Solitair vs. The Hugos 3: A Closed and Common Orbit

Pepper gave a brittle, incredulous laugh. ‘Stars. I’m sorry, Tak, but – stars. Yeah, if you went in and explained, maybe you’d get somewhere. I mean, look at you. You’re as respectable as it gets. You’re an Aeluon, you went to school. There is no door that won’t open for you. For me? For us?’ She pointed between her and Blue. ‘Humans aren’t much out here, and we barely qualify to begin with. You think if I stroll into some curator’s office with my monkey limbs and tweaked face, xe’s going to give a single solitary fuck about what I have to say? What would I even say? That they have a ship I used to live in? That someone I owe everything to has been stuck in it for ten years? Ships are property, and as far as the GC is concerned, AIs are, too. My home was confiscated, and that was legal. My family was taken from me, and that was legal. And the museum, the museum probably bought the ship at auction, which is totally legal and binding and all that shit. The law forgot to make space for people like me. People like her.’ She pointed at Sidra. ‘It doesn’t matter what sob story I lay out. If they say no – and they would – there is no chance of me ever getting in there again. There is no chance of me ever getting Owl back.’

(This book is fantastic. Read it now if you don’t want spoilers.)

I remember being down on The Goblin Emperor when I reviewed that book, but I saw a lot of people disagreeing with me. In a literary landscape where it feels like a lot of authors need to make their characters suffer righteously in order for the audience to care about them, those people saw that book as a breath of fresh air. At the time, I wasn’t feeling it, and yet I adore A Closed and Common Orbit for pretty much the same reasons. I love the way the more personal conflicts in Chambers’ book are presented, especially in how it makes optimism seem reasonable instead of naive. Why the big change in attitude? I think most of it comes down to how much more easily I can relate to the characters and setting.

After the events of The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, which I’ve yet to read, a ship’s AI transfers into a counterfeit human body, and tries to lead a normal life with the two humans who saved her from some sort of disaster. Getting used to such a large lifestyle change is tough on Sidra, and as we see everyday life on an alien planet from her eyes, she chafes with her friend Pepper over how to effectively blend into a society that doesn’t treat AI as people. Alternate chapters present Pepper’s past as a genetically engineered slave girl, who escapes from the factory and eventually its planet thanks to a spaceship with another AI. Most of the emphasis there lies in the loneliness and hardships of a scavenging life on  the planet’s surface with only the AI for company, which Pepper experiences as a child, teenager and adult.

Instead of presenting a world of courtly intrigue and fanciful elvish nomenclature to contrast with the hidden prejudices of elves, as The Goblin Emperor does, the planet Sidra lives on is pleasantly familiar, aside from the science fiction aspects of it (The physiology and culture of the Aeluon are pretty fascinating in their own right.). The way these characters run their small businesses and congregate at social events reminds me of the Scott Pilgrim comics, if Scott was more of a working professional. Some of the chapters end with excerpts from Pepper’s online chat group, which read as more polished reproductions of how chat groups work in real life. One of the most interesting moments of the story came when Pepper showed off her dorky collection of paraphernalia from a children’s edutainment VR series, which quickly became touching when the book reveals how she took solace in one installment of it back on that waste planet growing up.

Just like real life, there are nasty downsides to culture that makes life suck for certain groups of people, hidden away so that ordinary people like the tattoo artist Sidra befriends don’t have to think about. How many people even know about the factory where Pepper was made and where she would have labored to death if not for a stroke of luck? How many can conceive that an AI could be truly sapient, and would object to them universally treated as property, in contradiction with Sidra and Owl’s ability to think for themselves? Despite the tattoo artist’s earnest attempts to understand Sidra and Pepper, dealing with xyr preconceived notions about AI, xe is at a distance from both of these marginalized experiences, and can only take their word for it rather than living it xemself (these are the pronouns the book uses). Unlike with Maya the emperor, none of them has the power to change this system, but they can eke out a small victory that’s so much more personal because it matters to them, and it’s beautiful to watch.

People may jeer about other people being overly emotional and relying on feelings instead of facts, but that’s an inherently hypocritical position. All human motivation is born from some sort of emotion, and there are better ways to manage your feelings than to pretend not to have them and to mock people who display them too prominently. With all the books I read, I sometimes worry that my ability to empathize with fictional characters has dulled through repetition. This wonderful book proves that sentiment wrong, and suggests that maybe I should be reading better books instead. That’s why I put it straight at the top of my ballot, though the next entry was pretty stiff competition. Can’t wait to read The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, either.

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