Wayfarers #2 - A Closed and Common Orbit
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Last year, I purchased Becky Chambers' first novel, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, since I saw multiple recommendations from other authors and reviewers. It did not receive either a Hugo or Nebula nomination, so I held it for a later date. It's possible it wasn't eligible, since it originated as a self-published title a couple of years earlier, supported by a Kickstarter campaign. After being picked up by UK publisher Hodder & Stoughton, it was short-listed for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, as well as the Tiptree and Kitchies. I still haven't read it, but just finished her second book, since it is on the Hugo ballot this year, and is also a finalist for the BSFA Award. Several people said it was enough of a stand-alone story that it wasn't necessary to read the previous book, and I think they're right, but I intend to get back to it one of these days. That's why I've named this page Wayfarers, since that is the collective title the author and publisher have established for the series.
I may be mistaken, but I think there are only two characters common to both books. Pepper was an engineer on the ship Wayfarer, Lovelace was the ship's AI. After a computer crash and reboot, Lovelace awoke as a sentient consciousness. Due to problems this created between the AI and the rest of the crew, Pepper installed Lovelace in a humanoid body 'kit' and took her off the ship, renaming her Sidra. The 'kit' Sidra inhabits is so realistic she can physically pass as human, including bleeding if cut, although the blood has no other function for maintenance of the body. However, what Pepper has done is illegal, and there is the possibility Sidra could give herself away verbally, due to her strict honesty protocols and lack of familiarity with planetary customs. They return to Pepper's home on Coriol, and to her partner Blue, who is an artist, but during Pepper's absence has also been overseeing her tech repair shop. Sidra gets a room in their home and a job at Pepper's shop.
Chapters alternate between Sidra's attempts to learn human characteristics and customs in order to fit into Port Coriol society, with another sequence of events set about twenty years earlier. The focus there is on Jane23, a child slave confined to a factory controlled by robots, her task being sorting through scrap to salvage any usable tech. It didn't take long to figure out Jane23 was also a featured character in the later events, although under another name. I won't say any more about her story, other than it was the more interesting aspect of the book, and that it entails both tragic misery and hopeful optimism. I still liked the 'current time' segments, although I should caution those who like a lot of action in their SF that this probably won't satisfy them. From what I've gathered, the earlier book also dealt more with the characters and their interactions rather than with an exciting plot. That doesn't bother me, since the characters and worlds Chambers has created are fascinating.
Something I felt was less than realistic was the interactions with the alien species. Many people today can't seem to tolerate other cultures here on Earth, so I'd expect more conflict between humanity and other species. There were a few comments about past wars, and there might be more of that in the first book, but for the most part everyone gets along fine on Coriol. There seems to be too much similarity of thought, or at least understanding and acceptance of the minor differences. Humanity has never exhibited that much empathy, I wouldn't expect it of aliens either. Those quibbles aside, I really enjoyed this, both for the puzzle of Sidra's attempts to become more human, along with Jane23's struggle against almost insurmountable odds. Both are memorable characters, and I hope we see more of their lives in subsequent books. I'd dive right into Small Angry Planet if I didn't have more Hugo finalists to read right now, but I will return to this remarkable world as soon as possible.
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