Instead of a full complement of characters, this time Chambers focuses on two secondary characters from the first novel: Lovelace, the ship’s AI, and Pepper, an engineer. At the end of The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, Lovelace had to be rebooted to save her life and, unfortunately, this changed who she was.
There were Plot Reasons around why Pepper, a friend of the crew’s, had an AI body kit available for Lovey, but that’s only a little bit germane to the novel other than the fact that Lovey chose to use the body and leave with Pepper in order to spare the crew more pain as they grieved the loss of the original Lovelace.
A Closed and Common Orbit follows two parallel stories: Lovey’s journey towards figuring out who she is and Pepper’s history, in which she had to figure out who she was. I say the stories are parallel, but they’re also in conversation with each other and made richer as a result. Each could stand alone, but I don’t believe that either would be as successful as it is.
Pepper grew up a child slave in a factory run by robots, known only as Jane 23. When she escaped in the wake of an industrial accident, she found an abandoned ship with an AI, Owl. With Owl’s help, Pepper learns to survive, chooses a name, repairs the ship, and learns to be a person instead of a slave in a factory.
There are obvious parallels with Lovey’s story—Lovey may be an incredibly smart AI who knows how to run a ship, but she’s not very good at being a person and it falls to Pepper to teach her, which comes with its own set of challenges.
I found this book, much like the first, to be a warm and fuzzy read that tackled challenging subject matter with grace and compassion. These books show that you can explore meaty topics like the mind-body problem, weirdness and unease around having a body, and how to become a functional individual with connections to others without going all grimdark or torturing anyone. Chambers’s universe isn’t bleak or hopeless and that’s something I really appreciate.
Is the book Hugo-worthy? I don’t know. Chambers’s prose is readable with little that sets it apart, and while the story structure is thematically required, it’s also not particularly groundbreaking. I did enjoy this book tremendously, and that counts for something. I’m still thinking about where I’m going to rank it on my ballot.