A Closed and Common Orbit is book two of the Hugo-award winning Wayfarers series and follows on from The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet but works just as well as a standalone novel. In fact, I have no reservations in saying that this book is a far better read than the rather messy debut novel which wandered about all over the place and didn’t really amount to much in the end – so much so I only mentioned it in passing in this post last year.
A Closed and Common Orbit continues the story of Lovelace the AI from the Wayfarer who has rebooted inside an android shell (called a ‘kit’). She struggles with living a physical existence based only on the sensory input from the artificial body instead of being spread about inside a starship and it’s multisensory systems. It also tells the story of a cloned slave girl, one of many Janes, who escapes from a scrap salvaging factory to a derelict spaceship where she is raised by the ship’s AI.
Very early in the story, Lovelace decides to call herself Sidra and stays with obsessive technician Pepper, who collects Big Bug Crew figurines, and her artistic partner Blue. Sidra agrees to work in the back room of Pepper’s shop in the spaceport Port Corial. She struggles with not being connected to the net and having vision limited to her eyes, but has to stay undercover since it was made clear in the previous book and we are reminded in this book that sentient androids are outlawed. The book is as much about the philosophical topic of what it is to be a consciousness carried within a body as it is a fun story about aliens and spaceships and sci-fi shenanigans. In some ways this theme is similar to those in the Ghost in the Shell manga and anime, and right up my street.
It’s clear from the outset of the parallel story of Jane that she is a younger version of Pepper and that we will be drip fed her back story in alternating chapters from Sidra’s story. I had to check to make sure I hadn’t guessed this and that instead Chambers had made this quite clear by Pepper telling Sidra early on that she was raised by an AI. At the age of 10, Jane escapes the scrap factory after an unexpected explodes and blows out the exterior wall of the factory. She has never been outside before and the scene where she first sees the sky and later the stars at night is quite moving. Jane is chased by dogs (images of Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs came to my mind), but finds refuge, and an AI called Owl, in a disabled space cruiser among the vast piles of scrap.
Back at Port Corial, Sidra attends an alien fertility party and is fascinated by the drinks and dancing, and by the various alien races at the party. But she must be careful when she answers any questions because she is programmed to always tell the truth. She meets tattooist Tak and later gets a nanobotic tattoo which causes her body to unexpectedly shutdown. Pepper and Blue come to her rescue and successfully reboot her systems. Tak agrees to keep Sidra’s secret as he has become good friends with her.
Jane starts scavenges parts to fix Owl’s ship’s systems, and collects water and fungus to eat. She zaps the dogs with an improvised weapon, butchers them and eats their meat as the ship’s ration packs are in short supply and need conserving. Owl teaches Jane about the solar system and the stars, and uses a virtual training tool featuring the Big Bug Crew to teach her languages and maths.
Still struggling inside the kit, Sidra goes to speak to an AI technician, who gives her the idea of rewriting her own code. She learns the necessary programming language and then gets help from Tak to make the necessary changes. The first thing she does is to get rid of the requirement that she must always tell the truth.
In search of fuel for the now almost fully operational cruiser, Jane goes on an expedition to the factory. She runs into a security guard called Laurian. He is just as unhappy as Jane was with her role in the factory and agrees to help her escape off the planet if he can come too. Despite their low food reserves and Jane being sick, they make it off the planet, but the ship is later impounded for violating interplanetary regulations. Jane and Laurian are given refugee status, and she is brought back to health by a team of medics.
In the years since she was got passage on a ship heading to Port Corial Jane aka Pepper has been searching for Owl the AI. She finally discovers that the space cruiser which might still contain Owl is housed in a museum. Sidra asks Tak, who rather conveniently is a university student who can ask for access to the ship for research purposes, to help them rescue Owl. On the journey to where the museum is located, Sidra connects with the ships systems and Pepper discovers the kit hidden in a locker. Sidra explains to Tak and Pepper that she really does not want to be in the kit any more.
At the museum, they find the space cruiser and Pepper comes up with a risky plan that will likely get them all arrested. Sidra and Tak come up with a better plan and put it into action before Pepper can get to the museum. Despite complaining that she doesn’t have enough local storage through most of the book, Sidra copies Owl over into her own core and they get away without alerting the authorities. Pepper is reunited with her mother figure Owl.
In the final chapter we find that Sidra has continued her fascination with drinks and people watching and opened a bar in Port Corial. She is linked up with pet robots and cameras within the bar, as well as Owl. Pepper is finally able to hug Owl through the proxy of Sidra’s physical kit.
A Closed and Common Orbit tells a well-rounded story with the alternating chapters working very well to finally meet up just before the conclusion. It’s such an improvement on the first book in the series that I am very much looking forward to reading the next one entitled Record of a Spaceborn Few.