This novella is a stand-alone which explores many of the same themes as Chambers’ award-winning Wayfarers books: there’s a deeper focus on science, but there are also the same themes of family, friendship, what’s worth it in life. It follows the fortunes of a small crew who are surveying planets far, far from Earth, investigating all manner of things — including life. It’s an optimistic view of the universe in terms of biology: there’s some form of life everywhere the crew go. Throughout, it’s clear that what they’re doing is not necessary — this isn’t about terraforming, finding somewhere new for people to live, finding resources… it’s about discovery, the joy and wonder of it.
It’s not much of a story, really. There’s a fair bit of explanation about why the scientific things are significant, and there’s a dryness to the tone in a lot of places because of the format (a report back to Earth). There is a payoff, but it definitely wasn’t as emotional as the Wayfarers books, and I didn’t feel particularly close to the characters. In fact, I’ve mostly forgotten their names already, though I do remember some things about them and how they reacted to the events — I’m not saying this is a dead loss, at all.
It’s a good short read, with a theme I can get behind — the importance of discovery for discovery’s sake — but I hoped for more, I think is my conclusion.
All the books in this series are rather cosy, and they’ve been getting less of a plot with each installment — the first book has a crew of characters with a definite short-term purpose in mind, the second book is a character study in many ways, and this… this is slices of life on board the Exodan feet, contemporaneous with the other books. There’s not much of a plot beyond the very basics: people want to live, people want to find their place. It’s got quite a large cast of characters, and it kind of goes a bit aimless and limp in the middle if you’re looking for a plot or even hoping for a definite character arc. It’s very slice-of-life-ish. Even when something dramatic happens, the point is not the drama, but the way the people involved heal afterwards and deal with it.
If you’re looking for a character study and an exploration of how this society might work, though, there is a lot to enjoy. I got a bit teary about the other books, but this one had me in tears within the first fifty pages. There’s something powerful about the Exodan fleet and what it stands for, and this book explores that. It’s interesting to follow these characters as they do their very particular jobs, with meaning and significance only for the Exodan fleet.
I think it’s still an enjoyable read, as long as you’re not going into it with the expectation that you’re going to have gun fights and interstellar politics. This isn’t The Expanse, and there’s very little of the do-or-die heroism. Instead, it’s about people getting on with life, and the small everyday ups and downs they have to deal with. I don’t think it’s as strong as the previous two books, even though it’s the epitome of the hope and family and connection that makes those books so good! It’s just a little too slow and contemplative, without the clear drive of either of the other two.
The first time I read this book, I was vaguely resentful that it wasn’t about the same characters as the first book, and I briefly had the same sensation here. Becky Chambers is so good at creating characters I care about — even if I don’t like them necessarily — and it took me a while to switch gears. However, it was easier on a second reading, and I was quickly caught up in Pepper and Sidra’s stories once more.
In this book, there are two parallel stories: one follows a little girl who escapes from a scrap sorting factory and finds a derelict ship, still equipped with an AI who takes care of her, teaches her, and helps her escape that world. That girl grows up to become Pepper, and Pepper takes care of Sidra. Sidra was an AI, and now she has a humanoid body, and through the course of the book she learns to deal with that. There’s all kinds of great stuff going on about identity and embodiment and learning how to be content with what you are, all wound up in an emotional story about family and belonging.
So naturally, Chambers rocked it. She’s great at aliens, she’s great at figuring out what an AI suddenly thrown into a human body would be like, she’s great at making the reader care incredibly much. I’m not a big cryer in general, and even less so at media, but this book (and the first) makes me cry — and not in a bad way, because there’s so much warmth and hope and joy here, amidst the normal fears and worries of being a person in a world that isn’t always friendly.
I can’t wait to get on and read Record of A Spaceborn Few now. I know I’m going to be hesitant (give me the Wayfarer crew! give me Pepper and Sidra!) and that I’m going to end up loving them.
A Closed and Common Orbit felt even more insular and intimate than The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, which was pretty closely focused on its crew. This book features Lovelace — the base AI Lovey developed from, but without her memories — and Pepper, who is a side character in the first book. It’s mostly about Lovelace, or Sidra, as she decides to call herself, and how she finds her way and figures out how to be herself, how to be a person, but it also follows Pepper’s past and shows how she got to where she was too. Found family is a theme here again, and there’s the same diversity of characters that a lot of people (including me!) loved from the first book.
This book does improve on The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet in a key way: it doesn’t feel as much like the conflicts and problems are resolved too easily. It does feel as though the characters have to work for it, and have to compromise rather than get an ideal outcome. There were one or two cases of that in the first book, but overall it felt too easily solved; that’s not the case here, in my opinion, which makes the payoff the sweeter.
Again, if soft SF is your thing, and you’re looking for something with interpersonal rather than intergalactic conflicts (though there’s some hints of the wider world as well) then this may well be your cup of tea. I’d start with the first book, though; it’s not necessary, but it gives you some context.