In her second novel, A Closed and Common Orbit, author Becky Chambers creates a fantastical future universe that humans share with AI and strange alien creatures. She also deeply examines what it means to be a living, sentient being.
“That’s the logical fallacy that was passed on to me. If I’m nothing more than a tool, then I must have a purpose. Tools have purposes, right? But I’m more than that.”
While technically a sequel to The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, Chambers’ new bookworks just fine as a standalone. The novel beginswith two distinct story lines.
First, there is Sidra, an AI built to live within the wiring of a spaceship, but who wakes up to find herself in the body of an android. With the wonderment of a child, she seeks understanding of the world, but being in a physical body puts a tremendous strain on her, sending her into what amounts to an existential crisis. And, since AI are not allowed by law to inhabit bodies, she must keep her true nature a secret to everyone but her two human benefactors, a difficult task since she has been programed with the inability to lie.
Then there is Jane, a clone grown to be a slave in a factory that recycles scrap. After escaping the cruelty and inhumanity of the factory, she is befriended by Owl, the AI of an abandoned spaceship, and learns to live in a wasteland, hunting wild dogs and harvesting mushrooms to survive.
The two storylines mirror each other in a fascinating way. Sidra, a just awakened AI with no experience in the world, is taken care of by the two humans who surreptitiously put her into a physical body: Pepper and Blue. While encouraging her independence, they still nurture and take care of her like two concerned parents.
Jane, a human girl, is basically adopted by the AI Owl, who teaches and comforts her with the love and care of a mother.
The storylines converge in the third act, with an interesting twist, and the narrative moves on to deeply examine the concepts of love and sacrifice, friendship, loyalty, and commitment.
The world Chambers creates is rich and easy to get lost in, even though her writing is deceptively simple. When describing strange aliens like the silver-skinned Aeluon, the octopus-like Harmagians,and the feathered Aandrisk, she doesn’t use long, wordy descriptions, but rather drops a few hints at what they look like, mentioning tentacles or claws here and there, and lets the reader’s imagination fill in the rest. This technique keeps the pace brisk and the story moving.
What stands out with all her characters, including AI, is their humanity, a statement that seems absurd, since we are talking about robots and space creatures, but I think you know what I mean. The different alien species all have their own, often complex, cultures, with bizarre mating habits and strange forms of communication, but on an individual level, they are uniquelysensitive and intelligent beings.
The same is true of the AI. Sidra, in particular, has a very well-crafted personality. The novel is told very much from the interior of the characters, and it is astounding how Chambers can put the reader into the “mind” of an AI. Sidra is an emotionally complicated being, but Chambers uses the language of machines to reveal her feelings, describing how delight or pride would flicker through or light up her“pathways.” She is literally uncomfortable in her own skin and feels disconnected from her body, describing it as “the kit” and something separate from herself. While technically nothing but a conglomeration of circuits, codes and files, as she matures, she comes to deeply understand the meaning of friendship and sacrifice.
Matthew Brockmeyer is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Pulp Metal Magazine, Cultured Vultures, Dark Fire Fiction, Timeless Tales Magazine, Infernal Ink, The Homeless Romantic, and The Humboldt Independent, as well as the upcoming anthologies Let Us In by Time Alone Press, After the Happily Ever After by Transmundane Press, and One Hundred Voices by Centum Press. He also writes extreme horror under the pseudonym Humboldt Lycanthrope. He lives deep in the forest of Northern California with his wife and two children.