A Closed and Common Orbit (Wayfarers #2), by Becky Chambers
I was knocked out by Becky Chambers’ first book The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet when I read it a couple of months ago. Now, picking up this second book in the Wayfarers series I think she’s rapidly becoming one of my new favorite science fiction writers.
This book works as a standalone but here’s a little bit of background all the same. One of the central characters in the first volume is the ship’s artificial intelligence named “Lovie” by the crew. Lovie reached such a high level of sentience that one of the crew fell in love with her. During one of the actions on the ship Lovie is damaged and fragmented. An attempt to reboot her back to her evolved condition fails and, instead, the out-of-the-box intelligence named Lovelace is rebooted in her place. At the end of the book one of the characters arranges to purchase an illegal black market “kit” for Lovelace, giving her an android body and freeing her from the ship.
This book takes up where book one ends. Lovelace is heading to a planet with Pepper in her new body which she always refers to as her “kit”. She is already having problems with the new existence. She feels isolated and alone in the new body, unable to connect to a larger computer network. This limits her ability to learn new information and also prevents her from storing new memories. The kit is so small that memory is limited. This forces her to have to triage the events of her life to determine what should stay and what should go. She also has an algorithm in her software requiring her to always tell the truth. This is a worthy part of being a ship AI. No one would want a ship that, for whatever reason, would fudge on fuel data or enemy numbers. Interacting with humans, however, makes this feature troublesome, especially since she is in an illegal body.
Unlike humans, Lovelace feels completely separated from her exterior self. This is something that was fostered as a ship AI, in which she is not the ship. Rather, the ship is something in which she exists but they are not one in the same.
Her secret is kept secure until she decides that she wants a tattoo from an alien she considers a friend. She chooses a tattoo in which nanobots can create a design that moves. Unfortunately, these nanobots don’t interact well with the nanobots that are already part of her kit. This exposes her as an android and also damages her new friendship. Eventually Lovelace comes to realize that her life purpose has been distorted. She was always meant to be part of a ship in which she can serve the needs of humans as she was designed to do.
Chambers’ writing flows smoothly between humor and poignancy as she examines the meaning of existence and a dozen other subtle themes that flow out of the narrative. This is only her second book and she’s already putting out fresh and phenomenal material. She’s as fun to read as John Scalzi with the provocative nature of Dick or Le Guin. An excellent book and a great choice for a sci-fi-friendly book club.