Reading Notes on “A Closed and Common Orbit” by Becky Chambers

This sequel continues the theme of found family from the first book, and is bursting at the seams with several themes common to a lot of disabled, queer, and trans experiences: dysphoria, dissociation and depersonalization, healing from traumatic childhoods, gender fluidity, to name just a few.

Reading Notes on “A Closed and Common Orbit” by Becky Chambers

This book surpassed the expectations set during my reading of Becky Chambers’ first book back in April.

Both The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet and A Closed and Common Orbit are built around relationships that create a found family. A Closed and Common Orbit takes it further, bursting at the seams with themes common to a lot of disabled, queer, and trans experiences: dysphoria, dissociation and depersonalization, healing from traumatic childhoods, trying to heal together, gender fluidity, to name just a handful. All these themes are dealt with various degrees of success, but in my opinion the book's choices with all these themes are interesting and valuable.

Comparing the sequel to Chamber's first novel, if there were any shortcomings I found upon my rereading of The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, they were primarily structural. TLWTASAP does have what I would call an ending problem. The action is so (delightfully) slow going for the first half of the novel, that the sudden pedal to the metal increase in pace in the last quarter of the book can give a reader whiplash. Especially noticeable upon rereading is that Chambers relies heavily on her dialogue for the exposition of her world — which can make some dialogue feel particularly artificial, undermining otherwise strong characterizations. But, TLWTASAP's compelling characters and such wonderful worldbuilding that it more than makes up for these issues. Bottom line: I just really loved that book.

Falling once again into the universe of A Closed and Common Orbit was great. The second book learns from the first by having a stronger structure to help move the reader along. And the two protagonists, Pepper and Sidra (the AI formerly known as Lovelace in the first novel), are intrinsically (and thematically) connected by this structure. Essentially, the novel's orbital structure is explicitly setup in the very first chapter, showing how the book is going to unfold both Pepper and Sidra’s emotional arcs:

‘Why are you doing this? Why do this for me?’
Pepper chewed her lip. ‘It was the right thing to do. And I guess — I dunno. It’s one of those weird times when things balance out.’ She shrugged and turned back to the console, gesturing commands.
‘What do you mean?’ Lovelace asked.
There was a pause, three seconds. Pepper’s eyes were on her hands, but she didn’t seem to be looking at them. ‘You’re an AI,’ she said.
‘And… I was raised by one.’

In a universe where the personhood of AI is not recognized and they are literally designed to be nothing better than machines, this book turns to the question of how AI feel, and how they deal with trauma, and their relationships. And these aren’t necessarily new questions to science fiction. What really differentiates (for example) Mass Effect’s EDI (don't judge me, Bioware is my wonderful trash) from this novel’s OWL and Sidra, is that the two AI characters' trauma and emotional spectra are fully developped and explored in this book, in my opinion to great effect. I don’t want to spoil the book too much, but essentially, the book shows how important (and difficult) relationships and mutual care are to countering trauma and isolation. Owl and Pepper’s familial relationship paves the way for Sidra and Pepper’s future friendship, eventually coming full circle by the end.

Each chapter alternates between showing Sidra’s current struggles in her new body kit and adjusting to life offship, and a chapter showing Pepper’s early childhood as a genetically modified slave. Often when books have this bifurcated structure, I get frustrated with one storyline because I tend to pick a favourite and rush through whichever one I deem deficient. But I personally found this structure used to great effect in ACACO. It kept me reading onwards without frustration. I finished the book in record time, happily connecting the dots and noticing the parallels (and sometimes contrasts) between the two storylines.

Now, one thing I will note is that the ultimate chapters of A Closed and Common Orbit do start to… rush. Suddenly the tension ramps up — I don't think it was as abrupt as in the first novel, but I still felt like I would have preferred more scenes between a handful of characters to build up their relationships and to have brought the plot and character arcs to their conclusion. I think Chambers’ trusted her readers to fill in a lot of blanks, or perhaps she wanted to keep the focus on Pepper and Sidra without getting bogged down in the tertiary characters. (On that note, arguably one of the more important secondary characters, Blue, felt underdevelopped.)

But there were a lot of aspects about the ending that I would have loved to see unfold slightly differently — especially in the novel's dealing with structural elements near the end. Here’s what I’m trying to say: The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet never really flinched when showing its readers the inexorable nature of the governmental and regulatory systems that rule the universe (and fail the protagonists). Yet I can't help but feel like the final chapters of A Closed and Common Orbit actually undermined the constant, propulsive tension created by the threat of the structural systems and laws of the society that the characters live under. If you’ve read the book and want to talk about this in more detail, do feel free to find me in the comments or on social media. I’d love to know what you think (especially if you disagree!)

Here are some small notes on other things I loved about this book:

  • Tattoos as a method of reclaiming and recreating a relationship between yourself and your body.
  • Romance was utterly secondary in this book to the close and supportive friendships between the characters.
  • The ‘epistolary’ nature of a few chapters, where logs of IRC channels and correspondences between certain characters where included — I love that in science-fiction!
  • Character who kept changing pronouns (he/she/xyr) as they are an alien who cycles through various genders throughout the seasons.
  • There are scenes that take place within a videogame system, and is meant to show us the importance of stories to allow us to grow, articulate our emotion, curb isolation. Those scenes were really cool.

Also, well, this book made me cry. A lot. I was basically sobbing from the midpoint onwards. I think it just grabbed hold of a few very particular dynamics that arrested me and made me feel all of my emotions simultaneously. It’s funny because as much as I loved reading the first book, I didn’t find it so moving that I was suddenly submerged in my feelings. But this one really did.

Especially the scenes with OWL.

I love OWL.

I’m tearing up just thinking about her now.

Anyways, have you read the book? What did you think?

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