Last novel! Hooray! And I liked this one quite a lot, which means that now I have a problem at the top of my ballot…
But let’s get on with the book.
A Closed and Common Orbit, by Becky Chambers, is a very sweet, kindly sort of book. It feels like an epilogue, and I believe it takes place after another book set in the same universe. There is not, now I think about it, a lot of obvious conflict. It still kept me reading until after 1am on a work night because I needed to know what happened to everyone.
The book tells two stories in parallel. The first story centres around Lovelace / Sidra, a ship’s artificial intelligence system who is now trapped in a synthetic human body. And she does feel trapped by it – she no longer has unlimited memory and access to the Linkages, which seem to be a futuristic extrapolation of the world wide web. Her narrative arc is partly about coming to terms with her situation and figuring out how people who are not AIs (humans or aliens) work, and partly about her remaking her situation to a point where she can be content with it and have a purpose that appeals to her.
She is helped in this by Pepper, an engineer who was once a slave called Jane 23, and the second story is hers. This story starts when Jane 23 is ten, and, almost accidentally, escapes the factory which has been her entire world (quite literally – she does not know what the sky is, and is alarmed by this gigantic ‘room’ without walls). Running from feral dogs, Jane 23 is rescued by a stranded spaceship and its AI, Owl. Owl takes her in, and… basically teaches her how to be human. And, over time, how to repair the ship and get off this planet. This may sound unlikely, but Jane has been working to sort and repair broken machinery for her entire life as a slave, so while she has few other skills, she is very, very good with engineering. I must admit, while I liked Sidra a lot, and sympathised with her struggles, it was Jane’s story that kept me up until 1am wondering if – and how – she would be OK.
Note that Jane’s story is fairly disturbing – the treatment of the child slaves is chilling (we never do find out what happens when they turn twelve, but I suspect they are killed at that point), and she spends years scavenging for metal and for food, and mostly killing and eating feral dogs. Which is something you may have a visceral reaction to. (I just tried replacing feral dogs with feral cats in that sentence and was completely horrified and grossed out, so, yeah.)
With half the story being about an AI raised by humans and the other half about a human raised by an AI, Chambers is clearly saying a few things about what makes us human, but I’m not entirely sure what those things are. It’s clear that humanity is not limited to humans; the AI, Owl, is clearly appalled by Jane 23’s treatment, which, while it was at the hands of AIs called the Mothers, is clearly something that was decided and organised by the humans. Compassion, empathy and friendship, are clearly important things, and things that AIs can share with humans and aliens. Another important thread is the ability to lie, something that Sidra can’t do at the start of the story due to programming limitations. Once she is able to do so, it seemed to me that her relationships with humans and aliens changed for the better. But it is clear that AIs have free will, at least to an extent. Sidra can choose what she wants to do and how to spend her time, provided it does not go against one of her programming restrictions.
I don’t know where to put this book on the ballot. It was far and away the most enjoyable one to read of the novels in this category, but I don’t think that it was as creative as Ninefox Gambit or The Obelisk Gate. I still want to put it at the top of the list, because I want to encourage books that I enjoy reading. But I’m not sure if it ought to be first or second. Then again, I suspect a LOT of people will put Ninefox Gambit first (I’m expecting that one to win, actually), so maybe it doesn’t need my vote? I shall have to ponder this.