A Closed and Common Orbit [Becky Chambers]

Goodreads link.

Start Date: 2019-01-13

End Date: 2019-01-13

Oh my goodness, this was a fantastic book. I had liked Chambers’s first book, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet as a light, cheerful, and not very taxing read full of slices of life; and the second book stays cheerful and easy to read, but blasts it out of the park when it comes to exploring deeper themes – slavery, consciousness, and so forth. I am probably going to recommend it to everybody, even those who won’t dabble in genre fiction.

Things which I thought were noteworthy:

  • There are two plot arcs which intersect: an artificial intelligence is removed from spaceship hardware and implanted (illegally) into a humanoid body, and has to pretend to be human. The person helping her out with this is a human, but one who was genetically engineered to be a factory slave, but then escaped and was brought up by a ship’s artificial intelligence with the help of interactive educational cartoons.
  • I thought the interactive educational cartoons were a nod to A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer from The Diamond Age.
  • Since the concept of genetically engineered humans / artifical intelligences learning what it is to be human pervades both plot arcs, I kept getting reminded of the Discworld golems, and the line from Going Postal about “being more than a hammer”.
  • SPOILERS: A substantial part of the book involves the AI’s base programming prohibitting her to lie, which means that going out in public is fraught with danger for her, because if somebody asks her if she is human, she has no way to directly lie and will incriminate herself. What Fifth Amendment jeopardy. But it also made me wonder about how much of being human is lying.
  • The Discworld parallels to that are of course the Zoon tribe who are genetically incapable of lying and have to train gifted individuals to become the tribe Liar; as well as the bit from Hogfather about “wistful lying”. THE ACT OF TELLING THE UNIVERSE THAT IT IS OTHER THAN WHAT IT IS.
  • I wonder if the anxiety which Lovey the AI feels about being in a biped body instead of inside a ship is a nod to the transsexual experience. Likewise, Pepper’s fury at being asked why she chose her new name.

Excerpts which particularly spoke to me:

‘You wanted ink. I’ve thought about what you said before you left. You came to me, you said, because you didn’t fit within your body. And that… that is something more than a tool would say.’

(This is what reminded me of “more than a hammer”. And it also reminds me of the EconTalk episode where Russ Roberts argues with the conservative dude about “The self making self” and how glorious that is.)

‘You don’t! You have no idea what it’s like.’ The kit tugged at its hair. ‘I have a form that doesn’t suit me right now. Tak gets it, but you don’t.’

‘What, because he’s shon?’

‘Because he’s Aeluon. They all have to get implants in order to fit in.’

‘Yeah, but that’s it right there – they do it to fit in. We live in a society, Sidra. Societies have rules.’

‘You break rules all the time.’

‘I break laws. That’s different. Social rules have their place. It’s how we all get along. It’s how we trust each other and work together.’

Spontaneous order. But I feel that this excerpt ignores how awful some social rules can be.

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.


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