Recently I read a book that really opened my eyes. It was about a child without parents, in a poor society, living off scrap in a giant rubbish tip filled with everything wealthy people threw away. This story ran parallel to that of an adult, living in a prosperous society, trying to find their own identify whilst having a body that didn’t feel right to them. At the same they are trying to keep their otherness a secret unless their difference ignites the ire of the society they live in.
This novel wasn’t an Ali Smith or Martin Amis. It was A Closed And Common Orbit by Becky Chambers.
Living off scrap
The novel has two main plots. One follows Jane, a ten-year-old clone, who lives in a factory sorting through piles of rubbish. She escapes from the factory and is adopted by an AI in a crashed space ship called Owl. By salvaging the scrap, they are able to repair the ship and escape.
Scavenging through scrap is a hard life. There are many dangerous chemicals and bits of machinery, as well as very little food and nothing that we would consider society. Although Owl tries to provide for Jane as best she can, Jane doesn’t go to school or have any friends. Jane’s life is far away from the happy childhood that every kid deserves.
Jane is a poor child, sifting through the discarded trash of a wealthier civilization that doesn’t know or care about her miserable existence. Jane lives in the most absolute poverty; by the standards of our world she could be amongst the most disadvantaged people on Earth. The parallels between her life and the lives of children in giant scrap yards in China are obvious.
Hiding your true self
The other story follows Sidra, who lives on another planet in a prosperous, cosmopolitan, diverse society where humans rub shoulders with non-humans and everyone, more or less, gets along. The problem is that Sidra is a ship’s AI that has been downloaded into a “kit” that has the appearance of the human body. This is illegal, so Sidra has to hide her true self from everyone she meets. She also has to adapt to life in a body that’s different to one that had been assigned to her when she came into the world.
It is difficult not knowing who you are or how you fit into the models that society creates for people. Having to pass as a human is difficult for Sidra but she has to hide who she is because her very existence transgresses the rules of society. She does not know if someone will be tolerant or will react with violence when they find out the details of her personal history.
Sidra’s material needs are met, but that doesn’t mean that she is happy. The parallels between Sidra’s life and that of many people in West who are queer, trans or LGBTQ is clear. Just because she is safe from starvation or the raw elements, doesn’t mean she isn’t at risk when living in a supposedly tolerant society. Recently in London a young couple were attacked because of their sexuality.
Jane’s needs are towards the bottom of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs: food, shelter, safety. Sidra’s are towards the top: friendship, self-actualization. Neither protagonist’s needs are more important than the others’. As a reader, we care about both at the same time. They’re both people trying to live.
This novel shows how stories about both absolute poverty and social acceptance are important. There are people who argue that the left should focus only on the economic inequality that leads to absolute poverty. Conversely, there are those who think that the left should focus only on the social inequality that leads to hatred. This novel shows that both are valid. We can care about more than one thing.
Science fiction is a great genre for opening your eyes to the lives of other people. It requires a leap of imagination to picture worlds or characters that are different to your own. This leap of imagination can allow the reader to understand what it’s like for someone whose culture is different, or is poorer, or has body dysmorphia, or feels alienated from society. Imagining the lives of others is a crucial step to take towards improving them.
There are also those believe that sci-fi is just for frivolous entertainment and cannot say anything more substantial about society. Some of these people are authors who write sci-fi novels, although they don’t admit it, such as Ian McEwen or Margaret Atwood. They think only literary fiction has something to say. A Closed and Common Orbit shows that this is not the case.
Chamber’s book is quietly political, but is very powerful and had a huge impact on me. I found it very moving and it opened my eyes not only to how different people live but also to the fact that despite the different challenges we all face, all of our struggles are equally valid. We are all equally deserving of compassion, no matter the circumstances of our lives.