While I haven’t read The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, the first book in Becky Chambers’s Wayfarers series, I found A Closed and Common Orbit, last year’s Hugo-nominated sequel to that volume, a deeply enjoyable and approachable read. The characters are rich and honest, the universe is extensive and fascinating, and the writing is excellent.
At the core of A Closed and Common Orbit is one question, explored from several angles: what is personhood?
Whether the AI learning the limitations of a single body, an escaped genetically engineered slave finding out about the world outside her prison, a ship AI exploring motherhood, or an alien shifting between genders with fluidity, each character arc deals with the question of personhood. (Personhood as opposed to humanity is something particularly interesting to explore, given our own proximity to artificial intelligence and our somewhat limited understanding of consciousness.)
There isn’t an adventure at the heart of A Closed and Common Orbit, but there is action and change, despite the slow pacing of the novel. From a quick search, I gather that the pacing presented a problem for some readers, but I feel that a book about asking difficult questions and exploring them with genuine care should take it slow, be methodical, and not detract from it’s central premise with an epic dressing.
I am sure that, by making a categorical statement, I am shooting myself in the foot. There’s no doubt that it’s possible to write a compelling adventure that deals with the essence of personhood. That isn’t this book, though. This book takes time to show the confusion, fear, pain, and the joy, wonder, and curiosity that are part of the conscious experience. It made me think. A lot. And for that, I genuinely appreciate it. In a year filled to brimming with excellent reads, A Closed and Common Orbit may have fallen short of where it otherwise might have been on best-of lists. It’s an excellent book. One I won’t soon forget.
A Closed and Common Orbit is available on Amazon. (Use that link to buy it, if you like, and support The Warbler while doing it!)
Also published on Medium.