This has been a big month for me as far as sequels. And not just any sequels…but such GREAT ones. I just recently posted my review for Vengeful, the follow-up to Schwab’s amazing X-men-ish novel Vicious. It was just as good as the first! And now I’ve finished reading A Closed and Common Orbit, the second book in Becky Chamber’s scifi/space opera Wayfarer series. This one too was SUCH a good follow-up to The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, which I read just about a year ago now and LOVED. It was one of my favorite books of last year, for so many reasons, and has one of my most favorite relationships ever (Rosemary and Sissix – YES). Anyways, the long story short is that the sequels I’m getting to this year and legit and I am digging it, this one being no exception.
At the end of Small, Angry Planet we leave the crew of the Wayfarer after their ship has taken serious damage and the ship’s AI system, Lovey, has had to do what is essentially a hard reset. This risked her losing all her memories of what made her…her. And that is (tragically as hell, let me tell you) exactly what happened. This next installation picks up with Lovey’s AI system transplanted into a body (totally illegal tech) and transported off the ship to stay with Pepper (the tech who helped secure said illegal body) at Port Coriol.
Although these characters are ones introduced in the first book, their stories, the ones that we follow in this book, are completely separate from the stories of the opening installation. Both books can, truly, be read as standalones. But I definitely think reading them in order helps, as the world-building is impressive and in-depth, and having the background knowledge of Small, Angry Planet (where the basic things are explained a bit more, since it’s the first intro anyone has to this new world) made adjusting to the species and cultures of Closed and Common a little smoother. In any case, this book is told in two timelines, from two perspectives, until we reach the end when everything comes together. The first, of course, is present tense, as Lovey adjusts to her new body, her new surroundings, and the challenges of simultaneously hiding who she is and discovering who she is. Paralleling this is Pepper’s backstory – her “escape” from the planet she was created on and her own adjustments to learning of the wider universe and discovering who she is. Along this journey, her one ally/friend is an outdated AI system. And as their relationship is built, we start to learn why her feelings for helping Lovey run so strongly.
There are so many reasons I loved this book. First, I just have to say that the amount of love in the book is overwhelmingly sincere and inviting. Like, Pepper’s love for Owl (her AI while she was “growing up”), and Owl’s for Pepper, is a perfect balance of parental and sibling from both sides. Since both had something that the other didn’t, or knew/could do things that the other couldn’t, their complementary skills and hopes were beautifully matched and, as they developed together over the years, the loyalty between them (that never disappeared, no matter how long they had to wait) is something so precious. It’s hard to describe how warm and fuzzy it made me feel. The ending had me all happily teary-eyed. As for Lovey (who renames herself Sidra) – her journey to self-discovery is equally fulfilling to read. Honestly, the discussion of AI rights and autonomy and sentiency (sentientness?) in this novel is one that so clearly closely mirrors many minority rights’ campaigns and revolutions in the history of humanity. It’s easier to step back and look at it objectively in this case, since it’s something so innately foreign, but the baseline ethics and morals are ones the should be more consistently paid attention to in our own world. It’s fascinating and the social commentary aspect in brings into play is important. In addition, I love the role that Tak plays, being at first scared and (at least partially) repulsed by Sidra’s AI-ness. But over time, as they share openly (respectfully) and spend time together, those prejudices are overcome. Again, what an important and open-hearted message that is.
In addition, I want to just point out that the continued openness in regards to gender and sexuality that was one of my favorite things about the first book is continued in the same vein here. The intricacies of each species’ (including AI) beliefs and traditions and communication, as well as the creativity therein, remains phenomenal. As a personal favorite, I loved reading more about the Aeluon’s color-based communication system – colors attached to feelings is one of my most favorite things. And again, it teaches so much about being open-minded and overcoming preconceptions and assumptions. The depth of detail present in all aspects of this novel is incredible. This definitely extends to the amount of thought that went into creating the synthetic body that Sidra inhabits…there are so many things I never would have considered and some of the minutiae (like her “memories”) were just mind-bogglingly awesome. To be honest, the overall scifi-ness of this book, this whole series and world, is just so fun to learn and explore. I cannot get enough!
And though I did miss some of my favorites from the Wayfarer crew, I think I am bought into the standalones-in-the-same-universe concept after reading this. I was hesitant at first, but it’s such a wide world to explore that I loved seeing new parts of it through different eyes. Plus, we left the Wayfarer in a solid, if somewhat mournful, spot. And it’s easy to imagine where things go from here, now, for them (any loose ends were trifling enough to not justify much tying-up). As I mentioned in my review for Small, Angry Planet, I enjoyed that we were seeing space from a “normal” POV, and not the “save the world hero” POV that we normally get. With that understanding, the next steps for the crew should be mundane, the sort of daily normal that, now that we know them all, wouldn’t be that interesting to read. So, from that perspective, the switch in focus, to two other “small in the grand scheme of things” stories is warranted and in line with the feel of the opening novel. I respect, and in the end really like, the author’s decision on that front.
I recommended Small, Angry Planet to anyone that has watched and loved Firefly and I stand by that. This is a very different type of setting and story. Still many similar aspects: full (and quirky) characters, fantastic sci-fi details, and the same liberal-minded approach to rights/relationships, but a completely different setting within the same world. It would be like getting Inara’s or Book’s backstory as a spin-off of the main show/ship crew, if you will. So, I don’t think I would recommend Closed and Common based solely on that same love of Firefly. But I will say for sure that, regardless, if you read and loved the first one, you will love this one too.
Please enjoy a few of my favorite passages (along with some personal commentary – in italics):
“No offense to you or your species, but going into the business of creating life with out any sort of formal prep is… […] It’s baffling.” (This, and the entire following section on all the respect and honor given to parenting in Aeluon culture, really spoke to me, having done childbirth education for years.)
“…tresha. Someone seeing a truth in you without being told.” (I think I pointed out this term in the first book as well, but what a gorgeous concept to put a word to.)
“…that doesn’t mean you have to abandon what makes you unique. You’re supposed to own that, not smother it.” (THIS.)
“Life is terrifying. None of us have a rulebook. None of us know what we’re doing here. So, the easiest way to stare reality in the face and not utterly lose your shit is to believe that you have control over it. If you believe you have control, then you believe you’re at the top. And if you’re at the top, then people who aren’t like you…well they’ve got to be somewhere lower, right? Every species does this. Does it again and again and again. Doesn’t matter if they do it to themselves, or another species, or someone they’re created.” (I mean, damn. Check out that universal truth right there.)