Author: Becky Chambers
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Published: Out Now
RRP: £14.99 hardcover
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.
NB – an earlier version of this review appeared at ww.geekplanetonline.com
One of my favourite novels last year was Chamber's debut SF story A Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. That was a wonderful story about a crew of wormhole miners on a deep space mission; less constant space battles but a great examination of other cultures, lifestyles and relationships. A reminder that SF can talk about our culture in ways other genres struggle. I was really intrigued as to what the second novel from her would be like. I'm pleased to find that this story is just as fascinating and heartfelt.
A major point to highlight is that this is in many ways not a direct sequel to Angry Planet. The Wayfarer crew are absent bar Lovey the ship's former AI who decided she needed to leave the crew and Pepper a repair specialist who has taken on responsibility for Lovey, who has reluctantly agreed to be now housed in a synthetic human kit (completely illegal in their part of the galaxy). It's still however a story of people working with others to find out who they are and equally less action focused but instead of how aliens would interact.
In this story Chambers has also used a different structure. We have the main plot of Lovey struggling to find out how she fits in the world and then the book pairs these chapters with Pepper's early life. We find out that Pepper was originally Jane 23 a clone one of many on a world where clone children are created to sort through a planet's rubbish and any attempt tofind out more about the world can have painful consequences at the hands of the robotic Mothers guarding them. These two stories compliment each other and eventually combine into a satisfying and nerve biting conclusion as Pepper's two worlds meet.
Two supporting characters are worth noting too. Owl the sentient AI that finds Pepper as a child and seeks to protect her. Very nicely there is a sense throughout that Owl is protecting the young girl from certain truths from the world until she is ready. My favourite though is Taq an alien tattoo artist. Taq is from a race with four genders and shifts throughout the book from male to female; no major point of this is made in the book but it's accepted. Like Small Angry Planet this book just puts these ideas across to show that sexuality is not a big deal. Taq's growing friendship with Lovely is a highlight as the artist's view of the body differs from Lovely's stance that the body is just kit.
I think it’s tempting to say Orbit is a simple ‘feel-good’ novel. But actually Orbit is not as ree-assuring as Small Angry Planet. The clone world Pepper runs from is cruel, heartless and we see children treated as tools. Lovey has to hide because if she is found out for who she is the sentence will be death. It’s a world with good people in it but the wider world is not nearly enlightened – and it does not take too much thought to see this mirror our own world.
I have to say I that a book that explores gender and sexual identity is something most SF is not covering. SF should hold a mirror to our world and let us re-asses how we ourselves behave. That Chambers melds those themes with a fantastic SF universe and gives us characters and dilemmas to think about. I would love to see more books like this tackling the current world.
In conclusion I think Common Orbit shows no sign of that difficult second album feeling. It's for me an even stronger story with the structure and characters delving deeper into those themes of friendship/family and identity. There is darkness but this story also carries hope that with the support of those in our own circle of people we can grow and take on what the universe throws us. An absolute delight. It is completely deserving of it’s place in the awards lists for 2017.