Utter delight. That’s what this book is: utter, utter delight. I loved Chambers’s first book in this universe, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, and for reasons I won’t go into here because of spoilers for that excellent novel, I put off reading this one for a long time. I am so glad I finally picked it up because this is the best science fiction novel I’ve read this year.
Sidra is an AI formerly housed in a long-haul spaceship. When she wakes up in a new body, she realizes she has a lot to learn about herself and how to live in the world as a person outside of the ship. Together with her engineer friend Pepper, she sets off on a voyage of discovery. It was an absolute joy to wander through the world with Sidra as she becomes more and more herself.
The novel alternates between Sidra’s story and the story of a young girl named Jane, who is born into a life of labor as a factory slave, sorting scrap on a distant fringe planet. Jane’s story is much, much darker than the present of the book, and yet Chambers’s characteristic humor and warmth are still present, despite the seriousness of Jane’s situation.
This is character-driven science fiction at its absolute best. Every character in this novel is fascinating and authentic. There are no big battles, no ships careening through space, no murder mysteries, no political intrigue. There’s no outright violence, although there is horrific injustice and some pretty grim situations. But despite its meandering, mostly quiet plot, I couldn’t put this book down. The characters were that good. I cared about them from page one, and never got bored.
The world-building, also, is just fantastic. I already loved this universe, but I fell in love with it even more reading this book. The aliens are fascinating and have a lot of depth, as does the tech, as does the setting. It all felt so commonplace–not in a boring way, but in a solid way. It’s a book about people, and those people happen to live in a galaxy populated with many species. The science fiction isn’t incidental, but it isn’t exactly central, either. It’s natural. It was a delight to meander through this universe, seeing the sights. I hardly even cared what happened.
Like The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, this book is queer as hell in a beautiful, quiet way. There are species that switch genders and pronouns regularly, a universal pronoun that’s used when you don’t know someone’s gender (duh! such a simple and obviously good idea!), and characters of all species who love and build families in many variations without fuss or prejudice. It’s just a balm to read.
Lastly, I don’t think I’ll ever get sick of reading books about AI and all the questions they ask about sentience, and what it means. But this is one of the best I’ve read in some time. Chambers doesn’t limit her exploration of sentience to Sidra’s character–she extends it outward. All of her characters wrestle with it. They come from vastly different backgrounds, with different ideas about what it means to be a person, and they’re all forced to confront their own identities and those of the people they love. There’s so much depth to the questions this book asks. It’s about embodiment and purpose, about the connections and disconnects between body and mind, about where we truest selves actually reside.
All of that big stuff, plus laugh-out-loud fun, and aliens who communicate through colors swirling in their cheeks, and a vastly creative array of galactic foodstuffs, and beautiful gender inclusivity, and badass women, and queer family celebrated and honored, and some damn amazing tattoos. This is one I’m going to be recommending constantly for a long time.