It’s actually been a while since I read these books – my time has been eaten by a pile of other things, including but not limited to: Christmas, birthdays (not mine), holidays, moderately punishing work schedules and getting married on two continents (one wedding, to the same person, but with one half of the wedding in the UK, the other in New Zealand) and having a supporting role at a friend’s wedding.
This means that I’m going to struggle to say much – partly because of time and partly because of spoilers. But I’ll say what I can. There will be some spoilers, though – particularly for the second book.
I’m going to start with “The Long Way To A Small Angry Planet” and then move on to “A Closed And Common Orbit”, both by Becky Chambers.
The Long Way To A Small Angry Planet
In my mind, this is the weaker of the two books than I’m reviewing here. That’s not to say that it’s in any way weak – just that, whilst I thoroughly enjoyed The Long Way To A Small Angry Planet, I was incredibly impressed with A Closed And Common Orbit. They’re books with quite different feelings, whilst still being surprisingly tightly tied together.
The Long Way To a Small Angry Planet is, at heart, a road movie. The focus is on a set of characters who are on a journey, each with their own reasons for the journey but also tied together for a common purpose and travelling together.
In this story, the travelling together comes as being a diverse starship crew, fulfilling the role of navigational engineers – creating new wormhole routes to distant and farflung places. In the immediate sense, this is a job they are doing for money… but in a wider sense they are each on the ship for their own reasons and motivations and a large part of the story is spent exploring both these and the dynamics of a fairly rag-tag, yet close-knit crew through the eyes of the newest member.
As they travel, we are gradually introduced to the crew, their lives, the worlds and societies they came from. We are introduced to the history of the setting, but always through interaction rather than exposition. For example, we’re shown how humanity has changed and split over expansion into the stars, with new divisions and conflicts, through the incredibly natural flow of the narrative, rather than having it plot-dumped on us early on.
Over the course of the book, a number of different plot-lines unfurl and evolve in an engaging way, but ultimately, it’s a book about people, about character, about what drives them and makes them who they are… and in turn, like much good SF, it’s about what drives us and makes us who we are.
It enjoys and revels in the differences between the cast, without making those differences lead to conflict every time. It’s chock full of wonder, excitement, confusion and understanding, and ultimately, it’s a beautiful story about life. Which is populated by humans, aliens (including some very alien aliens – not just humans in masks) and AIs – and opening up a huge scope for a lot more stories to be told.
A Closed And Common Orbit
First things first, this has a very different feel to it than it’s predecessor.
Whilst that was a bit of a slice-of-life travelogue on a ship bouncing between locations… this one is largely in a fixed physical location. The first spoiler is that it jumps about in time instead.
I don’t mean that it includes time travel – just that it looks at events from two distinct places in time, following two main threads, but with certain commonalities about the viewpoint characters.
One thread follows Sidra, previously Lovelace the Wayfarer’s AI – but now (illegally) in a fully autonomous body and without any of her prior memories. She is now “passing” as a human, assisted by Pepper – a minor character in the previous book who helped her come out the other side of the climactic events therein.
I use the term “passing” with all it’s connotations, and the feelings and fears that go with them. She isn’t comfortable being something which her mind doesn’t fit with, despite wanting to be. So many things are different from what she was designed to be. Going from being near-omniscient and omnipresent within your domain to having a fixed location and viewpoint isn’t exactly a small change, and this is thoroughly addressed. On top of that, being hardwired to serve others and make them happy doesn’t fit so well with suddenly being an autonomous, free thinking person with nobody else to care for.
The other thread follows Jane 23 as she finds her way out of servitude in a sweatshop like hive. Similar to Sidra in the other thread, she has secrets she must keep which would see her treated as somehow less if they were out in the open. Where Sidra is an Artifical Intelligence forced into pretending to be a human, Jane 23 is an illegal clone – manufactured for unethical slave labour and designed as a cheap interchangeable part rather than as a resilient individual. Which causes some problems when she accidentally escapes – not just because she’s an illegal clone, but because if you can build cheap replaceable slaves and already don’t care about that ethical quagmire… why bother building them to last?
As the two threads start to mingle together, it becomes apparent that they’re not starting to mingle. They were always mingled – right from the start.
If you like stories that focus strongly on identity – both the identity we construct for ourselves and the identity that is imposed upon us, then this is up your street. If you want sympathetic treatments of body dysmorphia, this is for you. If you want stories that touch on what it is to be an “unperson”, where your very nature promotes fear, disgust or even disbelief from the prevailing culture… you could do a lot worse than this book.
But much like its predecessor, at it’s core, it’s a positive book. Sure, it’s chock full of people dealing with some internal (and external!) trauma and major life changes… but it’s ultimately about moving past them and taking ownership of self rather than wallowing in the problems.
It’s a book in which three (well, kinda…) characters come to find their places in the world.
I loved it, and think it deserves a lot of praise.
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, 14 by Peter Clines (although I still don’t know how to enthuse about it without spoiling it) and the audiobook of Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel (which at the rate I’m going, may well be joined by the upcoming next volume – Waking Gods, due in April).
Probably something else which I’ve forgotten