Book Review: A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers |2017 Arthur C. Clarke Shortlist Post #2

The 2017 Clarke Award shortlist was announced at the beginning of May and, as I did last year, I want to read the entire shortlist.

If you have not seen the shortlist already, here it is:

  • Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee
  • Central Station by Lavie Tidhar
  • The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
  • After Atlas by Emma Newman
  • A Close and Common Orbit by Beckie Chambers
  • Occupy Me by Tricia Sullivan

My goal is to read the shortlist before July 27th when the winner will be announced.


Genre: Science Fiction

Publisher: Hodderscape

Length: 365 pages

Format: Ebook

Rating: 2.5-3 stars

Publication Date: October 20th 2016



Publisher’s description

Lovelace was once merely a ship’s artificial intelligence. When she wakes up in an new body, following a total system shut-down and reboot, she has no memory of what came before. As Lovelace learns to negotiate the universe and discover who she is, she makes friends with Pepper, an excitable engineer, who’s determined to help her learn and grow.

Together, Pepper and Lovey will discover that no matter how vast space is, two people can fill it together.

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet introduced readers to the incredible world of Rosemary Harper, a young woman with a restless soul and secrets to keep. When she joined the crew of the Wayfarer, an intergalactic ship, she got more than she bargained for – and learned to live with, and love, her rag-tag collection of crewmates.

Book Review

I wanted to read this book pretty early on in my personal challenge mainly because I wanted to get it out of the way. Don’t get me wrong, I quite enjoyed A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet when I read it last year (as a part of my 2016 Clarke Shortlist project), it was a nice popcorn read that didn’t require a lot of brain cells. I enjoyed it but, now that I have a bit more perspective on last year shortlist, I think overall it was the weakest shortlisted book. It was a pleasant and feel-good book with a nice cast of characters but it definitely wasn’t mindblowing or particularly original. I enjoyed it but it didn’t left me awed which is what I’m looking for in one of the allegedly best SF book of the year.

So, here we are, a year later and its sequel, A Closed and Common Orbit is also shortlisted. I won’t lie, I was a bit annoyed to see it on the list but, as I had not read it at the time, I thought that this book might actually be more interesting than the first book.

A Closed and Common Orbit follows two storylines, Lovelace’s, now called Sidra, the AI from The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet that now inhabits an illegal body kit and how she deals with this new body and the society who wants to destroy her. The second storyline is focused on Pepper’s childhood (she was a minor character in the first book and she takes care of Sidra in this one) as she grows up in a dystopian world where she’s enslaved and her slow journey as she tries to start a new life.

A Closed and Common Orbit is a loose sequel to The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet so I guess you could read it without having read the previous work, you won’t get spoiled because nothing really happened in the first book. However, I don’t think that ACaCO  stands well on its own because it is quite heavily based on our supposed emotional connection to Lovelace/Sidra. I think that if you tried to read this one as a standalone, you could end up annoyed with Sidra’s character pretty soon in the story. Indeed she’s quite whiny and self-centered which was a bit frustrating but, at least I could see where she was coming from thanks to some things that happened in the first book.

I’m not sure a real AI would have acted the way she did because, her reactions always tended to feel very “teenagery” but that’s something I could say of all Chambers non-humans characters, even if they are green and with scales, they don’t seem particularly foreign or different from humans. I mean, if those people are aliens or AIs, what are the odds that they would act exactly like us? You could say that AIs were engineered by humans so that could be an explanation but, at least for the aliens, I don’t see why they would be so humans, it kinds of defeat the purpose of the term alien, especially in this world where humans are supposed to be the least intelligent race. I don’t think it showed well since everyone basically acted the same way. Anyway, I disgress.

I previously wrote that The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet didn’t have a plot but I didn’t mind that when I read it because I was interested by the crew of the Wayfarer and their various interactions enough. A Closed and Common Orbit has no plot either but it was slightly different because I mostly felt very indifferent toward the main characters. I didn’t care about their personal journeys that much and the slight element of plot or “mystery” (if I can call it like that) came into play way too late for me. Considering the number of pages left, it’s not like Chambers really manged to create any kind of suspens and the way it was going to end was pretty obvious.

I know I sound quite harsh but keep in mind that I’m reviewing this book in a “is it really one of the best SF piece of work published in 2017?” mindset. In my opinion it is not. This series has been receiving a lot of popular attention since the release of the first book and I can understand that, I don’t hate it, it’s not even that I dislike it, it’s just that I don’t understand why it’s on this list for. I could recommend this series easily to a lot of people and I’m pretty sure most of them would end up enjoying those books but I wouldn’t ever say to them “those are the best SF books on the market right now”. I guess it’s a popular choice (it was nominated for the Hugo so it definitely has a good fanbase).

At the end of the day, I don’t think it belongs in a list that features The Underground Railroad, Ninefox Gambit or Central Station. The thing that annoys me the most is that it could have if Chambers tried to take a few risks. Some of the ideas and concepts, if explored a bit more, would have been really interesting ( Sidra’s attitute to other AIs and robot-pets, the fact that at one point she mentions that she wants to free them, her feeling of not belonging etc..). It could have lead to something more but it always just was “surface-level” and, if I’m honest, a bit preachy. The way Chambers throws “tolerance and diversity” was a tad annoying at times, I’m all about that in my books but I like when it’s done subtly not when the author tries to shove it in my face.

A Closed and Common Orbit is not a bad book, if I hadn’t read it as part of this project I think I would have liked it more. However, I think it would have worked better if Chambers had turned each separate story into a novella, it probably would have solved some of the pascing issues or helped with the fact that the book was pretty light on plot, as something more condensed, it would probably have been more interesting.

Anyway, have you read that book? Did you enjoy it more than I did or did you find it better than the first one? I would be very interested to know.


Next Clarke Review: Occupy Me by Tricia Sullivan




14 thoughts on “Book Review: A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers |2017 Arthur C. Clarke Shortlist Post #2

    1. True but I think the Clarke tends to showcase works that aren’t always extremely popular, for example I never heard of Occupy Me by Tricia Sullivan before I saw it on the shortlist, Central Station even if it received a lot of critical aclaim last year was pretty much ignored by the public and I’m glad it’s shortlisted? The other works (The Underground Railroad, Ninefox Gambit, ACaCO and After Atlas) did a lot better in terms of popular opinions but at least for some of them I can see why they would be classified as “the best of 2016” but that’s not the case at all with ACaCO, it feels like the odd one out.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. I agree with your assessment. This novel is also on the Hugo ballot for Best Novel, and I think it’s very readable and slanted toward young adult, but not earth-shaking or even important in advancing the SF genre. Presumably it’s on the awards list mainly because Chambers has fans (or a publisher) that are active in pursuing awards.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. It’s definitely readable and it’s a very popular series so it wasn’t a huge surprise for me to see it on the Hugo ballot, however seeing it on the Clarke shortlist was a bit more surprising for me since the shortlist is selected by judges and I don’t see what qualities/original ideas they managed to find in this book… I just hope it won’t end up winning the Hugo or the Clarke haha.


  1. I really enjoyed this book, and even thought it was better than the first one, but I also have to agree with you on its “popcorn” status and your skepticism as to whether or not it belongs on a short list for “a best piece of sci-fi written in a given year” award. I’ve become so jaded when it comes to awards in recent years though, at the very least I guess I’m glad to see both “serious” and “fun” books being nominated. It’d be a shame if sci-fi turned into the Academy Awards, where year after year mostly pretentious artsy stuff gets noticed 😛

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I get that, it’s why I can understand why it’s nominated for the Hugo which is a giant popularity contest in my opinion. The Clarke tends to nominate the kind of books I like which means more original and maybe more “out there” book, they are not always super “artsy” haha, the only one that fits the description this year for me is Occupy Me but they tend to suit my taste more. And, if ACaCO was taken out of the shortlist, it would be a very coherent list since most of the books have themes in common (the idea of slavery is a recurrent themes in all the novels, it’s also kind of there for Chambers work but it doesn’t feel as central compared to the other books). But yeah, maybe it’s there to counteract the fact that most of the other books are very heavy?


  2. Since Long Way to A Small Angry Planet ended in my DNF bin, I can understand your reaction with this one: don’t misunderstand me, Long Way was a fun book – indeed a popcorn read – but I like to be surprised by the stories I read, especially in science fiction, and the predictability you mentioned was probably the main reason I could not keep my interest up. So I’m not surprised that your lukewarm reaction to book 1 carried on to book 2…
    Win some, lose some 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I probably wouldn’t have read the first book if it weren’t for last year shortlist reading, I liked it enough but it took me a while to get attached to the characters, in the end I liked it but I can’t say it was particularly good which is a shame but oh well. I might have to read the third one if it’s nominated again for the Clarke…xD

      Liked by 1 person

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