As I said in a previous review, I’m interested in how we’re changing the tone of science fiction with newer works. The spirit of camaraderie and cautious optimism in Becky Chambers’s The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet really sold me on the merits of the story, as well as the fictional future that Chambers outlined. Even with energy consumption issues, ongoing wars, and multispecies politics, there’s still a chance for people to come together and find new familial bonds in the depths of space.
In the sequel (spoiler alert incoming), A Closed and Common Orbit, we follow a similar route, but with a tighter focus. The AI known as Lovelace, replacing the original personality of the ship computer on the Wayfarer, has since moved on for greener pastures with the crew’s mutual friends Pepper and Blue.
With a body kit that gives her an organic, almost genuine human appearance, Lovelace quickly adopts a new persona and life on Port Coriol as the modder girl Sidra. But Sidra’s exploration of organic culture comes with a price, as she struggles with built-in protocols and coding that could expose her not-so-legal existence. Compare all that with a series of flashbacks, detailing how a young Jane became the modder girl Pepper through escape, surviving the wilds, and fixing old tech with a friendly AI named Owl, and we begin to see how two women’s lives are shaped through a rough journey of self-discovery and persistent repairs to the tech they need to live.
It’d be easy to say that Pepper’s flashbacks form the more compelling side of this book. After all, she escapes a dystopian life as a slave with a number, and she faces off with wild dogs and a near-dead starship in a junkpile for years on end. But there’s a lot to be said for Sidra’s journey, too. Even as she uses her new body to befriend an Aeluon tattoo artist, and try new food and drinks, our AI protagonist is still fighting an inner and outer battle. She’s terrified of the chance that outsiders will recognize and report her as an illegal entity; she’s also battling all her code, which tells her that being inside a starship is natural and being in a body isn’t. It’s dysmorphia on a new and unexplored level.
I also appreciated how much this story fills in more of the background on the Galactic Commons and how spaceflight had advanced. We learn a little more about the rise of the Harmagian species, the entry of humans into the GC, the status and rights (or lack thereof) for AI, and what sets apart the culture and history of Aeluons. Every culture and race feels authentic, with a sense that they’ve lived as they have for centuries, even with tech innovations and meeting new species. Seeing a Laru’s reaction to things like humans crying (or “leaking”) or the way Aeluons perform their mating rituals in the open definitely adds to the flavor of the setting. And for Jane and Sidra, our main characters, it’s a chaotic and colorful world they’re entering for the first time in their respective eras.
While Closed and Common Orbit didn’t have the same wide array of plot points and conflicts as Small, Angry Planet did, I do think it’s a worthy follow-up to the first book. Even if it isn’t a perfect standalone piece, the story has a quiet but meaningful weight in how it approaches identity issues and personal growth. So long as you’re cool with petbots and aliens smoking redreed (and why wouldn’t you be?), you’ll find a good time in these pages.