Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Review: A Closed and Common Orbit

In reviewing Becky Chambers' new novel, I find myself in the strange position of having to write a negative review of a book I very much wanted to like, that I do like in many ways, and which I don't necessarily want to discourage people from reading.

The good news is, whether or not you should read A Closed and Common Orbit (2016) is easily determined if you've read The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet (2014), the novel which precedes this. While structurally a bit different—Common Orbit has barely more than two characters, braids time-lines, and is essentially linear, where The Long Way is a meandering ensemble tale—the tone and intention of the two are very close. I find it very unlikely that one's reception of Common Orbit will vary much from The Long Way, with the possible exception that some might like (or dislike) that more time is spent with fewer characters.

Also, I should note that, although A Closed and Common Orbit follows immediately on the heels of The Long Way, plot-wise, it's by no means a sequel in the conventional sense. It could easily be read first, or as a standalone novel, with the caveat that having some of The Long Way's worldbuilding under your belt will make Common Orbit a little easier, albeit in a very minimal way. In her first novel, Chambers usually drops a lot of factoids about her alien species very quickly on meeting them, but the absence of this up-fronting of exposition in Common Orbit is hardly a weakness.

Plenty to love here; unfortunately, I find that to be outweighed by the novel's shortcomings. Possible spoilers, and many comparisons between the two novels, below:

So, the good stuff: Chambers' novels are focused on diversity, inclusiveness, and, for lack of a better word, niceness. The story very gently focuses on difference, with more of an eye towards acceptance than forcing change, which is pretty cool, and I think is one of the reasons that Chambers has garnered so many enthusiastic fans with just these two novels. In A Closed and Common Orbit, much of the focus is on the way that the main & supporting characters' neurodiversities manifest: different social & emotional patterns, and striking a balance between finding coping strategies (like Sidra needing to sit in corners to control her visual field) and pushing for personal & social acceptance of these differences as-is. A quiet but persistent attention to these issues—how a character feels, how they're dealing with their environment, how physically & mentally diverse beings navigate the world—is one of the main strengths of the novel. Like The Long Way, Common Orbit also uses primarily non-human species to introduce sex and gender diversity, this time through the character of Tak, an Aeulon who naturally switches gender frequently; the novels also prominently feature (presumably ) asexual characters.

Along with these strengths, something fairly uncommon about Chambers' work (for SFF, anyway), is that it's just generally nice: the majority of the characters you meet are fairly reasonable, polite, and treat each other respectfully. There's also a level of concern given to day-to-day, domestic kind of affairs that is usually entirely absent in SF. While there are a few moments of action, most of the plot is fairly calm and quotidian. Less Star Destroyers and lasers, more people dealing with work, friends, home-life. Though different in many aspects, I kept thinking of Katherine Addison's The Goblin Emperor while reading Chambers' novels, and I suspect that their fans will overlap.

Okay, so that's the good stuff.  And look, I gotta be honest, I did not like this book, much though I wanted to. As I mentioned above, I read both of Chambers' novels back to back, having had Planet on my list since it came out; none of the problems of Orbit are unique to it, it's just that the much smaller cast and plot put its problems in starker relief.

So, the problems: number one, and this is a purely subjective one, is that the niceness, the virtuousness of the novel turns saccharine very quickly. While Chambers's writing is technically fine (and I actually enjoyed some of her flourishes, like the BBS & email interjections), the constant focus on Sidra's emotional state alternately bored and aggravated me, partially for science-fictional reasons that I'll get to in a second. The way the book handles diversity of all kinds—which, again, is laudable, and maybe its primary attraction—is virtue-signalling a little too hard at points. Sexual difference, cultural difference, biological difference—everyone is so quick to accept it all that there's very little meaningful engagement. Imagine Star Trek where every alien planet you visit is just as enlightened and non-confrontational as the Federation. Farscape where everyone wants to be friends and respect your dietary restrictions.

This points to what I think is a more objective, structural problem with the novel: a complete lack of tension. The Long Way is almost completely lacking in "over-plot", being more a collection of character developments loosely tacked onto a there-and-back again journey. Think Mass Effect where you only develop your relationships with the crew, no Reavers. Chambers seems be addressing that lack of plotting, or least mixing it up, in Common Orbit, but I think it actually winds up coming off even weaker.

The novel is structured around two storylines. In the main story, Sidra, a formerly ship-bound AI, is trying to adjust to life in a humannoid body. She's assisted by Pepper, a mechanic who was a minor character in the previous novel; a second plotline set in the past follows Pepper's childhood escape from her dystopian home planet. The two converge when Pepper finally discovers the location of the AI that raised and saved her, and Sidra helps her mount a rescue mission.

The issue is that Sidra's storyline has essentially no arc (it basically just follows her as she gets more comfortable in a humannoid body), Pepper/Jane's backstory has no surprises (because we already know the outline of her origins; there's no feeling of risk or danger since we know how she ends up), and the "heist" which finishes the book is beyond anticlimactic—it never feels slightly dangerous or even difficult.

All of these combine to give us a novel that is extremely lacking in any kind of productive tension, which also fails to find another form. I think SFF can find great expression in novels that aren't super plot- or action-driven: the aforementioned Goblin Emperor, Tidhar's Central Station, some of Le Guin's work. Here, though, a general feeling of safety and respect is weirdly stitched onto storylines that would work better with actual risk. Since Jane's chapters (Pepper in her youth) carry no chance of failure, there's little excitement there, and Jane as a character is too young, lacking in experience, and thinly-sketched to be compelling. That leaves us with Sidra to carry the novel, essentially, and unfortunately it's with Sidra that my biggest objections reside.

Fitting in with humans is hard.
A bit of bad science or world-building isn't a deal-breaker for me, and the occasional larger or incidental issues in the Wayfarer books don't much bother me. However, Sidra relies entirely on science-fictional devices, and in this case they are deeply flawed and unsatisfying. The Outsider trying to fit in, the Artificial Other trying to become more human—these are basic and well-explored SF tropes, there's still lots more to say about them, and there's no excuse to flub them this badly. To avoid a lengthy diatribe, a list is in order:
  • First and foremost, it's never explained why the AI is programmed with crippling emotional anxieties—change of hardware notwithstanding. Chambers assumes that an AI will automatically experience the world exactly as a biological human does, will automatically be extremely emotional, and it doesn't feel remotely plausible. Nothing about Sidra feels even slightly non-human.
  • The larger set-up's a little goofy, also: there are laws in place to prevent AIs in robot bodies, but not...running FTL ships? I remind you that any sufficiently fast spaceship is, ipso facto, a potential planet-killer.
  • However, despite this apparently strict, rigid prohibition, the universe appears to lack any security devices capable of picking up an android. Yes, much of the novel is set in a fairly lawless environment, but come on. Sidra isn't even running on an organic substrate, merely a convincing mannequin. It's ridiculous that there are no scans or metal detectors of any kind anywhere in her journey.
  • Basic physics fails compound the problem and make one look really askew at the whole novel qua SF. Sidra is powered by "kinetic energy recuperators" or some such malarkey, that give her operating power by capturing the energy...of her own...motion...I can't even.
  • The idea that Sidra would run up against storage issues in the manner presented is ludicrous. It would be fairly unbelievable even with current technology—it's just painful as a plot point set far in the future.
  • AI in this world just seems...ridiculously incompetent, utterly lacking in computerized abilities. They're forgetful of basic facts (Jane's caretaker forgets she has to eat?) and apparently come pre-loaded with bizarre and unhelpful hang-ups. Sidra being deeply weirded out by seeing AI cores, for instance—a kind of weird body horror at seeing a potential AI in a nonhuman format, which might make sense if she thought she was a human all along, but makes zero sense given the novel we're reading. The AIs we encounter also seem inexplicably dumb, like Sidra not considering that autonomous nanobots designed for humans might malfunction if injected into her faux skin.
  • I won't even get into how bad the description of AI coding is, particularly in the rescue sequence. TL; DR: computer programs aren't souls, or biologically living things.
I always plug Chiang. And Egan.
It's mildly outdated, but check out my
reading list from the Chicago Philosophy
discussion on AI
a while back.
All of these problems (well, except for the kinetic energy thing, that's just...oy) point to the main reason this novel didn't work for me. Chambers wants to use, as her central premise, the idea of "an AI unexpectedly moved to a human body, coming to grips with that and her new life". But Sidra never once feels even remotely non-human, never remotely like an AI. Chambers is clearly uninterested in the possibilities of how digital consciousnesses might work, and is just using the format as a way to bring in a thoroughly human, outsider-with-difficulties-fitting-in story.

As such, it's supremely disappointing. There's a wealth of good material on AI: non-fiction, science fiction, films and games and television; A Closed and Common Orbit doesn't seem to draw from them or build on them in any way, yet still uses "but she's an AI!" as the only interesting point about its main protagonist. Having failed to lay that as groundwork, the rest of the novel falls apart, as it doesn't develop any of its other potentially interesting areas; neither Pepper's gene-modding homeworld nor the alien species we meet are given more than a cursory glance. And, looking back on the novel, it's actually weirdly lacking in relationships given its extreme focus on character. Pepper & Sidra feel like they're running on parallel tracks, barely touching, and their other friendships feel mostly incidental or off-page.

I totally get why the Wayfarer novels have a following: they're doing some cool and moderately uncommon things with inclusiveness, in an atmosphere that's generally safe, fun, and generally the polar opposite of "gritty realism" that infects so much speculative fiction. It's no bad thing for a novel to look like high-grade fanfic of Firefly, Bioware games and the like (I can't help but wonder if Cherryh's Chanur books are an influence)—but it just didn't do it for me. A well-written mashup of "pastoral, diverse crew, space opera lite" could be entirely delightful, but given the failure of its main selling point, and its lack of any new ideas or twists, I walked away from this pretty underwhelmed.

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