On page 350 in my Kindle edition of A Closed and Common Orbit, Becky Chambers muses through one of her most brilliant characters I have read so far. Sidra, the spaceship AI installed into a human body, says “Animals don’t have a purpose. Animals just are.” I disagree. Animals are created for the purpose of propagating their genes by creating more animals. Considering that each and every animal comes from another animal’s successful attempt to self-replicate, it’s hard to deny an implicit purpose imbued through evolution instead of an intelligent creator. That’s not to say we are devoid of free will. Like Sidra, we can ignore our evolution-given (in her case designer-given) purpose and select another for ourselves. Or like the old ship AI Owl we can accept our birthright purpose without alteration. Even then, nothing prevents us from selecting another purpose to go alongside.
Speaking of purpose, what’s the purpose of a character? There are so many ways to read Sidra. Is she an allegory for transgender people? For neurodiversity? For anyone who feels like they don’t fit in or has issues with their body? What I love about speculative fiction is that she is all and none of these things. Perhaps Becky Chambers will give an interview one day telling everyone exactly what she’s trying to say with Sidra, but I doubt she will. The depth and uniqueness of her creations enables us to relate to them and fall in love with them rather than see right through to a hidden agenda. That’s what every writer should strive for, especially the ones that really do have a message. If your character reads like a political stand instead of a person, you’ve failed. With Sidra, Chambers succeeds.
I am an artificial intelligence researcher and developer by training, and I will tell you that Chambers takes liberties with Sidra. It’s an anthropocentric bias to assume that everything that becomes sapient will have the same emotions that we recognize. Chambers probably knows this. I do, and in my own writing I often go ahead and write highly human artificial intelligences anyway. It’s hard to write relatable synthetic beings that aren’t just humans made of metal, so even in my own writing, I have to come up with excuses for why the synthetic characters in my writing act and think so much like us.
After making the decision to let Sidra be a very human AI, Chambers uses the same strategy of first principles that she describes in an interview: Based on this body, what sort of culture will be likely to serve this being’s interests? What quirks are likely to follow? Since Sidra is an AI, she doesn’t have a culture of her own. Instead of instincts she has subroutines, and they’re always getting her into trouble.
I love that Sidra hates open spaces because she feels compelled to monitor everything in them. She hates having two eyes in the front of her head instead of cameras spread out to see everything. She hates not having a direct IV from the internet. She wants to look at her bedroom from the four corners in the ceiling. She insists that she would rather sit in a corner and watch everyone at a bar instead of dance. This is where Sidra sounds like a neuro-atypical person. As one such person myself, it’s also where I relate most closely to her.
Now we have to talk about the dance scene. As I mentioned, it starts with Sidra telling her organic friend Tak that she prefers to observe from a corner. Tak insists that she try dancing, and Sidra learns that she can simply download videos of expert dancers directly to her body kit, which, naturally, makes her very popular on the floor. Soon, some frisky lizard-like Aandrisks have joined her, and the heat turns up until Bwaaaah Bwaah! Sidra’s sensors tell her that a meteoroid has struck her hull!
It doesn’t matter that Sidra doesn’t have a hull and a space rock didn’t materialize in the middle of the party. All that happened was some creepy Aandrisk dude put his hands on her without even coming into her field of vision, let alone saying hello. Nevertheless, Sidra is out of it. She’s stressed. She feels wrong, and she has to get away. Everything about the scene resonates, and it leads smoothly into the next stage of her character arc where she proposes installing herself into Pepper’s house.
Every time Sidra suggests becoming or becomes a house or a spaceship, I get a little thrill. I dunno, maybe I just think “That’s right, you’re not human. Own it!” Maybe, like Becky Chambers herself, I wish that I could be a disembodied intelligence free to roam from body to body as I please. Some might argue that I am. If you believe in them, isn’t that what a soul is?
But in the end, Sidra is human. At least she is enough that I can relate to her. That’s the catch-22. Whether they’re anthropomorphized animals or aliens or robots, we want to read about characters like us. How alien can you make the aliens before you don’t have a story? Chambers doesn’t answer this question, but she does straddle the line. She takes familiar, modern sources of alienation, such as neurodiversity and body dysmorphia, and dresses them up in stories of artificial intelligence.
Becky Chambers has said in interviews that she loves to do this. I’ve often fantasized about writing hard-hitting stories that would force people to open their eyes to some fundamental truth, but Chambers, in her defining style, takes a more humble approach. In this interview, Chambers says that she believes one of the best things about science fiction is that it does not force you to confront anything. Instead, it presents familiar concepts in unfamiliar settings, letting readers engage with something challenging under what she terms a “nice, comforting blanket of fiction.”
“If you want to see yourself in a character like Sidra or any of the other characters you can do that,” says Chambers, “but if it does hit too close to home, you can say ‘oh, it’s just robots.’”