Vonne’s Shelf: A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers
This is a finalist for the 2016 Hugo Award for Best Novel. It is very good, but you don’t need me to tell you that (it’s a finalist for the Hugo, fercryinoutloud)! Let’s do a parental review, give a brief synopsis, a few thoughts on relevancy, and finally my take on its chances at the Worldcon for the Hugo in Helsinki, Finland in August.
Profanity: Yes. The f*bomb is not quite pervasive, but becomes more so as you get into part two, when one of the protagonists learns to swear and takes up the practice with gusto. Notably, both Sidra and young Jane 23 are cautioned about their language, so that’s nice.
Sex/Nudity: None, really. There is some talk, but in regards to inter-species mating practices. This reminded me a bit of a Galactic Geographic documentary of alien natural procreation norms.
Violence: None. Yay! This is my favorite thing. There is some action, as one of the protagonists is attacked by wild dogs, and she has to defend herself. She kills some of them, and then learns she needs to start supplementing her diet, so this becomes a hunting scenario.
In a way, this is an indirect sequel to A Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. That novel introduced a secondary character that is one of the main characters here. That novel also gave birth to the sentient AI that becomes the other main character here. However, make no mistake: this is a very different novel from that one. All those older, more fun, characters are gone, and instead we are dealing with a much more serious story with a more serious message.
Sidra used to be known as Lovelace, the AI on the Wayfarer in the other novel. However, her personality “died” at the end of that novel, and the core programming was downloaded into a human-analogue kit body, and this is Sidra. This story follows her as she tries to cope with the restrictions her kit-body imposes, and find her own way in the sprawling station known as Port Coriol.
Pepper was a secondary character in the previous novel. She takes Sidra to live with her and to take care of her, helping her to adjust to society and her new life. Half of this novel follows Pepper when she was a young girl named Jane 23 on an Enhanced World. There, she was basically slave labor to make tech work. This back story will take her to a damaged shuttle with a lonely AI named Owl. Ultimately, the two of them will repair the shuttle and escape the planet.
The story bounces back and forth, alternating chapters in the present with Sidra and Pepper and then with Pepper as Jane 23 in the past. The last section of the novel merges these stories to achieve a resolution to the real story, which I won’t reveal here.
Right now the world is grappling with diversity. Exactly what qualifies as diversity, and what is merely aberrant behavior? I don’t know the answer to that question, but this novel seems to be tackling that difficult problem.
Here I’ll get into something called “literary symbolism,” which is a subject that frustrates me to death. This is my least favorite thing about Literature classes: the need to find some deeper meaning than just a good story. In my disdain for this practice, I am in good company. Mark Twain hated it also. Normally, I would rather not even acknowledge the beast, but this novel begs for it so here it comes.
Consider the challenge of being in a body you know is not yours. That is Sidra’s dilemma, and how that is resolved will be . . . unsatisfying in the “literary symbolism” context, but I cannot reveal that. Anyway, this is very like the challenges of those struggling with transgender, or Gender Identity Disorder, or something similar. I won’t pretend to understand those difficulties; all I will say is that our society makes life very difficult for such ones.
That means this story is extremely relevant, and that increases its chances for the Hugo Award.
Grief Management through a Personal Story:
A friend of mine claimed to have Gender Identity Disorder. He felt he was actually a woman, and resented being lumped in with males. His wife struggled along with him in this. Why they ever got married is baffling to me. They told me repeatedly they could handle it. It turns out they couldn’t. We had many discussions about this, and spoke openly and directly. My focus was not judging because, well, who am I to judge anything? It did make me do a lot of research, though. He argued that GID sufferers are shown in autopsies to literally have different brain structure that does identify as the opposite gender than their body presents. My research agreed with this, but also included the reality that by choosing to dwell on things, we literally change the synaptic connections, and therefore the structure, in our brains. The conundrum: Does the structure always present gender-opposition from birth, or do we create that structure by thinking repeatedly along those lines? We never got an answer to that. What we did get were numerous trips to the ER while he self-injured to make himself a woman; the marriage crashing; disturbing public behavior; ultimately, he committed suicide by cop to end his suffering. A tragedy that I still weep about in my heart.
Now that we’re all bummed out, let’s change the subject back to the novel’s addressing of this topic. Yeah, changing the subject: I’m down with that.
One of the things that highlights the gender challenges is one particular ensemble character that is of an alien species that naturally cycles through differing genders during its lifespan. When we first meet this character, they are a “she” p. 92. The next time they show up, they are “he” p. 138, and we are told up front that they have changed gender. Third appearance p. 187 back to “she” with no explanation. Then, p. 220 back to “he” with no explanation. Then, p. 300, bafflingly and suddenly, the uncertain alien gender of “xe” and “xyr” with no explanation. Finally, p. 312 back to “she” with no explanation.
Either this character is present to show that gender identity changing is perfectly fine and can be handled with equanimity, or this is some piss poor proofreading. I get real passionate about my favorite authors not being treated well by their publishing houses, so I hope this isn’t piss poor proofing. You won’t like it if I get angry.
This is very good, and deserves a solid reading. I just don’t think it’s good enough to beat some of the other works in the finalist list. The relevancy factor is in its favor. Though the story must have been very difficult to write, it really isn’t that different from many other novels written in the same way. So, I’m thinking it won’t actually win the Hugo.
One thing is certain: there was a ton of quality SF/F produced last year, and making the Hugo finalist list in that kind of competitive environment should be a matter of great pride. The whole genre should be proud of itself.
Of greater concern to me is that it is so serious, I cannot even give it the 2016 Golden Giggle (or Giggly) Award like I hoped to! Gah!
Oh well, not every author should feel obligated to accommodate my need for inane silliness.
Well done, Ms. Chambers. You deserve the finalist slot, and I hope you win, but forgive me for not thinking you will. In fact, just ignore that.