There is an uncommon joy that infuses every last word in Becky Chambers brilliantly-affecting A Closed and Common Orbit.
That is largely due to the nuanced and empathetic way that the author addresses the prevailing theme of the book which is all about discovering who you are and where you fit in the wider scheme of things.
It’s an ambitious piece of intent in a novel that sprawls across a galaxy in which finding out where you belong is a lot harder than you might think.
Or perhaps not, if you’re Pepper aka Jane 23, a genetically-engineered woman from a planet where cloning people is cheaper than building AI-driven robots, a resource which is ruthlessly exploited to run a scraps-sorting business which comes close to consuming an entire continent.
It’s brutalist and cruel but it’s all Jane 23 has ever known, her entire view of the world and of life itself constrained to the inside of a workroom and a dorm and the connecting spaces in-between.
“A deluge of information hit Sidra’s pathways, but in a way that exhilarated her. There was as much happening as there would be in a busy market square, but there were edges here. Walls. Her field of observation was instantly defined; her protocols did not reach endlessly outward.” (P. 75)
That is until an industrial accident, which kills a number of the all-too-expendable clones, gives ten-year-old Jane 23 a glimpse into a world in which there is sky, scrap-strewn vistas as far as the eye can see and a whole lot of things for which she has no words and no experience.
Her curiosity piqued, she convinces her bunkmate Jane 64 to return to the hole in the wall, a risky undertaking that Jane 23 makes even riskier by venturing through the roughhewn portal into the messily industrial massively expansive yard beyond.
Forced to run, Jane 23 finds herself at the mercy of wild dogs whose use the cover of night to hunt her, the young innocent abroad, and remember her world is entirely set by four rigidly-enforced walls, only saved by a lonely AI named Owl who has been abandoned along with the ship in which she resides in the farther reaches of the scrap.
It is the unlikeliest of relationships and families, but a family it is, and this unexpected act of salvation is the making of Jane 23 who comes to realise her individual worth, her innate skills and the unique things that make her the kind of person who years later plays a pivotal role in saving a ship AI named Lovelace.
This act, borne no doubt of Jane 23’s, now Pepper’s deep-rooted connection to her family member Owl, with whom she eventually escapes the scrap planet, sets in train another being’s liberation with Lovelace, later renamed Sidra who now occupies a human-looking kit that mimics real flesh-and-blood in startling clever and realistic ways, setting out her own two steps forward, one step back journey to finding her own place in the world.
Like Pepper’s, hers is not an easy journey but it’s a profoundly meaningful one in which she comes to know Pepper and her partner Blue, who is an artist and an Aeluon named Tak who comes to be a friend in ways Sidra never knew possible.
Most importantly, we bear witness to how Sidra navigates a raft of changes and discoveries, some of which entice, some of which repel but all of which play a key role in shaping the whole unique person she becomes.
The bonds between all these people, who lives on moon of Port Coriol, is a joy to read about it, because not only do we see the high points of their collective journey to deep friendship and an alienable sense of family, but we are also witness to the low points too.
In that way their story, told with a delightful sense of flawed but uplifting humanity by Chambers who beautifully brings to life the intimate in the heart of the epic, feels very human and intensely, compellingly relatable.
“Jane turned around, and her mouth fell open. ‘… Owl?’
It was Owl’s face, but no longer flat on a wall. She looked like a person, a whole person, with a body and clothes and all of it. There was nothing real about her, not any more real than the Big Bug kids. But she was there. Owl smiled, kinda shy.
‘What do you think?’ she said, gesturing at herself.” (P. 231)
That sets A Closed and Common Orbit in some fairly rarefied sci-fi company.
In keeping with many space operatic tales, it occupies a big and enthralling backdrop but Chambers takes great care to invest it with a deep, affecting intimacy, so raw, beautiful and true that you feel as invested in where the journey ends for the characters every bit as much as they care for each other.
This insular focus works beautifully, amplifying how critical it is for all of us to find not only our sense of self but where that fits in with others and how they can help us to find out not only more about ourselves but our purpose and place in the grand scheme of things.
A Closed and Common Orbit is thus a treasure to read, to immerse yourself in and to experience, so rich in emotion, humanity and heart, and a wholly captivating story that it will stay with you long after the final page is turned and the last and yet first steps in everyone’s journeys take place.