Book review

Review: a closed and common orbit – Becky Chambers

365 pages| publisher: Hodder & Stoughton|Genre: Science fiction/ fantasy

The digest: A closed and common orbit is quite frankly one of the most enjoyable character-driven novels I have ever had the pleasure of reading. It’s sharp, provocative, and emotionally challenging – well worth a read for fans of sci-fi and more ‘literary’ stories.

Following on from the concluding events of the long way to a small, angry planet, Chambers flips her storytelling on its head by shifting to two points of view we haven’t yet seen, spread across two different time periods. The story follows the life of Pepper as she helps you know who (or you might not, but no spoilers here!) adapt to a nice enough life amongst other sapients, whilst exploring what it means to fit in with a society you weren’t made for. Don’t be expecting much in terms of the crew of the Wayfarer – this novel is not about them in any way, I reckon this book would do well as a standalone to be honest.

 

Chambers looks at a variety of themes which are relevant in everyday real-world life: racism, universal rights, the idea of persistent identity, companionship etc but the journey is a lot more internal than in her debut novel. Instead of a defined adventure as was present in a long way, this novel sees the author focus almost entirely on the upbringing (if you can call it that) of two of the original book’s side characters. There are few dramatic fight scenes here, no exploding ships, and no in-depth explanations of interplanetary travel – the story is more accessible and more ‘literary’ in its emphasis on emotions and experiences. It is interesting to see Chambers write two books which present such different takes on the same type of narrative – especially as she does it so well. The plot is character-driven and as such a more sedate set of events is not too unexpected.

 

There are a fair few interesting smaller goings-on which really helps to flesh out the world. The conclusion is an excellent example of this, but even the decision-making process which led to the final choice was methodological and understandable. There is no deus ex machina, and astute readers will probably be able to pick up on a few underlying threads during their reading experience. There were some I followed from early on and others that I only understood in the last few pages – signs of good forethought and plot execution.

In terms of writing style, Chambers effectively manages to separate each character by their use of language and other quirks. One swears a fair bit, another never does; one has a stammer and trips over words whilst others never say anything wrong. I am quite sure that you could give me a line of dialogue from one of the main cast and I could tell you which one was speaking – something which cannot be said about many other books. The author also uses the more standard writing techniques e.g. varied sentence structure, chapter length etc to increase the tempo of the story and create a more tense environment. Maybe a couple of the later chapters were a bit too short for my liking, but as that is more of a personal opinion I won’t knock the overall novel due to my own preferences.

 

I found the character development to be spectacular. The 365 pages see the main two characters develop from blank slates to mature characters – but never are they predictable The author did an outstanding job of identifying issues with AI (and how a more developed AI would view less advanced programs), and even offered a few philosophical points along the way which can easily and obviously apply to anybody who finds themselves lacking identity. I wouldn’t be surprised if Chambers’ struggled with this in her personal life in the past as she writes about it in such brevity and quality as to indicate she’s experienced similar issues herself. No spoilers though!

The extended cast is also well thought out and written – we see a couple of familiar faces and learn a bit more about their relevant backstories, too, whilst also involving a fair few new people. I say people as not all of the main group are human(ish) – though the majority are- if there was one thing I would change about this novel it would be how human-focused it seems. I massively enjoyed learning about all of the different species in the first book and whilst this is built upon a fair bit here, I was waiting for a new exciting species or even take on the modders’ community but was left wanting.

 

The locations are likewise well thought-out, with a mixture of sterile internal pods and such contrasting with destitute scrap heaps and even several party scenes. The variety is good but not amazing – perhaps this criticism is a bit unfair as the environments all tend to provide meaningful ways for the characters to grow – they are functional for their purposes. Maybe I felt as if the book was missing any sizeable chunk actually set in space – particularly after how the long way was almost entirely spent away from planets and moons. Having said this, there is one particularly interesting chapter which brings together the inter-species communities and the idea of feeling out of place which relies on a combination of different high-tech ideas.

 

If you enjoyed the long way to a small, angry planet then I implore you to pick up a closed and common orbit. Whilst it didn’t get the same 5/5 score, the novel is thought-provoking and satisfying. If you weren’t happy with the conclusion of the first book (I know what I would have preferred), then this one should make you feel a bit happier about the situation. I will be moving on to the final book in the trilogy, record of a spaceborn few very soon. I cannot convey how good I thought the closing pages were without spoilers – you simply must read the novel if anything I have said interests you even remotely.

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