After her breakout hit The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet Becky Chambers’ second book, A Closed and Common Orbit reads a little bit more like a conventional story. As if to make up for the purported lack of plot in Book 1, in her sequel, Chambers writes two. There’s so much to discuss in this book that I’ve split my comments over three blog entries. Here I’ll discuss Jane. Next week I’ll cover my favorite Chambers character thus far, Sidra, the android who identifies as an interstellar spacecraft. Finally I’ll close with the radical ideas that arise from an analysis of the Aandrisk and Aeluon approaches to childrearing.
Jane’s earliest memory is sucking algae slime from beneath her fingernails. It’s normal child behavior, but gross. Somehow grosser than all the corpses hanging from rafters with their intestines hanging out that I read about in George R. R. Martin’s Fire and Blood. It’s strange how we respond to things as readers. For a clue about why Chambers included this algae-sucking scene, we can leap to the end of the book where Jane samples a spaceship pantry-full of alien spices and thinks back to it. Eating raw algae from a fuel pump sets our expectation of Jane’s station in life that Chambers calls back to later to show how far she’s come.
Thematically, the Jane chapters evoke the desperation of poverty and social marginalization and by extension the guilt of privilege. We never meet anyone on the planet outside the garbage dump that Jane seeks to escape, but frequent references are made to the glittering cities whose lifestyles a legion of clones lives and dies on a garbage island to support. Jane’s suffering and hate for the apathetic ignorance of the glitter cities offer a critique of the unequal distribution of wealth in the real world. Not a subtle one, but well written enough not to be distracting, either.
The next thing that stuck with me was Chambers’s characteristic evocative depictions of platonic affection, which run strong in Jane’s early chapters. Frequent references to the joy of sleeping next to other people and the quiet comfort of touch resonate with me in that same way that the affection aboard the Wayfarer did in book 1. These are the sort of details that get Chambers’ books reviews like “feels like a warm hug.”
Then Jane learns what the sky is and escapes. Then Jane learns what an animal is, then what a plant is, then what rain is, then what death is, and so on. This continues for several chapters, and it’s all written in something like simple English. All due respect to Chambers, it dragged. I put the book down for a while. When I got back to it, moody teenage Jane and severely malnutritioned young adult Jane dropped the simple English since Jane’s own ability with language has improved, and it made for a much more pleasant read.
I suppose I shouldn’t say I “enjoyed” hearing about the effects of Jane’s severe malnutrition, but the unhealing sores and the swollen belly are immersive touches, all remarked on in a matter-of-fact tough-girl voice. Lingering physical evidence of what she survived matches my understanding of how trauma works. A wise survivor once told me “the body keeps score.” But don’t worry. In typical utopian sci-fi fashion, amazing future technology fixes her up in the end to make sure she gets the happy ending she deserves.
Jane herself has Turner syndrome, as we learn in a scene where she analyzes her DNA with the ship’s onboard computer and learns that she has only one chromosome. Alopecia, a hair loss condition, may be connected with Turner syndrome, and may be the cause of Jane’s hairlessness, but it’s not stated explicitly. The “enhanced” have made all sorts of changes to her DNA, including enhancing her immune system, so hairlessness could easily be one of those intentional changes instead. This is another example of how Chambers lets her broad knowledge of biology inform her writing and reminds us that biologically remarkable people don’t have to be aliens from space.
Sometimes they are, though. Take the ape-like alien with an incredibly long, prehensile neck that he uses to hug people for example. He also curses like a sailor, describing Jane’s experience on her trash island as “shitty” and even dropping the f-bomb. So much for “oh stars.”