A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers

The first book impressed me for being a lighthearted and optimistic but *deeply* clever space opera, rich in sociological detail (all the species, the civilisations, the historical background, etc.). Ultimately, it was a smartly enjoyable romp. This one raised the bar, in my opinion, for taking that world-building and using it to tell a story that’s really emotionally moving.

It starts where the previous book left off. The ship’s AI from the previous book, Lovelace, has been shifted into an artificial human-like body kit, and is on her way to her new home with Pepper, a highly skilled technician. There are then two alternating timelines – one following the AI, who chooses the new name of Sidra for herself, and one following Pepper through her childhood and adolescence, when she was a much-suffering girl named Jane.

Really, Pepper/Jane’s whole story is heartbreaking. She’s a genetically-modified, tube-grown human, created and grown solely to sort through metallic scrap and broken-down machinery for it to be recycled for the benefit of the “real humans” on the other side of the planet. She escapes from there, stumbles across an abandoned ship with a kindly AI who takes her in, and spends the next ten years killing wild dogs for sustenance and scrounging for components to repair the ship and get off her hellish home world. There are many moving, emotional moments, but it is a harrowing read.

Sidra’s storyline initially seems lightweight in comparison, but soon enough, it broaches some weighty topics of its own. Sidra – designed to operate a spaceship, after all – struggles with the limited perspective and memory banks she has in her body kit. She struggles with her identity – the fact that she didn’t even choose this kit herself, but the previous incarnation of Lovelace did, the one she replaced. And then she struggles with people’s prejudices. The universe of "Wayfarers" is one in which AIs are considered tools, not people, and body kits like the one she inhabits are strictly illegal. She can’t draw too much attention to herself, and has to look and act exactly like a “normal human” to avoid rousing suspicion. There’s a part where her non-human-ness is exposed to someone she’s just starting to befriend, and Sidra’s reaction to that reaction just broke my heart, oh my.

But the great thing about this book – like the last book – is that in the end, things basically work out. The conclusion to the book brings the two timelines and their themes together in a way that, again, is very moving. Truly a fantastic book.