Saturday, July 8, 2017

In praise of gateway novels: A Closed And Common Orbit

I've greatly enjoyed both of Becky Chambers' books so far, primarily because of their warmth, their concern with everyday life in an interstellar future, and their concern with human (and non-human) relationships.

And it's no coincidence that A Closed And Common Orbit is the only one of the Hugo-nominated novels I can see being adapted for the big or the little screen, as these are much more common traits of SF film and television than they are of novels and short-stories.
Orbit is a spin-off from its predecessor, The Long Way To A Small Angry Planet, following several of its supporting characters: Sidra, a starship's AI now hiding in an illegal android body and Pepper, the gadgeteer acting in loco parentis for her. It follows both Sidra's attempts to find a place for herself in a new and confusing world planetside, while also telling Pepper's backstory as a young refugee from a backwater colony built on genetic manipulation.

So, it's a double Bildungsroman, or less pretentiously, a coming of age story, a YA novel in adult clothing. And I mean that last as a compliment - both Orbit and Planet are about young people making their way in a confusing universe, learning life lessons and looking for somewhere to fit in and belong. 

And while fantasy turns out young adventurers by the score, SF has lost the art of this somewhat in recent years and it's nice to see Chambers do an good job of redressing the balance. Her work is very well suited as a gateway into the wider genre.

So, it's an enjoyable read, but is it the best book on the Hugo shortlist? In a way, Orbit has the opposite problem to Yoon Ha Lee's Ninefox Gambit, which is hard to truly like but easy to respect. Chambers give us memorable characters, snappy dialogue and moves the plot along smoothly - in short, she gives us fun - but these are all virtues of writerly craft rather than of art. And you've got to have both.

The themes she explores - artitificial intelligence and a genetically modified underclass - aren't particularly new or refreshed either. And the climax of the book is also somewhat underplayed, given how emotionally invested in the outcome the reader should be by that point.

Another way of putting it is that while there is much good in it, even the every good in places, Orbit isn't quite the complete package. For me, it also lacks the uncanny superlative (that Bill and Ted 'Woah' factor) that in different ways characterises the best of both SF and fantasy. 

A Hugo nomination for what is still only Chambers' second novel reflects how far she's already come, however, and I look forward to reading (or indeed watching) more by her in the future.

Hugo Rankings So Far

1. Charlie Jane Anders, All The Birds In The Sky
2. Yoon Ha Lee,  Ninefox Gambit
3. Becky Chambers, A Close And Common Orbit

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