When it comes to the sci-fi and fantasy section at work I tend to lean heavily on the side of fantasy fiction. Terry Pratchett. Trudi Canavan. Tolkien. Sherri Tepper. I’ve dabbled in the harder sci-fi, like the Martian, but I tend to go for something humorous like Douglas Adams or something which blurs the line between fantasy and sci-fi like Anne McCaffrey or Julian May. I tend not to read books set purely on spaceships or space-opera-ish stuff. Rob has hinted that I might like to try Arthur C Clarke but I’ve never taken him up on it – and the fault is mine not Clarke’s, obviously. Maybe it is just that I’m more interested in the human side than the science. Or maybe I tend to associate hard sci-fi with lots of explosions and shouting (which is certainly how the films appear to me), and with characters who are created with more thought to potential action toys than actual human qualities. Not there is anything wrong with blowing stuff up and merchandising but it is not usually my cup of earl grey (hot). And then, like so many others recently, I discovered Becky Chambers and was re-introduced to the human face of science fiction. Actually to be fair I didn’t so much discover Chambers’ first book, the Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, as give in to the encouragement of many of my bookselling colleagues (and, it seemed, a fairly large chunk of bookish people on Twitter). They enthused me so much that I didn’t even see if I could get a freebie from the publisher (although they were on offer) but went straight for buying my very own copy. I don’t regret it in the slightest, though, as all those folk pushing me towards this marvellous novel were absolutely correct – this was a fabulous book. The fact that it was a debut novel made it even more remarkable.
I didn’t show any such restraint when a proof copy of a Closed and Common Orbit – not quite a sequel, more of a linked story – showed up at work. I had really enjoyed getting to know all the characters in the first book – a varied band who gave a whole new meaning to the word ‘diversity’. Humans, aliens of many races, and even a close relationship between a human and the ship’s A.I. system – so I knew I’d be interested in what happened next to some of them. I don’t want to give away too many spoilers about either book so if you haven’t read TLWTASAP (as I understand its fans call it) then I’d nip off and read it now before you carry on with this review. Done? Good, I’ll go on…
Lovelace, the A.I. system from the Wayfarer has been removed from the ship and is currently learning how to exist in a very realistic – but totally illegal – human body. She is helped by Pepper and Blue who obviously have a complicated back-story of their own and, instead of a spaceship, the story is set on a very cosmopolitan planet where commerce and technology seem to be the order of the day. Although there are a lot of differences between this story and the first book what has remained is the importance of great characters. We discover who Lovelace is (or Sidra as she now calls her human form) at the same time that she does – she has to discover how to be human, how to be limited by her own body and how to fit into society – and, as Pepper and Blue’s past is gradually revealed, we realise that there is more than one way of being human. I’ve seen a few negative reviews of Chambers’ writing (but only a very few – the vast majority are hugely positive) which seem to take objection to the fact that qualities like equality, fairness and basic niceness are given such prominence but I think they may be missing the point. This is a universe where humans are pretty much at the bottom of the pecking order and where more enlightened alien races keep control. There is a sense of equality – in terms of gender, colour and species – but there are still taboos (especially in terms of mixed-species relationships). We can see that A.I.s are the very last group to be given equal status just as, in the shape of Sidra/Lovelace, we are learning how much like humans they can be. There are not many explosions but lots of people – and people of every colour, gender, sexuality, species and programming.