The novel “A Closed and Common Orbit” by Becky Chambers was published for the first time in 2016. It’s the second book in the Wayfarers series and follows “The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet“.
Sidra is an outlaw creature as she’s an artificial intelligence in an android body. Pepper, who managed to achieve that result together with her friend Blue, is committed to helping Sidra adapt to a very different situation than her job as a starship artificial intelligence. It’s a difficult process even if Sidra finds new friends on her path.
Jane 23 is a little girl used together with many others like her to do various jobs. One day an explosion in the factory where she lives and works disrupts her life by revealing that there’s something outside it. She’s frightened, but she escapes taking advantage of the fact that the robots that manage the work can’t leave the factory, and ends up finding an abandoned shuttle where there’s still a working artificial intelligence.
“The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet” was a full-fledged space opera with interstellar journeys filled with adventures. This sequel is completely different in the sense that it’s not about the adventures of the crew of the starship Wayfarer but only about its former artificial intelligence after it was transferred into a perfectly human-looking body. That’s against the law and for this reason Pepper, who bought and assembled the android body together with her friend Blue, must help her discover her new identity while keeping a low profile.
In parallel, the story of Jane 23 is told. She’s a little girl created on a planet where genetic engineering is in common use. In fact, she’s a slave until she escapes following an accident in the factory that until that day was the whole universe for her and for others like her, clones used as labor force.
I found the opening part of “A Closed and Common Orbit” a bit heavy in Sidra and Jane’s early reactions to the new situations they find themselves in. Both are for very different reasons in a world that has nothing to do with what they were created for. In some ways, Sidra is also a child like Jane after her escape from the factory, and her reactions when exploring the possibilities of a life as a human are sometimes childish. This made it a bit difficult for me to follow their stories with interest, also because Becky Chambers put good feelings into them in abundance, making them a bit cheesy at times.
My impression improved as the novel continues because important themes are addressed. Sidra is an artificial intelligence created to do some work on a starship. Jane was created to do some work in a factory. The artificial intelligence of the shuttle Jane discovered was created for the same purpose as Sidra. In short, they’re sentient beings, organic or not, used as tools, with no rights.
In Sidra’s case, being inserted into an android body represents a completely new experience. For Sidra it’s so strange that she refers to that body as the kit, as if it was still something detached from her, like one of the instruments of the starship in which she worked.
Actually, themes such as slavery and identity are not developed particularly in-depth, but there are several references that offer some food for thought. Like “The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet”, “A Closed and Common Orbit” is a characters-based novel, so the various themes are connected to the protagonists and go very little further.
“A Closed and Common Orbit” is in many ways very different from “The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet” because the subplots take place mainly on planets and not during travels on a starship, but Becky Chambers’s style is the same, as well as strengths and weaknesses. If you can stand the slightly cheesy parts, in my opinion it’s worth reading.