A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers
Warning: This review will contain a spoiler for the previous novel, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. It’s really impossible to talk about A Closed and Common Orbit without this spoiler. However, you don’t need to read The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet before reading A Closed and Common Orbit since this sequel focuses on two minor characters from the first book.
Becky Chambers’ debut novel The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is immensely popular but I didn’t like it. As I explained in my review, I thought it was sweet but dull — there just wasn’t enough action, tension, or plot. It was a light social SFF story that was heart-warming, but not at all challenging. Since I already owned the audio version of the second WAYFARER novel, A Closed and Common Orbit (2016), I decided to give it a try and hope I liked it better.
If you read it, recall that at the end of The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, the crew of the Wayfarer had to reboot Lovelace (nickname “Lovey”), the ship’s AI, and when she came back online, she had lost a significant amount of her personality. Jenks, the engineering tech who was in love with her, was crushed by this so it seemed like it might be best for one of them to leave the ship. Since an expensive illegal body had already been purchased for Lovey, Pepper removed Lovey’s software from the Wayfarer and installed it in the body. Then Lovey settled down on Pepper’s planet and started working in Pepper’s shop.
The novel alternates between the perspectives of Lovey and Pepper. In Lovey’s story, we watch her as she learns to be a human. You’d think that this would be a wonderful experience for her, getting to feel things, taste food, hug people, etc., but Lovey feels constrained in her new body. This aspect of the story was well done and I thought it was interesting to think about the way that human bodies are limited (it’s good that we’re at the top of the food chain and mostly have to worry only about what other humans can do to us). However, the plot of this part of the story is dull. The things that Lovey does are mundane — the sorts of activities that humans do every day such as going to work, eating dinner, and making friends.
Pepper’s story is her history from childhood to adulthood. It’s a survival story and it would have been interesting if it had been shorter. However, we spend a couple hundred pages alongside young Pepper as she barely ekes out an existence by sheltering in a broken spaceship on a hostile planet. This mostly involves finding and cooking food and getting some education from children’s videos in the spaceship’s library. Again, mundane tasks.
At the end of the novel, the two storylines come together for a heart-warming finale. The ending is terrific, but not terrific enough to make up for the hours of boredom I endured to get there. As with the previous book, there are some nice messages about cooperating, the benefit of living in a multi-cultural society, and the importance of finding a purpose in life, but these ideas were all obvious and unchallenging.
This series reminds me of Anne Bishop’s THE OTHERS series which I thought was really boring but is (like Chambers’ WAYFARER novels) extremely popular. I am totally uninterested in stories about naïve women who are finding their way in the world by doing dull jobs. I don’t know why other people love these stories, which makes me think there must be something wrong with me. More evidence for this theory is that A Closed and Common Orbit was nominated for the 2017 Hugo Award for Best Novel and was shortlisted for the 2017 Arthur C. Clarke Award. So, I guess, don’t believe this review unless you know that we have very similar tastes.
Rachel Dulude does a nice job narrating Tantor Audio’s version of A Closed and Common Orbit. It’s 11.5 hours long.
You aren’t the only person I have heard this kind of comment from, on both books. It’s a question of taste I guess. Lovey sounds cool, though.
That’s good to know, Marion.
Yes, Lovey sounds cool. The whole thing sounds cool. As I was writing about the plot for this review I almost said “that sounds really cool, but…”
I don’t mind mundane stories if the author uses the everyday circumstances to provide new or interesting insight into human behavior that gets taken for granted, but there’s a limit. Pairing up a survival story with an “AI discovers what it’s like to be a normal human” story seems like a risky choice because it can be difficult to maintain the reader’s interest.
And — without drifting into spoilers, naturally — is there a reason given for why Pepper’s storyline is followed in such detail? Is it necessary to know the minutiae of her story?
Sort of, Jana.
I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to say that the spaceship where Pepper found shelter had an AI (parallel to Lovey’s role on the Wayfarer). The AI raises Pepper and this parental relationship creates the climactic event at the end of the novel which was “heart-warming” and “terrific” as I mentioned in my review. So, the combination of Lovey’s story and the survival story DOES make sense. Unfortunately, for me, I became impatient and bored and by the time we got to that great ending, I was annoyed that it took so long to get there. So, we needed to understand the relationship between Pepper and the AI but, as you suggest, we didn’t need to follow the mundane events so closely.
I think this would have made a great novella if Chambers has the skill to impart the feeling of that relationship within a smaller word count.
Thank you for explaining! :)
I’ve read some of Chambers’ short fiction, and I always come away thinking that she has neat ideas but hasn’t quite figured out the best way to deliver those ideas to the reader, whether it’s an issue of format or style or word count.
There’s nothing wrong with you, in my opinion, at least when it comes to Written in Red, which I got about 60% of the way through before giving up on. I just didn’t care about Meg’s dreary work and home life, and the story overemphasized it.
I don’t think the mundanity is anywhere near as bad in this book, although other things about it weren’t quite on the mark, like her aliens, which came across as humans in alien suits. Great ending, though, agreed!
Hi Beth, I’m so glad to hear that someone agrees with me about Written in Red!