Rating: 4 stars
My friend Dip lent me this book, as she did the first in the series. She’s just read the third installment which reminded me that I needed to crack on with this one.
A Closed and Common Orbit picks up one of the story arcs from the end of The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet. Ship’s AI Lovelace has been reset and its box fresh operating files installed into a Human kit body. Lovey is in a shuttle with Pepper, the tech expert and merchant, leaving the Wayfarer behind, and is now an illegal entity learning a new way of living.
Author Becky Chambers has done a brave thing in focusing on two relatively minor characters for this second book, rather than carrying on the story of the crew onboard the ship from which the series takes its name. Lovey’s is an interesting story that looks at the issues of passing as something you’re not, finding ways around a hardwired truthfulness, and beginning to discover who or what you want to be.
We also get Pepper’s origin story, which made me think of The Handmaid’s Tale in the way that the world Pepper came from is organised and controlled by Mothers. It also reminded me of Logan’s Run, with the way each generation of girls is named and the way Pepper, or Jane 23 as she’s known, catches a glimpse of the universe outside the place she exists and realises that there’s another way of living.
I liked both narratives and the tenderness with which Chambers unfurled them. The hardship that Pepper experiences as a Jane and her blossoming into an independent person was the more compelling strand for me, but I also thought the former Lovey’s attempts to navigate an entirely alien world, knowing that she isn’t the person she was intended to be, and the way she learns who she could be was an inspiring take on fitting in and new starts. The play between a creature like the former Lovey and people who are made to order, genetically engineered to fulfill a particular role in society, is also interesting. It’s an exploration of what it means to exist and have purpose that goes beyond expectation.
As ever when I’m reading, because it seems I’m constantly going through some period of self revelation or other at the moment as a result of seeing a therapist, there were story elements that resonated with me. When Lovey becomes the illegal biokit Sidra and starts to venture out into the world, encountering other species, she feels a connection with an Aeluon tattoo artist called Tak. I’ve been thinking a lot about how I attach to people lately. I’ve been talking more freely with one or two people about what my childhood was like, and how different I feel, even now as an adult halfway through my life, as a result of my upbringing. Most of my anxiety in social situations is because I didn’t have an average upbringing. I can front it out, I can put on a social persona, but most of the time I feel like I’m going to be caught out and teased or bullied like I was at school. The easy way to describe my family dynamic is old fashioned layered with mental health issues and religion. Actually, now I’ve written that down, I don’t think that’s so unusual after all. But anyway, it has produced good character traits in me but also left me wary of revealing too much of who I am to people until I trust them. If you’re now reading this and thinking, ‘Hang on, you’re always splurging your innermost thoughts on here,’ I express myself most easily in written form, and am more comfortable producing confessionals to be consumed by strangers I haven’t met whose interactions with me I can manage because they’re not physically present than I do talking to the people I am related to or ‘real life’ friends with. If you were to meet me, I’d probably confuse you because my social persona is more reserved than my social media persona.
When Lovey/Sidra gets a tattoo and experiences a malfunction, her reaction to the tattoo artist’s reaction reminded me of me. Sidra has revealed something secret about herself by accident because she allowed herself to become comfortable with a person she thought she knew. The moment she realises that she has mistaken a good conversation with someone who seems to share her outlook for friendship is a familiar thing to me. I’ve had that experience before, by oversharing with someone because I thought they got me and consequently making them feel uncomfortable. It made me warm to Sidra as a character.
In contrast, I really liked Pepper from the off and all the more as I learned about her background. She blotted her copy book, though, when she, Blue (Pepper’s partner), Sidra and Tak take a trip to a museum and Pepper doesn’t get why you’d save a load of junk, as she views it. I know she’s fictional, but there are people like her in the world, and some of them come to my place of work. I should understand it, that not everyone gets why some of us preserve ‘junk’ and use it to tell stories about where we’re from, what we’ve achieved, and where we’ve gone wrong. Maybe it’s because I work in an environment where there’s not enough money to do all the socially beneficial things we want to do, from culture to healthcare to social housing, and constantly justifying your existence is tiring. It’s my chip on my shoulder, but it made me briefly annoyed with Pepper.
I thought A Closed and Common Orbit was well balanced and an interesting insight into two characters from the main Wayfarer story. I’m looking forward to borrowing the third book from the library now.