. That’s valid. Nevertheless, I admire Chambers’s decision to do this. Sometimes the story you need to tell is disconnected from the story you were first telling. I honestly didn’t get too attached to any of the characters from the first book or to the overall story that was being told—as I described it in my review, it was like talking to a bunch of video game NPCs. If anything, the way this book focuses slightly more on Sidra (and then to some extent on Pepper) is an improvement.
Above all else, what I enjoyed about this book was the primacy of friendship. Chambers has created a world that is open and fluid in its embrace of sexuality and gender overall, and that is wonderful. This book, in turn, adds a layer to that with the friendships among Pepper, Blue, Sidra, and Tak. Chambers highlights the importance of consent even within a friendship, along with the importance of boundaries and the value of forgiveness. As an aromantic person, I truly appreciate adult books that focus on friendship and treat it with the same respect and importance that romance plays in some people’s lives.
I’ll finish with a note of frustration regarding the brevity of each chapter. Combined with the switch back and forth from Sidra to Jane 23’s stories, this made it very difficult to put down the book and go to bed! Each time the chapter finished, I would want to know what happens next, so I would have to read a chapter from the other narrative and then get into the next chapter from this one, only for it to be far too short … well, I guess this is a good problem to have.
Will I read the next book? Sure. But much like the name of this series, I find myself not in a rush—in the best possible way. I will come to the next book when I am ready for it, when I need it, not out of a sense of obligation or completeness. Perhaps there is a lesson to be learned here, from Chambers’s storytelling style, for readers like myself—to accept our wayfaring habits, to enjoy the journey of reading series haphazardly, rather than to push back and impose a sense of completionism that doesn’t end up serving us in any way.