Becky Chambers writes what science fiction should be.
What I mean by that is that the world that she was built for both A Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and the companion, A Close and Common Orbit, are what you get when someone watches Star Trek and gets the message: In Science Fiction you don’t have to write about what the world is, but what it could be.
It’s such a simple concept, and yet we get again and again aliens who have societies that work like ours, a gender binary that looks like ours, and aren’t much different in terms of what they look like-sure, they have blue skin and pointed ears, but they look a lot like humans and act like stereotypes.
Chambers loves to just throw all that out the window. “Xyr” is the standard pronoun, there are so many diverse cultures and subcultures in each planet, let alone race, most of the characters are in interspecies relationships, and characters have personalities. The scope of her world is ambitious, even if the stories themselves are very personal.
Her work is so important because it shows that not only is writing this type of book plausible, but it’s interesting, and sells well too. It’s raising the standard of Science fiction to be more-be more inclusive, be more imaginative, be more original-without falling into the trap of creating token characters or plots.
So, onto the book itself:
A Close and Common Orbit is the companion to A Long Way to A Small, Angry Planet, and focuses on the ship’s previous AI, Lovelace, and Pepper, the mechanic. The title refers to how both Lovelace’s story, of getting used to a new body and a new life, and Pepper’s, of how she escaped the captivity of an isolated colony planet where she was a slave, are told in alternating chapters through the book, until their storylines merge.
It’s smaller in scale to A Long Way, and focuses heavily on the concept of AI being human. We get to learn a little more of the universe that these books are set in and how they work. Both stories are heartwarming and emotionally charged- I cried at least twice- and have solid, happy endings. Chambers, again, manages to make characters feel solid and distinct, more like real people with caution and prejudices and problems, than characters who act convenient for the plot.
And yet, it wasn’t as fun for me as A Long Way. I still enjoyed the world, and the characters, but the story itself could have used more, in my opinion. Pepper’s story felt lacking and sudden, even though we spend half the book with her. I would have also liked to have seen more time devoted to the Port’s workings-it was a great location, and it felt a little underutilized for me, as did the character of Blue. I think that the larger scope of A Long Way, and the ensemble cast, made for a more traditionally “fun” adventure, while this was an emotional journey on what it means to treat AIs as objects and not people.
However, for the sheer size and imagination of Becky Chambers and what she means to representation in the genre, I can’t help but love this book and its characters.