Lovelace was once merely a ship's artificial intelligence. When she wakes up in an new body, following a total system shut-down and reboot, she has to start over in a synthetic body, in a world where her kind are illegal. She's never felt so alone.
But she's not alone, not really. Pepper, one of the engineers who risked life and limb to reinstall Lovelace, is determined to help her adjust to her new world. Because Pepper knows a thing or two about starting over.
Together, Pepper and Lovey will discover that, huge as the galaxy may be, it's anything but empty.
The book cover below includes alt-text.
This is book 2 in the Wayfarers series. It's a standalone that shares a few characters with The Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet. It's better to read The Long Way... first, but I think the book will also make sense on its own.
I bought A Closed And Common Orbit right after finishing the first book, without even reading the synopsis. To be honest, I expected it to be about the Wayfarer crew, who I wasn't ready to part with. When I realized it was about Pepper and Lovelace (the new AI), I was a bit disappointed. Even though Pepper was an interesting character, and having AI as a protagonist is exciting on its own, it was just not what I expected. But that's on me, of course. It took me a few chapters to get used to, but then, just like with the first book, I found myself unable to put it down.
Once again, Becky Chambers reveals her unmatched mastery of character development underpinned by her intimate understanding of what it's like to be in someone else's skin. I am in constant awe of the depth of her insight.
Lovelace is a sentient AI built for taking care of spaceships, but she leaves the Wayfarer in an artificial human body with Pepper. That's not the vessel she was designed for, and it causes her constant distress. The challenges she encounters, the ways she wants to interact with the world that are either inaccessible to her or just would seem too weird, therefore putting her in danger, her relationship with the body that she now occupies, the ways she processes information — there are so many thoughtful details that required the author to become Lovelace in order to comprehend. Not just think about her or what she would be like, but turn into her, be her and feel like her. I found Lovelace absolutely fascinating, even more so because I believe that creating a compelling AI character is much more difficult than a human or even an alien one. It requires thinking outside the box, and Becky Chambers excelled in it.
I also enjoyed Pepper's character development a lot. We don't only meet her as a present-day adult, but as a kid raised in very strange conditions, with a very limited understanding of the world, a moody teenager and a young adult. Each of these stages of her life is presented with the intimacy and care for detail that define the author's style.
Honestly, after reading two of her books, I believe that Becky Chambers is one of the best when it comes to creating characters. I don't know how she achieves such a depth of understanding. It goes beyond mere observation. I think many people don't even understand themselves as well as Becky understands her characters.
The plot is straightforward and deals with two separate timelines: the present seen through Lovelace's point of view, and the past, where we follow young Pepper's adventures. I believe this book has much more going on in terms of actual events than The Long Way. It's still not packed with action, and it's still very much focused on the intricacies of living the protagonists' everyday lives, their relationships and the inner workings of their minds, but it's tighter when it comes to external events happening to the characters and shaping them. Besides, their lives are way more challenging and dangerous than those of the first book's crew, especially young Pepper's, who fights for her survival.
The world-building is just as masterfully done as in the first book. We don't visit so many places, but we still get to explore intriguing alien cultures that often put our understanding of things like family or raising children into perspective, witness interspecies relationships and a darker side of a certain human colony. It's a compelling, detailed and complex world.
I loved the book and was deeply impressed by it. At first, I was more interested in young Pepper's chapters because there was more tension and danger to them, but the better I got to know Lovelace, the more I got invested in her story too.
I loved how the author brought the two timelines together in the end of the book. I loved the parallels between Lovelace and Pepper. Both were created by others to perform tasks for their makers. Both were treated as if they were less than people and their lives didn't matter. Both were given bodies chosen and constructed by someone else. Both had to leave their birthplace in and search of a new home. Both stories raise questions of personhood. Even though one is organic, and the other is synthetic, the protagonists are strikingly similar.
Lovelace is not the only AI character in the book. There is also a very important secondary character that you'll meet yourself if you read it. Through them, the author keeps exploring the issue of sentient AI rights that she touched upon in the first book. Even though she makes it clear that AIs are self-aware, feeling, sentient, unique entities, they are not seen as such in the world she's created. They are viewed as mere tools, and most people treat them accordingly. They have no rights or autonomy, their work isn't appreciated and is taken for granted. They are easily abandoned by those they love, and killing them is a trivial thing, like deleting a program. Even though some people manage to have meaningful connections with them, those are very rare exceptions usually created by extraordinary circumstances.
I have trouble categorizing Becky Chambers' work, and I don't know what subgenre it is. The part about Pepper's past falls into cyberpunk, but overall? Maybe sociological sci-fi that asks some tough questions but still leaves you feeling good and cozy? Maybe it doesn't need to be categorized at all.
You might enjoy the book if you like character-driven stories, in-depth character development, are interested in the idea of sentient AI and would like a unique and personal look at such entities. If you liked the first book, you'll probably like this one too. If you didn't, there is a chance this one will turn out different for you, but I don't promise anything :).
I bought the third book immediately after finishing this one, and this time I don't expect it to be about the same characters :).
Becky Chambers is a science fiction author based in Northern California, best known for her Hugo Award-winning Wayfarers series. Her varied works have also been nominated for the Nebula Award, the Locus Award, the Arthur C. Clarke Award, and the Women's Prize for Fiction, among others. Her latest book is the upcoming novella A Prayer for the Crown-Shy (July 2022), the second of her Monk and Robot series.
Becky has a background in performing arts, and grew up in a family heavily involved in space science. She spends her free time playing video games, tabletop RPGs, and looking through her telescope. Having hopped around the world a bit, she’s now back in her home state, where she lives with her wife. She hopes to see Earth from orbit one day.
Featured image made by AI called DALL·E 2.