When I read Becky Chambers’ first novel, A Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, back in January, I felt I’d finally discovered a writer with ambition for my favourite genre. What I particularly enjoyed was the absolute focus on the characters and the relationship between them. While lesser writers appear to believe that if the first gun didn’t solve the problem, a bigger one should (can there ever be a more contrary and confused state-of-mind than so-called ‘military sci-fi’?), Becky intuitively demonstrates an understanding of the question: ‘What if we’re not top of the food-chain and have to communicate?’ This question is never written out loud. It’s there in the novel’s quietness and grace.
In a genre that is defined by the idea of big ships and men in rubber masks – at least to non-readers of sci-fi – it must be extremely difficult as a writer to resist the temptation to go write the shock-and-awe ‘wow’ moments but to instead trust your reader’s attention-span. First one then two, then three and later four characters grapple with the idea of what it is to be sentient/ human. Philosophical questions of this sort are where the greatest works of sci-fi have always been produced. The canon would be very different without Lem, Tepper, Asimov, Clarke or Le Guin but if Becky Chambers keeps this form, her name will surely be added to this pantheon.
It would have been easier as a writer to create a sequel to her first novel but Becky has taken the more difficult road: write a story that will be familiar to readers who enjoyed the first novel but can be read as a standalone. It’s an investment that will pay-off as it’s not only allowed the author to experiment with style and theme but creates in readers the expectation that there will be more ‘Rogue One’-style spin-offs.
Reading ‘A Close and Common Orbit’ as a reader, I was reminded of the very best of Le Guin (The Dispossessed, The Left Hand of Darkness) or Asimov’s Robot stories.
Reading ‘A Close and Common Orbit’ as a writer, I was jealous because this was the sort of book I would be very pleased to send to an editor, knowing that it could not be better.
Reading ‘A Close and Common Orbit’ as a bookseller, I am really looking forward to 20th October (the UK publication date) and being able to put a finished copy in people’s hands and saying ‘Just read it!’