Reading The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet was like reading a warm fuzzy hug of a book where the point was not to get into world-altering life-threatening situations but to make friends and find a place where you could be yourself. Like iyashikei manga it was a celebration of things that give comfort: companionship, food, and home (wherever that may be). Yes, there was drama, but really the reader knew everyone was going to be OK. Chambers is a glass-half-full writer, interested in the good that can be found in people and in life, and I enjoyed The Long Way because of that.
Cracking the spine of A Closed and Common Orbit (Okay, I’ve never cracked a book’s spine, I don’t know why I said that) was more of the same in the best possible way. Roughly half the book, in alternating chapters, tells Pepper’s backstory, so you know everything turns out well in the end for her because she’s right there in the present of Lovelace-now-Sidra’s half of the book. And there are plenty of parallels to be made between the two character’s circumstances, so really you know that Sidra’s going to pull through too. Both Pepper and Sidra learn to appreciate and connect with the people they meet and the places they find themselves in. Pepper’s childhood was pretty grim, but I still can’t say that the book’s tone was anything but brim-full of hope. Even when Pepper is at her lowest she’s still a delight and even when Sidra’s at her grumpiest her friends are still there for her.
All of that said, I found A Closed and Common Orbit more thought-provoking than The Long Way. Sidra’s situation, finding herself in an illegal body kit having previously been a ship-wide AI with eyes and ears everywhere, is well described. This sudden constriction of her perception, the sensory overload she experiences in crowded open areas, her utter frustration at the limits of her memory storage, her inability to see ‘the kit’ as herself, is all fascinating: she feels reduced by her small and individual body, and yet it is that very small and individual body that gives her an autonomy she could never have had as a ship’s AI.
And this is the thing that got me thinking: Humanity may one day be faced with the question of whether an AI that can learn and expand beyond its originally programmed commands is permitted personhood. You know, after we’ve acknowledged the rights of all people, accepted that we share our planet with myriad intelligences (those we haven’t wiped out, anyway), learned to live in harmony and all that good stuff. There is no question for the characters helping Sidra that she is a person, entitled to privacy, autonomy and liberty, despite it being illegal for her to be housed in a human-looking body. They help her adapt to her very changed circumstances, try to make her comfortable, help her explore her new sensory world and discover her likes and dislikes. She is a growing personality over the course of the book, expanding beyond her core program, making choices, throwing tantrums, and, profoundly, coming to terms with the very human condition of having no clearly defined purpose. She struggles heroically with the sensory, emotional and psychological effects of this expansion, and reaches a lot of compromises in order to find a place in which she can be herself.
One interesting, albeit minor, parts of her adjustment, is the problem of Sidra’s honesty protocol. Unable to lie or successfully evade conversations that could reveal her secret, her honesty protocol has to be disabled, but this is not something she can do herself because she’s a tool, and a tool that tells lies is obviously a whole heap more threatening than one that has to tell the truth. While Chambers doesn’t dwell on it, there is even a moment when Tak appears to be uncomfortable with Sidra’ new-found ability to lie after he helps her achieve it. But the telling of lies is an aspect of choice and necessary to fitting in, and Sidra has gained an important social ability that will enable her to make others feel comfortable, or get out of situations she doesn’t want to be in.
“Sidra started to say the words ‘I’m fine’, but another possible response appeared, a far more tantalising one: ‘I don’t feel any different’. Her pathways buzzed gleefully. It wasn’t true. It wasn’t true. There was a difference in her – not a big one, but she could feel it. ‘I don’t feel any different’ was a nice colloquial way to reassure someone that she was okay, but an hour before, she wouldn’t have been able to say it.”
Pepper’s story is equally fascinating, especially in the way it’s cut with Sidra’s. One minute Chambers has you pondering the incredible amount of input Sidra is attempting to process just being out in the open, the next she has you reading about Pepper, when she was 10-year-old Jane 23, seeing the sky for the first time. In very different ways Pepper and Sidra both have to learn how to deal with the enormity of the world around them, and that just because they were made for a particular purpose doesn’t mean that they are then defined by that purpose always. I love that the vocabulary in Pepper’s chapters increases as she learns, and the lovely symmetry of Owl being there for Jane 23 and later Pepper being there for Sidra.
There were a couple of things I missed while reading this. I missed the crew of the Wayfarer and would have liked just a glimpse of how they were all doing even as I was impressed that here was a sequel that didn’t feel the need to just do over what had proved successful in book one. And I missed not seeing the wider universe as Chambers sees it. This was a much more grounded book based on Pepper and Blue’s awful planet of origin and in Port Coriol for the most part, (although I loved Port Coriol and have added it to my fantasy holiday destinations list). And I perhaps enjoyed this just a smidgeon less than I did The Long Way. But it’s still a keeper and something I will reread. It’s still a book with a squishy big heart. And I’m still going to recommend it to my nearest and dearest, and anyone else who gets in my way.
Incidentally, I’m claiming this for the AI category on my Book Bingo.