Everywhere I look online I find people celebrating this novel (granted I haven’t looked very far or very deep into the internet). Personally, I am ready to bludgeon anybody who refuses to give a closed and common orbit a chance; so be warned. If you ever find me on my soapbox in a bookshop with you (it happens often) handing you this novel and you do not buy it, it will somehow find it’s way into your bag anyway. (Or perhaps it won’t.) But seriously this novel is now high up on my favourites list alongside the novel it follows a long way to a small angry planet.
I’ve actually been having a little bit of trouble in starting this post because this is that novel for me in many ways. It is that novel, which arrives exactly when you need it to. It is that novel that excels in world building and foregrounds gender identity, sexuality, and social invisibility. It is that novel that also demonstrates the validity of viable AI personalities deserving a recognised place in society beyond that of property to be sold. It is that novel that supports escape as a means to reclaiming yourself from authorities. It is that novel that demands you recognise the want for becoming autonomous is not only an option, but a right. It is that novel that tells you you are not who you were initially designed and purposed to be and that’s okay.
But it is also that novel that calls into question friendship and family and blurs the lines between them. Our main characters are inherently good people who bind together and choose their family and and leaving one another to sink is conceptually unthinkable for any of them. There is kindness to be had even from strangers in common orbit. This novel, for me, is a safe space that throws a lot at you, makes you wait for the ending but along the way it’ll take you into it’s arms and tell you “you’re okay now.”
But as you’d expect Common orbit is a little different from the long way. It is still as enchanting as the space opera that is reminiscent of firefly, however it feels a little more economical without loosing the easy writing style and it’s a little grittier. Instead of flying around all over the place, common orbit is a novel in two parts.
In our current timeline we witness Lovelace’s transportation from the Wayfarer Ship shortly after the events of the previous novel. Pepper takes Lovey under her wing while Lovey adjusts to her new life that she has opted for in the ‘kit’ that makes her appear as human rather than AI. In the other timeline that builds the other half of the novel, Pepper (then known as Jane 23) has an opportunity to share her story from small genetically altered child sorting scrap metal to the streetwise engineering wiz-kid we know today.
It is easy to forget that Jane 23 is a child for a lot of this novel and is sort of raised by the AI, Owl who’s stranded ship Jane is living on. The daily grind of finding water, mushrooms, dogs, scrap that might fix Owl’s ship, is central to Jane’s existence and as a result struggle seems to quietly dominate this part of the novel. Loneliness is a quiet undertone and while Jane 23 has nobody but Owl, Lovey (now Sidra) seems to have too many people around her and too many things pulling her in all directions.
Sidra is struggling to accept the limitations of the ‘Kit’ and to even fix her identity onto it. Her job is to observe everything at once and this makes being outside, where there are no constraints, very difficult for her. It also makes socialising awkward as she wants to always stand in the corner and quietly watch. She is painfully aware just how different she is. It is a difficult adjustment trying to intergrade with living species and even adjusting to the perception of how these living species view AI’s. Sidra’s body kit is extremely illegal, and she begins to fear of what it could mean subjecting her friends to if she is found out by the authorities.
This novel is a little grittier than the last one, it isn’t as lighthearted and as far flung and it doesn’t move around as much as the long way. But that really demonstrates the strength of Chamber’s writing. Chamber has opportunity to get down and dirty with how elegantly she plays with the reader’s emotions, with how wonderful all that subtext is and I am not ashamed to say that this novel made me cry (four times). I’m not sure if it is because this novel is as vivid as it is, or if the sense of social and physical struggle just really got to me, but it got me. Chambers had me like putty in her hands.
Another thing I’m going to mention which I haven’t actually seen being given much airtime in other reviews is that common orbit focuses on non-binary gender identity with absolute elegance. In fact it succeeds so much in giving visibility to non-conforming, gender fluidity that there is an entire branch of a species that can and does switch genders regularly. Sure some people out there right now are going ‘so we’re aliens right?’ but actually pronouns like ‘xe’ and ‘xyr’ are littered around this novel when the gender of the person in question is unknown. It is also mentioned to be impolite to misgender someone in this novel and how important it is to ask for clarity.
Gender fluidity in common orbit is treated just as polyamorous relationships and sexuality in the long way, with absolute distain for anyone who believes it is an incorrect way to be as it is incredibly rude to suggest it. It is not accepted anywhere that it is okay to disregard the customs or beliefs of other people as ‘weird’ because they are not your own. Faced with new things and experiences, our characters adapt and accept. And I love that with every cell in my alien body. More fiercely that you can imagine.
In someways this novel feels just like coming home for me. It is everything I love about the genre and it is everything I wish the world was. A closed and common orbit is that book for me, it is that love affair that I will never let go of or get over because it is pure and precious and safe and it should be my life. I should live on these worlds with these people. So if you don’t read it or the long way to a small angry planet, I will personally bludgeon you – for your own stupid, stupidity at missing out on such poignant novels that resonate so deeply.