A Closed and Common Orbit, by Becky Chambers
Synopsis: A child factory-slave escapes from a slave planet. Also, an AI transfers from ship-embodiment to humanoid-robot embodiment, and tries to get used to that.
Book Review: The first few chapters of this are fantastic! We jump right into action, in which a ship’s AI thrust into a humanoid-robot body against her wishes. She experiences intense body dysphoria, which is something I have a lot of interest in reading about. And her mere existence is illegal, so there’s great set up for action.
Likewise, the child-slave’s POV is fascinating, with her having been completely sheltered from everything in the world that isn’t the factory. When there’s an accident and she sees the outside world for the first time she doesn’t have the words to describe a room that goes on forever without walls, and a ceiling that… isn’t? It’s awesome.
And then you get a few more chapters in and you realize this is a terrible book. It is a first draft. And half of it is a 14-year old’s diary. The AI gets a job, goes to parties to meet people, has picnics, fights with her guardians, etc. There is no conflict or stakes, and the “character growth” is of the superficial variety that you get when you’re a teen growing up in suburbia. I realize there’s an entire genre of fiction that focuses purely on examining character, called Literary Fiction. But writers of Lit Fic know that Lit Fic is inherently boring, so they do a lot of cool things to spice it up! They develop unique and quirky voices. They use lyrical prose and experiment with structure. There is a huge amount of flair and style to keep one’s interest. And they often bring in very emotionally-charged stakes. That is how one makes something like this interesting and fun to read. Becky Chambers didn’t do any of that. The AI chapters are basically what Lit Fic boils down to if you remove all the stylistic trappings: a 14 year old’s diary. It was so intensely boring I just started skipping all the AI chapters after a half dozen of them.
The child-slave’s chapters were neat in that they were written at a 4th-grade level or so, really bringing across her mental simplicity. I thought that was a nice touch, until I realized that the AIs chapters are written at the same level. I expected the AI to use fancy words and complicated concepts. I quickly came to suspect that’s just the native writing level of this book, rather than a stylistic choice. Sooo… there’s that.
But the child-slave chapters soon grew boring too. Any difficulties are solved quickly and with a minimum of tension. There is nothing to look forward to from one chapter to the next. I stopped reading the book 2/3rds of the way through because I just couldn’t find any reason to open it again.
Also of note – for how many non-humans are in this book, there aren’t actually ANY non-humans in this book. There are lots of humans with tentacles, or humans with scales, or jelly-fish humans that talk by changing color, but every single mind in this book is a recognizably human mind, with human thoughts, emotions, and motivations. Even the AI is basically just a young, slightly-autistic human. It’s the most cliched and underbaked style of space opera possible, a true embodiment of the “aliens are just humans with forehead prosthetics” trope.
Book Club Review: Another interesting mix (two meetings in a row!). Some of our readers really liked the simplicity of the story, and truly enjoyed the sincerity and earnestness of the writing. It is, in a way, the opposite of Red Rising. Where Red Rising is an obviously soulless product extruded to collect entertainment dollars, Closed and Common Orbit has a lot of heart. If there’s one good thing that you can say about all 14 year old’s diaries, it’s that they are always intensely earnest. So if that’s your jam, this’ll do ya good.
It was fun seeing the breakdown between people who require a compelling narrative and those who just want to hang out with a character they like for a while. Both sides acknowledged that the other was correct in their claims, but they simply didn’t find that that affected their enjoyment (or lack thereof). It’s impossible to hate this book. But it’s entirely possible to find it a tedious waste of time, and be surprised that there’s enough people out there who like it that it ended up a Hugo Finalist. The discussion of this was interesting in its own right.
If this was any other book I’d say Not Recommended, because there’s tons of books out there that are a tedious waste of time and nothing really sets this one apart… except that it’s a Hugo Finalist. So if your book club is interested in seeing what this sort of thing reads like, I guess Mildly Recommended?
Somehow it is usually much more entertaining to read a ‘not recommended’ review from you, than a positive one..
By the way, do you only review recently released books, and if so, why is that?
Heh. :) I think that’s because it’s easy to be snarky, and everyone enjoys it. I don’t feel particularly proud of saying something is bad, but doing it with some humor can make it sound less like the grumblings of a bitter old man and more like joking around. It also feels a bit like cheating sometimes, because it lets you get away with being meaner than you would otherwise. And you don’t want to fall into the trap of being mean to things unnecessarily because it’s funny and gets you approval. But if you’re gonna be criticizing something, softening it with some jokes helps a little, I think? And makes it possible to actually say bad things about a work you disliked, instead of demurring out of politeness. I dunno, it’s a hard line to walk. Anyway, I’m glad you enjoy the reviews. :) Some day I hope to find a way to make positive reviews enjoyable as well, but when I fall in love with something and fawn over it I usually lose my humor-instinct.
I always review what my book club read most recently. That varies widely, but tends to be things released in the last few years. I’m not entirely sure why, but there’s a definite “keeping up with what’s current” aspect to following art. Some day I may think on this for a while and write up my impressions. And then probably be showed up by someone smarter who has thought about this much more. ;) Also every year we read most of the Hugo nominees for that year, and those will necessarily all be books released in the last year.