“As Jane headed back home, she decided something, and she knew it better than she’d ever known anything. She would die someday—no getting around that. But nobody would find her bones in the scrapyard. She wasn’t going to leave them there.”
The new installation of the AI known as Lovelace has left the Wayfarer and her crew behind to mourn, and joined Pepper and Blue on Port Coriol to build a new life for herself. Away from the Wayfarer, she is free of the expectations and grief of her old installation’s friends, and she can begin to adjust to life in a body kit, rather than a ship. But the code that governs her comes with some protocols that threaten to expose the truth about her origins. She cannot lie, she cannot alter her own code, and she must respond to direct commands. While she and Pepper search for a solution, she must carefully hide her true nature, while also learning how to live in a body, without constant access to the Linkings, or the ability to see from multiple cameras at all times. Throughout it all, she has to wonder, is it really worth having a body? Or would she be better off back in a ship, as her designers intended?
After really enjoying The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, I was both excited and hesitant to read this follow up. I became surprisingly invested in the romance between Jenks and Lovey, and their plan to get Lovey a body kit, so I wasn’t sure how I felt about following a character who was Lovelace, but was decidedly not Lovey. Lovey is dead, and this new AI has no relationship to the crew of the Wayfarer, and finds herself in a body that she agreed to inhabit, but did not choose for herself, so that she can leave the Wayfarer and its crew to grieve in peace. However, I found that once Lovelace chooses a new name for herself, and becomes Sidra, I was able to settle into the story of her life on Port Coriol, and her new friendships with Pepper and Blue. That said, Becky Chambers still managed to punch me in the gut a few times by having Sidra write, and then delete, several emails to Jenks.
In contrast to the multiple shifting perspectives of The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, A Closed and Common Orbit is told from two alternating perspectives, in two timelines. The main events pick up right after the end of the previous book in Sidra’s point-of-view. The alternate chapters take place in the past, and are told from the perspective of Jane 23, a young girl who escapes from a life of factory slave labour sorting scrap and trash on a world inhabited by a group of humans known as the Enhanced. Out in the junkyard, where the Mothers cannot follow, she takes refuge aboard an abandoned, derelict ship, which is still semi-functional thanks to its solar panels. With help from the ship’s AI, Owl, Jane begins to make plans to escape the only world she has ever known. Through these two points of view, Chambers creates two different but complementary narratives about how a human might come to regard an artificial intelligence as a person deserving of the same rights they themselves enjoy.
Indeed, one of the striking things about the Wayfarer books is how Chambers really succeeds in creating emotional investment in AIs as characters. I was devastated by Lovey’s fate in The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, and this in turn gave me complicated feels about Sidra going into book two. However, in this volume, I become most invested in Owl, the AI who raises Jane, slowly teaching her everything the Mothers deliberately keep from their charges, and helping her develop the skills she will need to repair the ship and escape the planet. After what happened to Lovey in the first book, I desperately needed for Owl to be okay. In as much as I enjoy a good, dark, gritty science fiction, fantasy, or dystopia, this series has really reminded me how much I also enjoy hopeful speculative fiction, which doesn’t deny the darkness in the universe, but dares to imagine a bright future anyway.
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