Review: A Closed and Common Orbit

Gather round. Is real life getting you down? Is the idea of normality as scary to you as it is unreachable? Have you just about had enough with this year, and long to take the mental equivalent of a warm bubble bath? Why not try A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers.

A well-used paperback copy of the sci fi novel A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers. It's on a velvet background surrounded by nuts, bolts and screws, which could have been arranged artistically, but are not.

Described as ‘Rainbows & Hugs Space Opera’ by someone who gave it 2/5 stars on Goodreads, ‘Becky Chambers leaves no sentiment unexpressed, and is unafraid to yank mercilessly at your heartstrings until you either submit to her gentle, benevolent will, or die of myocardial infarction.’ (Sadly, the review appears to now have been taken down.)

It is the stand-alone sequel to The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, and second instalment in the Wayfarers series. Yes, it’s a sequel. No, you don’t have to read the first one. They are completely separate works with extremely minor links. Trust me.

This is another dual-narrative arrangement: in the first we follow Sidra, an AI housed in an illegal android body, as she gets to grips with social norms, expectations, and a body she doesn’t belong in. We also watch as young Jane 23, an escaped genetically-modified clone, as she struggles through the scrapheap she calls home, with the help of another AI, Owl.

Chambers is well known for her relaxed attitude towards plot; much more important here are the character and sentiments they invoke. In this way, one could consider ACaCO to be light and breezy fair – a pleasant way of passing the time with your regular sci-fi found family. I would argue that it is more than that. Sidra is your typical fish out of water situation: she doesn’t fit in, but has to at the risk of death etc, but she is also a very complex individual. She files information away knowing that it will be useless. She remembers (thanks to her silicon brain) everything everyone has ever said to her, and hides this because she knows how weird it is; she literally cannot store memory the way others can. But the thing is that these are not faults in her code. She would work perfectly in a space designed for her, but is instead subjected to a world designed for those unlike her, both mentally and physically.

You don’t! You have no idea what it’s like.’ The kit tugged at its hair. ‘I have a form that doesn’t suit me right now.’

Now, as we all know, one of the great qualities of science fiction is how it allows us to examine the human condition in depth, all while maintaining the thin veneer of pretending we’re talking about robots and aliens. I really appreciated reading about Sidra’s struggles as she manoeuvred her way through this strange world. We’ve all felt like we don’t fit in one way or another – I think Sidra particularly reflects a neurodivergent struggle here; her earlier struggles with the android body are also directly comparable to body dysmorphia. Hell, she’s meant to look like a spaceship, not a human. Of course, the current definition of dysmorphia is feeling something is wrong with your body – if we ignore that ugly assumption and take it to mean knowing that something is wrong, then Sidra has dysmorphia.

A woman's profile surrounded by binary code. The irony is that Sidra represents a non-binary identity, although she only thinks in 1s and 0s.

Chambers explores with gender identity and roles throughout the Wayfarers series, not least of which with the Aeuleons, an alien species, some of whom go through various gender identities as a part of their everyday lives – assisted by hormone implants. This, combined with the way characters react to big, dramatic reveals – when Sidra discloses her identity to a friend, they have an open and intelligent conversation which many outside the cis-het sphere would no doubt aspire to – can feel a bit preachy at times. But there is always the sense that Chambers is not addressing an audience, but merely providing an earnest and kind idea of how we could all act if we really, really tried.

Jane 23 also shows how trauma shapes us – but also how to grow from that dark place, with the help of friends who understand – or don’t, but love you anyway. Jane resents her upbringing, being forced to sort through and fix scrap metal. But as a teen and adult, she does it for a living – out of her own choice.

How did Blue stay so patient? Sidra had wondered this often. Perhaps it was something in his genes, something his makers had written into his organic code. Was it less admirable, then, if it was something inbuilt, rather than cultivated by conscious thought and effort?

There have been arguments against the use of non-human entities to examine human experience, particularly when it borders on queer identities or neurodivergence. Spock, Data, C-3PO – hahaha, look at the funny android trying to be human. It is a delicate balance, and not one which I profess to know the perfect measure for. Personally, I found Data’s strive for humanity touching – possibly helped by the contemplative nature of Star Trek: The Next Generation – but many might feel different. Popular media is making progress in representation of these characters who were traditionally pushed to the borders, but there is still an awful long way to go. I suspect anyone who reads Becky Chambers will already be of an inclusive mindset, but if they by chance are not, and reading Sidra’s experience makes them even 1% more aware, more empathetic, I’m all for it.

Rainbow and Hugs Space Opera for the lonely astronaut.

But is it gay?
It’s so far up in that space that two of the main characters are in a straight relationship and yet nonetheless radiate queer energy. Big found family vibes.

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