Friday, October 28, 2016

A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers

A Closed and Common Orbit is Becky Chambers' second novel, set in the same universe as her first. I enjoyed The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet when I read it a few weeks ago, so I grabbed her new book as soon as it was available at the library.
When I pick up an author's second book, I'm never quite sure what to expect. Especially if I particularly enjoyed the first one. Can it recapture the best things from the first book, without feeling like a retread? In this case, I think Chambers has created an excellent second effort, but there's no denying that it's a very different story from her first book.

A Closed and Common Orbit starts right after the ending of The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, following two characters that appeared only briefly in the first book. Pepper is a genetically-engineered human who runs a repair shop, and she's taken in Sidra, a brand-new AI who is (illegally) installed in an android body. Almost everything from the first book is merely background in this one. You won't hear much from any of the crew of the Wayfarer that dominated the previous book.

In many ways, A Closed and Common Orbit is a pair of coming-of-age stories. One side of this Sidra, coming to terms with her existence in a situation for which her programming was not designed. The other side is Pepper's history, from slave to escapee to free citizen. The stories are interwoven, with flashbacks to Pepper's journey taking place between episodes in Sidra's life. I thought Chambers did a fine job of keeping the two in step throughout and tying everything together at the end.

In terms of structure, I think A Closed and Common Orbit is an improvement over The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet in a few ways. The overall flow is much smoother in the second book, without the disjointed "string of episodes" feel of the first. It also feels more focused, both in terms of characters and concepts. There's one clear central concept - artificial intelligence as equal to biological. Other ideas still make an appearance, but in a supporting role. Likewise, Pepper and Sidra are the clear central characters, in contrast to the first book where just about every crew member of the Wayfarer took over a central role at one time or another.

On the other hand, this book doesn't have anywhere near the scope of The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. The first book built up an entire universe with various species, political entities, technologies, and so on. The Wayfarer's journey affected the lives of a large portion of the galaxy. In contrast, A Closed and Common Orbit is almost entirely limited to the lives of Sidra and Pepper. I didn't get the same sweeping, planet-hopping space opera feel as the first book.

For me personally, A Closed and Common Orbit was a better read than The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. I enjoyed both, but I prefer the second book's focus on fewer characters and concepts. Someone who enjoyed the larger scope of the first book might feel the opposite, though. In any event, I do hope Chambers keeps writing in this universe as it's a fun place to explore in whatever writing style.

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