To Boldly Go? A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers: a review by Nina Allan

To Boldly Go? A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers: a review by Nina Allan

By Nina Allan

A Closed and Common Orbit — Becky Chambers (Hodder & Stoughton)

The mass media seem to have got stuck at a level of ‘ritual repetition’, what passes for ‘new ideas’ on TV being merely a desperate addiction to quirks and the trimming with desperate gimmickry of very stale stuff indeed. Maybe the real process then goes underground.

(Joanna Russ, ‘The Wearing Out of Genre Materials’)

This statement will not be popular among the Wayfarer’s legions of loyal fans and advocates, but I’m going to make it anyway because I believe it to be true: there is no real science fiction in A Closed and Common Orbit. In a climate where novels of so-called literary SF are often castigated by SFF commentators for using the trappings of science fiction to grant legitimacy and authenticity where none has been earned, when it comes to empty gestures the Wayfarer novels – clasped rapturously by fandom to its collective bosom – trump them all. I would not want to waste valuable time arguing over whether A Closed and Common Orbit is in fact eligible for the Clarke Award – the book is marketed as science fiction, there are AIs, aliens, distant planets, job done. Whether it deserves its place on the current shortlist is another matter entirely.

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I have not read Chambers’s debut, The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet. I bought it just after it was picked up by Hodder, curious to see what all the fuss was about, and read about fifty pages before deciding the book was not for me. From my own experience, A Closed and Common Orbit works perfectly well as a standalone and I don’t feel I’ve missed anything by way of nuance in not having read the earlier volume.

A Closed and Common Orbit follows the interwoven lives of two characters: Pepper, who is a clone, and Sidra, who is an AI. The narrative is arranged as two alternating viewpoints. One set of chapters invites us to follow the story of Pepper, or Jane 23 as she was then, as she escapes from her life as an indentured slave, comes gradually to an awareness of her situation and – with the help of an AI named Owl – eventually escapes her confinement and pilots herself to freedom. In the other set of chapters we follow Sidra – or Lovelace, as she was when she was installed in the Wayfarer – as she attempts to adjust to life in the confined space and restricted viewpoint of a synthetic human body. The two parallel stories finally come together when Pepper and Sidra launch a joint mission to rescue Owl from the museum where she has been held captive since Pepper’s escape. The mission poses a risk, especially for Sidra, who might end up being decommissioned – read killed – if her identity as an AI is discovered, and yet for Pepper there is no choice: Owl is her friend, her family – she must be brought home.

A Closed and Common Orbit is in many ways a charming story, with all the heartwarming, comforting qualities of any much-loved TV series: a cast of easily relatable characters in a familiar setting, a series of obstacles to overcome, with any difficulties along the way tempered by the certainty of our heroes’ eventual victory. Frequent comparisons have been made to the TV series Firefly (which I have not seen, and which apparently Chambers had not seen either until people pointed out the parallels) and Farscape (which I likewise have not seen, but that Chambers was apparently a huge fan of). I have, however, seen most of Star Trek (TOS, NG, DS9 and Voyager – I know, I know) and the points of communality seem so many and so ubiquitous my first response to the book was a kind of disbelief, that so much might be owed to such obvious source material and yet with the text apparently still being taken not only seriously but entirely without irony within a critical context.

A Closed and Common Orbit uses the furniture of mass market media science fiction – wormholes in space that make interstellar travel instantly viable, federations of planets in an occasionally testy yet ultimately likeminded USA-like political affiliation, closely knit crews of space-farers that function identically with army platoons, college fraternities, extended families or hippie communes in Earth-based narratives, alien species that are ‘alien enough’ to illustrate a moral point but without ever becoming threatening or even truly alienating (you will quickly notice how the various species in A Closed and Common Orbit have all been readily willing to make modifications at the protocol or even the physiological level to ‘fit in’ with everyone else) – to create a framework for a story that has little or nothing to contribute to the science fiction conversation.

In her 1971 essay ‘The Wearing Out of Genre Materials’, Joanna Russ demonstrates how literary genres invariably move through three stages: innocence (in which a set of ideas or iconography is in and of itself original and marvellous), plausibility (in which the logical implications and effects of those ideas are examined and tested at greater depth) and decadence (in which the ideas have become assimilated in the literature to the point of either caricature or stale repetition). Russ states that one manifestation of decadence occurs when ‘[stories become] petrified into collections of rituals, with all freshness and conviction gone’.

Whilst conviction is not in short supply in the Wayfarers series – I would argue that a significant component of what makes these books so appealing to readers is the author’s clear and heartfelt commitment to her project and to her characters – it seems to me that Russ’s description of generic decadence as a collection of rituals is exemplified perfectly in A Closed and Common Orbit. With the entire iconography of the novel transplanted more or less wholesale from already-existing fictional universes, the reader feels immediately at home, immediately comfortable. There is not even a pretence that such rituals have anything to do with the proper business of science fiction, which is speculation. There is nothing to speculate about in Chambers’s world: that future has already been described a thousandfold, and people all over the world know what it looks like.

Much of the talk around the Wayfarers books has been about their social commentary, their presentation of a worldview in which individuals and species must usefully learn about each other to peacefully coexist, in which subjects such as gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, mental illness, addiction, personhood and cultural identity are a defining attribute of Chambers’s narratives and character interactions, that it is the books’ centring of these issues – all currently key to much online SFF commentary – that makes them new and worthy of considered critical attention. I would be inclined to agree – were it not for the strained and occasionally embarrassing oversimplification of these very issues, an unconscious airbrushing that reduces them – like the narrative framework itself – to a series of rituals:

“Life is terrifying. None of us have a rule book. None of us know what we’re doing here. So, the easiest way to stare reality in the face and not utterly lose your shit is to believe that you have control over it. If you believe you have control, then you believe that you’re at the top. And if you’re at the top, then people who aren’t like you… Well, they’ve got to be somewhere lower, right? Every species does this. Does it again and again and again. Doesn’t matter if they do it to themselves, or another species, or someone they created.” She jutted her chin towards Tak. “You studied history. You know this. Everybody’s history is one long slog of all the horrible shit we’ve done to each other.”

“It’s not all that,” Tak said. “A lot of it, yes. But there’s good things too. There’s art and cities and science. All the things we’ve discovered. All the things we’ve learned and made better.”

“All the things made better for some people. Nobody has ever figured out how to make things better for everybody.”

“I know,” Tak said. She thought, cheeks swirling. “That’s why we have to keep talking to each other.”

Hardly contentious, but hardly profound, either. In its liberal use of cliché, broad-brush generalisations and easy platitudes, the above passage might well stand as a potted summary of the book as a whole. I hesitate to use the phrase ‘it’s not exactly rocket science’ because I think I already mentioned that. But it is difficult to see how A Closed and Common Orbit might usefully be put forward as an intelligent example of diversity in action.

For me, the politics and social commentary of this novel, stripped as they are of any ambiguity, nuance, or genuine tension are dishonest, little more than wish fulfilment and too slight to be properly worthy of serious discussion. I can imagine A Closed and Common Orbit being of some help to teachers as a starting point for conversation around these issues for pre-GCSE kids, but it is hard to see it holding its own on Late Review.

As to why the Wayfarers books have proved so undeniably popular with readers and with award juries – let us not forget that The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet was also longlisted for the Baileys Prize – I experienced something of an epiphany when it occurred to me that Star Trek or Farscape were not the only analogous story-models that might be offered here, and that the Wayfarers books might just as easily be compared with The Waltons, another American TV series that came into existence at roughly the same time as Star Trek TOS but that takes as its source material a Depression- and WW2-set novel, and not an alien or a wormhole in sight.

Each episode of The Waltons (I’ve seen most of that, too – don’t ask) presents a simple moral, practical or ethical dilemma, viewed through the lens of familial relationships and – most importantly of all – resolved to everyone’s satisfaction by the end of the hour. Such a resolution is usually achieved not through action or change of circumstances but by bringing the two hurting parties face to face and having them talk through their dilemma. In so doing they foster a deeper understanding, not just of the other person’s point of view but of their own motivations. Everyone says goodnight to everyone else. Lights out and harmony reigns.

Perhaps the most attractive, comfortable, comforting aspect of The Waltons is the sense of knowing exactly where you are. The inhabitants of Walton’s Mountain quickly come to seem like old friends, and even the most abject griefs – the loss of a child, the death of a loved one – can be assuaged through the simple practice of talking and being together. There is an important amount of truth in such an assertion, certainly. The problem with The Waltons though is that resolution always comes too easily. Everyone is fundamentally on the same side. No one is truly disruptive, damaged, disaffected or dangerous. ‘The big bad’, where it exists, invariably has its origins outside the community: war, wildfire, an abstract and immutable version of ‘poverty’. We are never allowed to get close enough to any story’s potentially dark corners for them to become truly discomfiting or problematic. I am reminded of my grandmother’s maxim never let the sun go down on your wrath. In The Waltons, this advice is rendered literally true.

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I want to make a clear distinction here between reading and enjoying A Closed and Common Orbit as light entertainment, which is perfectly fine (I will freely admit to feeling a lump in my throat at the bit where Owl reappears on the vidscreen, even if it means losing any and all credibility with my fellow Sharkes) and shortlisting it for a major science fiction award, a decision I think is questionable at best.

For all its gesturing towards diversity and progressiveness, this novel could be put forward as a prime exemplar of the literature of reassurance. The set-up is familiar, the conflict is minimal, the resolutions are swift and painless. The dialogue reads like the script from a TV series that was a huge hit in an alternate universe and is probably set to become one in ours – about the only nod to futurology that this book contains. So long as there is still science and there is still fiction, SF – as Russ argued in her essay almost half a century ago – still has limitless potential to be new and to be radical. A Closed and Common Orbit is neither. If recycling old TV tropes is what the Clarke Award is coming to be about we might as well pack up and go home.

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Nina Allan is a writer and critic. Her debut novel The Race was a finalist for the British Science Fiction Award, the John W. Campbell Memorial Award and the Kitschies Red Tentacle. Her second novel The Rift will be published by Titan Books in July 2017. She enjoys arguing about books in general and science fiction literature in particular, and makes these arguments public from time to time at her blog, The Spider’s House. Nina lives and works in Rothesay, on the Isle of Bute.

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