AI and a former slave

A Closed and Common Orbit - Becky  Chambers

I’m divided about this science-fiction novel. It consists of two distinct storylines with alternating chapters that don’t intersect until the very end. They even happen decades apart. I loved one of the stories. I was ambivalent about the other.

Let’s start with the one I liked less: the story of Sidra, an AI in a synthetic, human-looking body. She calls it her housing or her kit. Sidra didn’t chose to be housed in the kit. She is an AI intended for a spaceship. She longs to be in a spaceship. But due to tragic circumstances before this story started, someone put her into the kit, and she is trying to adjust to life as a quasi-human.

Her situation is complicated by the fact that such constructs are illegal. If the authorities find out that Sidra, who tries to live like a human, is actually a software, they will terminate her and punish those who made her that way: Sidra’s friends. To prevent such an eventuality, Sidra’s only solution is to pretend. Unfortunately, an AI couldn’t lie – there is a protocol in place. Yeah, tough.

Sidra’s story left me cold. I couldn’t sympathize with her imaginary plight. I was a computer programmer before I became a writer. I dealt with software every day. Not an AI though; I programmed accounting software, but there is not much difference. A soft is still a soft, a complicated system of code that is just a non-linear, nested sequence of multiple ‘if-then’ interspaced with bits of action. It can’t develop emotions. I don’t believe it. So when Sidra started behaving like a hormonal teenager, exhibiting rebellion and self-disgust, I wanted to puke.

The only thing I liked about Sidra’s subplot is world-building. Ms. Chambers started building this complex cosmopolitan world in the first novel of the series – The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet – and I enjoyed it very much. She deepens her world-building here, gives us more details, more nuances, and more planets. 

The second story, the one I liked best, happens in an entirely different part of this galactic world, on a different planet. It is a much better story with a very likable heroine. It starts when a ten-year-old girl Jane escapes a factory.

She worked at the factory as one of a cadre of girls, all Janes, all numbered. Our Jane’s number is 24. She doesn’t know what is outside the factory walls. She only knows work – sorting scrap – and a little bit of free time for eating, sleeping, and personal hygiene. None of the Janes knows how to play or be children. Trapped inside the four factory walls since they were toddlers, they have never seen the sky or the sun. They have never made any choices – never been allowed. They are slaves without knowing it.

When Jane escapes – practically by accident – she finds herself alone in a hostile world, a humongous scrap yard with no humans. Everywhere around her are things new and frightening. By sheer luck, she finds a disabled space shuttle, discarded as scrap years ago. The shuttle’s AI is still functional, and Jane makes her home in it. Together, a ten-year-old girl and a broken machine form a family of sorts, while Jane learns about the real world around her and tries to keep herself from starving to death.

A Mowgli of science fiction, to a degree, with a computer for a foster mother, Jane’s story is a continual saga of self-discovery. It touched my heart on the deepest levels. I was so sorry for her and so awed by her courage and determination that I wanted to talk to her, to explain, to kiss and make better. This child made me ache for her. I was reading and simultaneously inventing better solutions for her problems. I wanted her life to be easier, but it wasn’t. It was hard and intense and imbued with Jane’s humanity. Her story alone makes this book worth reading.