Book review: A Close and Common Orbit

Becky Chamber’s new novel, A Close and Common Orbit, is the second book in the Wayfarers series. 

Becky Chambers

Hodder & Stoughton, £16.99

The first book, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, was longlisted for the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction and also shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award crossing the imaginary boundary between literary fiction and science fiction.

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet was a space opera following the crew of a wormhole construction ship as it travelled from one end of the galaxy to the other. 

It was relatively unusual in science fiction in that it was less interested in space battles and military conflict focusing more upon the interaction of the crew who are normal people going about their business. 

A Close and Common Orbit is a sequel that can also be read as a standalone novel.

The new book narrows down even more centring on two main characters; Sidra, who was the ship’s artificial intelligence in the previous book, and Jane who is also Pepper in alternate chapters set at a later time. 

This duality is one of the themes of the novel in the sense that identity is fluid; it is never just one thing and it is shaped by exterior forces in terms of other people and experiences along the way. 

Underlying the story are other themes such as gender identity and what it means to be human at a time when technological advances are beginning to develop machines that appear to have thoughts and feelings of their own.

Jane’s story starts when she is aged 10 and works in a factory sorting scrap. She is known as Jane 23 as she is one of a large group of girls who are all assigned the same Christian name. 

They are controlled by a sinister group of machines known as the Mothers who rule, almost literally, with an iron fist. 

It is a brutal environment for the young girls so when an unexpected opportunity to escape presents itself to Jane she makes a run for it, out into a world she barely knew existed.

Her story now becomes one of spirited survival against the odds, a will to survive in a post-apocalyptic landscape where packs of dogs prowl with menacing regularity. She is aided by Owl, an artificial intelligence based in a ship which provides a haven for her.

As she grows up, the novel highlights both her determination and her occasional need to revert to childish comforts, particularly when she plays a computer game called Big Bug Crew. 

Even by the time she is 19 the sense remains that she is very much an innocent abroad.

Sidra’s story, which takes place some time later but is told alongside Jane’s, is similarly one of growth and development. 

She is a rebooted version of Lovelace from the earlier book and as an artificial intelligence is an illegal alien in the Galactic Commons society. 

Her struggle concerns both her attempts to assimilate quietly into the society and also to come to terms with the artificial body “kit” which she inhabits. 

She has to reconcile herself with her precarious existence in this society and thereby reflects the experiences of many refugees and immigrants in our own times.

Chambers has a keen eye and understanding for many of the ills that all societies seem to suffer but she does not labour the point. 

Her skill as a writer lies in her characterisation, the way she allows her characters to develop at their own pace in a world full of confusion and potential intolerance.

A Close and Common Orbit follows ordinary lives in a strange and unsettling world and the resonances with our own lives are made with clear-sighted lucidity.


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