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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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Becky Chambers' debut novel, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, is a delicious read. It focuses on the experiences of the multi-species crew of Wayfarer, a tunnelling ship specifically designed to create the equivalent of stable wormholes between planets that facilitate intergalactic travel. Captain Ashby Santoso and his crew are a motley bunch, the ship mostly held together by the eccentric brilliance of her two human techs, Kizzy and Jenks, and the ship's AI Lovey. The most indispensable crew member is their Navigator Ohan, a Sianat pair - one body, two entities, one a symbiotic infection that enables the Pair to perceive the otherspace they tunnel through. The actual flying of the ship is done by pilot Sissex, a cold-blooded but extremely affectionate Aandrisk. The ship's doctor, a six-legged Grum who answers to the name of Dr. Chef, doubles as the cook and gardener. Rounding out the crew is Corbin, another human, who is responsible for maintaining the production of the algae used to fuel the ship. Into this mix comes Rosemary, the ship's new clerk, whose ability to navigate the bureaucracies of multiple worlds will make the Wayfarer more likely to win and effectively complete higher-end contracts.

The first of these is a very valuable contract - requiring them to travel in normal space for a full year to the home planet of a species newly welcomed into the Galactic Commons, and then "punch" the tunnel back to GC space.

The story unfolds slowly, giving us time to enjoy discovering the depths and mysteries of the characters, and their cultures. It's in some ways a different kind of space story, one that's more about the people undertaking a tricky mission and how that affects their relationships over time than it is about action and adventure - although there's a fair bit of that, too.

I'm looking forward to more from Chambers - maybe even more tales of the good ship Wayfarer and her crew.


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