skygiants: Jadzia Dax lounging expansively by a big space window (daxanova)
[personal profile] skygiants
I knew I probably should have written up A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet before I read the sequel, because I loved A Closed and Common Orbit SO MUCH that now there is no way I can do justice to the first book.

I mean, A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is certainly a lot of fun! It feels a bit more like a season of television than a novel -- very much out of that genre of beloved, relatively lighthearted crew-is-family space TV, full of aliens and semi-incidental interstellar politics, with approximately one episode dedicated to each crew member's interesting alien culture or surprise dramatic backstory as well as episodes where Everyone Just Goes On A Shopping Trip. There is a Noble Captain, a Friendly Polyamorous Lizard Alien Second-in-Command, an Earnest Financial Assistant, a Manic Mechanic, a Caring Chef Who Feeds Other Species To Compensate For The Embarrassing Genocidal Tendencies Of His Own -- ok, some of the archetypes are more archetypal than others. In the dramatic season finale, our plucky band of space truckers reaches their long-haul destination at last and becomes involved in a major diplomatic incident, the outcome of which is the one thing in the book that rubbed me slightly the wrong way; in a book that is otherwise extremely optimistic and very invested in Various Species Are Different And All Messed Up In Their Own Ways But Can Get Along If They Try, writing off one entire intelligent species as just Too Messed Up To Play With Others Ever feels sort of against the grain. Anyway, if you like this sort of thing, you will almost certainly like this particular thing.

I like this sort of thing all right but the things A Closed and Common Orbit is doing appeal to my id MUCH more. A Closed and Common Orbit focuses on two characters who appear relatively briefly in A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet: Sidra, an AI who, due to compelling personal circumstances but counter to interstellar law, has been installed in a designed-to-be-instinguishable-from-human artificial body; and Pepper, the mechanic who has volunteered to take on responsibility for her.

The main present-day thread of the story involves Sidra's attempts to figure out whether she can comfortably inhabit a body that she was never designed to inhabit - not just whether she can live permanently as something like an independent intelligent biological life-form without giving herself away, but whether she wants to do so. The plot is mostly comprised of small slice-of-life events like Sidra Makes A New Friend or Sidra Considers Getting A Tattoo, all interwoven into a really compelling and thoughtful examination of artificial intelligence, self-determination, and free will.

The other half the book delves into Pepper's backstory as an artificially created human being, designed to be cheap disposable labor. As a child, "Jane 23" mostly-accidentally escapes the factory where she labors, and is subsequently raised by an abandoned ship's AI in a junkyard. The backstory plot does a couple of things: a.) serves as an excellent example of the always-compellingly-readable 'half-feral child must make home in dangerous environment, survives with ingenuity and a box of scraps' genre; b.) works in dialogue with Sidra's main plotline to complicate ideas of 'human' and 'artificial' and 'purpose' and 'free will'; c.) gives me FIVE MILLION FEELINGS ABOUT AI MOMS WHO LOVE YOU. Sometimes a family is an AI mom, her genetically engineered daughter, the daughter's boyfriend, their AI roommate, and the roommate's alien friend who honestly didn't even particularly want to be there that day! AND THAT'S BEAUTIFUL.
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