Apr. 23rd, 2017

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Becky Chambers' new novel, A Closed and Common Orbit, is set in the same universe and time period as her break-out first novel, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, and shares some of its characters. The main protagonist is Lovelace, now called Sidra, the former AI of the tunnelling ship Wayfarer. In the previous novel, Lovelace decided to download herself into a humanoid artificial body, despite the legal penalty of termination of consciousness, and now, with the assistance of rogue tech Pepper, Lovelace is becoming Sidra.

As part of the acclimatisation process to her new human-shaped bodykit, Sidra has come to stay with Pepper and her partner/lover Blue, and to work as Pepper's shop assistant. As Pepper and Blue introduce Sidra to humaniform living, we feel every moment of Sidra's physical and psychological transition from ship-based AI to body-based consciousness - her discomfort, her feelings of sensory disorientation, her sense of being cut off from the information flow she lived in, her inability to control the sensory perceptions of a mobile body, all the details (as Chambers presents them) of how a ship-based AI perceives and how that maps onto the ways in which a body-based AI must learn to function.

A Closed and Common Orbit is not just the story of Sidra's adaptation to a humanoid body and a human way of being, however. Parallelling Sidra's present experiences as an AI becoming human, is Pepper's childhood as a child raised by AIs. Designated Jane 23, her ealiest memories are those of a cloned child labourer, living in a factory/workhouse under the supervision of robot taskmasters called Mothers, learning to process scrap technology. Jane knows only the Mothers and her fellow workers - her agemates, all named Jane, and those of the other cadres, each agegroup sharing one name, living regimented lives of work, exercise and sleep, never setting foot outside the rooms of the workhouse. When a freak explosion shows Jane the incomprehensible outside of ground and sky and endless piles of scrap tech waiting to be processed, her curiosity draws her out of the factory and into a desolate junkyard world of feral animals. She escapes thanks to Owl, the still-functional AI of a junked spaceship who takes her in and manages to teach her just enough about being a free human to survive off-world.

The concepts here - sentient AIs, artificial consciousness downloaded into bodies, ideas of personhood and family that don't distinguish between fleshed and coded beings - are nothing new in the world of science fiction. What delights is the interlinked stories of two women who don't fit in, don't belong, finding out who they are and making a place where both can be at home.

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Seanan McGuire's novella Every Heart a Doorway is a portal fantasy with a difference - it's about what life is like for those who cross into another world after the portal travelling is done, after the strange world beyond the magic door has changed their hearts and souls and then sent them back.

Eleanor West knows what it feels like to find your true home on the other side of the magic mirror, or at the bottom of the rabbit-hole. As a child, she wandered into another world not once but several times. Now a middle-aged woman, she runs a 'home for wayward children' - mostly girls - who have gone through a portal and returned, but can not move on. Most have been sent to Eleanor by their parents, who don't understand what their children have experienced, or why and how they have been changed. They want their children back as they were, and Eleanor tells them she can help them. But her real intention is to help the travellers accept that their portals are closed, that there is little chance of their ever opening again, and how to live in the mundane world with the knowledge of where they have been.

Nancy is one of these wayward girls. She has spent years of subjective time in a world she calls the Halls of the Dead, learning to be silent, motionless, a statue in black and white, until the Lord of the Dead sent her back. Her parents believe her to be the victim of a kidnapping, and send her to Eleanor West, to be healed. At first she is confused by the others she meets, all changed in different ways by the different worlds they have been to. She learns how the portal worlds are classified, of the axes of Logic and Nonsense, Virtue and Wickedness. And she begins to form wary relationships with some of the others. Kade, a trans boy cast out of the world he loved because it, like the mundane world, could not accept his gender. Her roommate Sumi, a noisy, colourful girl who is never still. Jack and Jill (identical twins Jacqueline and Jillian) who have been to a world of mad scientists and vampires.

When murder strikes, Nancy, and some of the other children whose portal worlds dealt with death, attempt to unravel the mystery before the authorities have cause to shut down the school.

Every Heart a Doorway is a strange and compelling tale, balanced between fantasy and horror, about difference and what people will do to find a place they can call home.

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Kai Ashante Wilson's novella A Taste of Honey is a bittersweet story of love and loss, of sacrifices made for love, and the eternal question of what might have been.

Aqib bmg Sidiqi is a member of the minor royalty of
Great Olorum, is in training to follow his father as the Keeper of the Royal Menagerie. His family has great hopes for him, that he will marry well and raise their status, thus improving his warrior brother's chances of promotion and his scholarly sister's chances of making a good marriage herself.

But Aqib places all this at risk when he becomes the lover of Lucrio, a soldier with the diplomatic delegation from Dalu├ža. In Olorum, sexual relationships between men are taboo and the penalty is death. Lucrio and Aqib fall passionately in love, just ten days before the delegation is due to leave.

The story unfolds in two times, the events of each night of their relationship interwoven with scenes from Aqib's future after Lucrio is gone, his marriage with a highborn royal woman, the childhood of their daughter Lucretia, his career with the Menagerie, all the things that he would have lost had he left Olorum to be with Lucrio.

But Wilson is not content with giving us just such a straightforward story, and nothing more, and in the end takes us much deeper into the realm of duty, sacrifice and love to an unexpected but satisfying conclusion. Beautifully and evocatively written.

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