A CLOSED AND COMMON ORBIT (Wayfarers #2), by Becky Chambers

My previous experience with Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers series had led me to expect, from this second installment, another easygoing journey into this multi-hued universe where everyone seems to coexist in peace with everyone else, and book 2 was that, indeed, but there were also other narrative elements that “spiced up” the mix and made my experience even more intriguing.

At the end of the first book, the ship’s AI Lovelace had to undergo a hard reset, which restored its functions but also erased the personality built over time by the interactions with the crew, causing them no little grief – particularly where tech Jenks was concerned.  A friend of Jenks, Pepper, offered Lovelace a different chance by installing the AI into an artificial body, shaped like a human female: the process being a very illegal one, Lovelace’s only option was to move in with Pepper and her mate Blue to their home on the outpost of Port Coriol, where the new being – now renamed Sidra – could learn how to act like an organic human and avoid any kind of suspicion. 

A Closed and Common Orbit is the chronicle of Lovelace/Sidra’s journey as she adapts to her new situation, whose unforeseen limitations and newfound freedoms make her adjustments far from easy; but the book is not focused only on Sidra, as she shares narrative space with another character, Jane 23, who is one of the many clones employed in a scrap recycling factory on a distant planet, where the girls are cruelly used as cheap labor by a totally amoral system.  The two stories interweave in alternating chapters, and present two different sides of a quest for identity and self-determination, for the means to survive in a world so different from the one where one’s awareness had set its roots: two very fascinating journeys, indeed, which run parallel for a while, until they intersect in a poignant way which then makes room for the kind of “happy ending” that seems to be Becky Chambers’ narrative trademark.

Sidra (formerly Lovelace) must now deal with the curtailing of her cognitive abilities and the limitations of the human form she now inhabits, which sometimes give way to a sort of agoraphobia, compounded by the need to keep her differences under control lest she reveal what she truly is, and endanger the friends who are helping her. Science fiction often presented us with instances of A.I.s trying to be more human, to transcend their programming and become more similar to their organic creators, but Sidra’s path is somewhat hindered by the longing for those abilities that are now precluded her, so that her story is focused on this seemingly irresolvable dichotomy. I liked how her friends Pepper and Blue go out of their way to ease Sidra’s transition, offering her the sense of friendship and family that her previous iteration had enjoyed aboard the Wayfarer, but what I truly loved were her interaction with the alien Tak and their almost-philosophical discussions about the meaning of life, sentience, love. Tak is an Aeluon, a creature whose language comes from the changing hues of its skin rather than actual words (even though it uses implants that allow it to communicate verbally), and I saw a sort of parallel between Tak and Sidra, both “strangers in a strange land” reaching out to each other with a depth of growing friendship that in my eyes overshadowed even the selfless one offered by Pepper and Blue.

Much as Sidra’s journey proved fascinating, I was drawn more intensely by the chapters focusing on Jane 23, on her discovery of an outside world beyond the confines of the factory where she was effectively enslaved, and her meeting with Owl, the A.I. of a derelict shuttle that offers Jane a safe place in the outside wasteland where packs of ferocious dogs roam among the piles of abandoned scraps. The theme of family is once again explored in these sections of the novel, a family of two where Owl is nothing more than a voice from the walls and a sketched face on the monitors, and yet the A.I. is able to give Jane the means to learn, grow and move beyond the limitations imposed by her earlier life: it’s fascinating to observe how much the relationship between Owl and Jane parallels that of a mother and daughter, with Jane going from the total trust of childhood to the rebellion of teenager years and finally to the understanding and affection that comes later.  And Owl is indeed at the center of a desperate search from a grown-up Jane (in her new identity), so that she can reconnect with her A.I. “mother” and fill the gaping void in her little family.

These two apparently distant storylines have more points of contact that one could imagine, and they do converge in a quite poignant fashion toward the latter part of the novel, where the various pieces of the puzzle begin to connect in a quite emotional way and solidify into a final picture where once again the ties of family, friendship and love are reaffirmed in the kind of rosy, but certainly not saccharine-sweet, picture that I have by now come to expect from Becky Chambers’ stories, which might look somewhat unrealistic from a jaded point of view, but which are quite comforting in their hopeful and optimistic outlook.

And that’s what we so deeply need now and again…

My Rating:

17 thoughts on “A CLOSED AND COMMON ORBIT (Wayfarers #2), by Becky Chambers

  1. I love how these book are all stand alone and they each kind of feel different as well so every time you pick one up it’s a surprise. I really enjoyed this one because it kinda “zooms” in on a particular relationship and gives us a character study rather than an ensemble cast story. (It’s the next Wayfarers book that is my favorite though!)

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  2. I love the Wayfarers series – and this review of A Closed and Common Orbit gives readers an excellent sense of the book:)). As you say, it’s refreshing to see the optimistic and upbeat tone – though that doesn’t stop Chambers from tackling some hard and poignant subjects along the way. I think her examination of found families and their tricky adjustments is one of her outstanding achievements in her writing.

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      1. I completely agree on both counts. I also enjoy convincing found family dynamics (not all of them are…) And yes! – while I LOVE SFF, a great deal of it is on the grim side and right now, we all need some hope alongside our enjoyment:)).

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  3. This is an amazing review!! And the book is not what I was expecting it to be, or so it seems. I have yet to read it, but it is on my list, even if for the moment is on the back seats, but it’s not its fault! And now I am pretty curious to meet these characters (and yep, it can totally be because I love A.I.!!) so it may advance on the list!

    Liked by 1 person

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