Cover image of "A Closed and Common Orbit" by Becky Chambers, an off-beat space opera

Becky Chambers has written three books in her Wayfarers series to date. Each is a uniquely off-beat space opera of a sort you’re unlikely to encounter anywhere else. The first, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, appeared in 2015 and met immediate and widespread acclaim. It was included on Library Journal‘s Best SFF of 2016, the Barnes & Noble Sci-Fi Fantasy Blog Best Books of 2015, the Best Books of 2015, Reader’s Choice, and nominated for the Arthur C. Clarke Award. I reviewed it as A delightful modern space opera that’s all about character development.

An off-beat space opera series

A Closed and Common Orbit is the second book in the Wayfarers series. Like The Long Way, this far-future tale excels in character development. While the first book featured a large and diverse cast of characters, the second primarily concerns just two: Lovelace and Pepper.

Lovelace was the AI that managed the Wayfarer, but her memory was tragically wiped at the conclusion of The Long Way. Pepper, who plays a minor role as a technician in the first book, has helped Lovelace transition from her role on the ship into a synthetic human body. Now Lovelace, having taken the name Sidra, has moved in with Pepper and Pepper’s lover, Blue, on the planet Port Coriol.

There, Pepper runs a fix-it shop and Blue works as an artist. These are all lovable characters who make the story fun. There are no ray-guns, bug-eyed monsters, or interstellar battles to intrude on this character-driven tale.

A Closed and Common Orbit (Wayfarers #2) by Becky Chambers (2016) 384 pages ★★★★☆

Finalist for the 2017 Hugo Award for Best Novel and Winner of the 2019 Hugo Award for Best Series

An endlessly inventive tale

A Closed and Common Orbit relates how Sidra struggles to cope with her new, circumscribed identity within a single body. (The novel’s lead sentence reads, “Lovelace had been in a body for twenty-eight minutes, and it still felt every bit as wrong as it had the second she woke up inside it.”) We also learn how Pepper came to be the woman she is. Pepper’s backstory begins at the age of ten when she was enslaved in a factory sorting discarded technology. The tale of her escape from the factory, her unorthodox education, and her meeting with the man who became her life partner is endlessly inventive.

Human evolution in a nutshell

Sidra’s search for meaning is a central theme in the novel. “Animals just are,” she says to a friend. “And there are a lot of intelligent—sentient, maybe—animals out there who don’t have a problem with that. They just go on breathing and mating and eating each other without a second thought. But the animals like you—the ones who make tools and build cities and itch to explore, you all share a need for purpose. For reason. That thinking worked well for you, once. When you climbed down out of the trees, up out of the ocean—knowing what things were for was what kept you alive. Fruit is for eating. Fire is for warmth. Water is for drinking.

“And then you made tools, which were for certain kinds of fruit, for making fire, cleaning water. Everything was for something, so obviously, you had to be for something too, right? All of your histories are the same, in essence. They’re all stories of animals warring and clashing because you can’t agree on what you’re for, or why you exist.” Not a bad analysis of the human condition, is it?

Fascinating characters, human and not, in this off-beat space opera

Three other important characters round out the cast in A Closed and Common Orbit. Owl is the AI who becomes Pepper’s teacher. Tak is an Aeluon, one of several populous sentient species in the Galactic Commons; she becomes Sidra’s best friend. And Blue, Pepper’s partner, supports Sidra and Pepper at crucial points.

Chambers shows particular skill in describing the alien species who enter into her tale and the sights, sounds, and smells of the worlds where action takes place. She even recognizes the need for chairs to vary by species. (“Different species, . . . different butts.”) She is clearly a gifted writer.

I’m looking forward to the third novel in the Wayfarers series, Record of a Spaceborn Few, which is due out in July 2018.

In addition to the books in Chambers’s Wayfarers series, I’ve also reviewed an excellent hard sci-fi novel she wrote: To Be Taught, If FortunateAn excellent hard science fiction novella from Becky Chambers. And I’ve included Becky Chambers on my list of Six new science fiction authors worth reading now.

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