For all that, at any other time, I may not have been particularly keen on this book, right this second, it is frankly blessed relief. It is the total opposite of The Dark Forest, and that was exactly what I needed. Primarily, it was easy to read. And I really really needed to take a break from the heaviness. So there’s going to be a little bit of dissonance in my post, between the things I know I’d have felt at any other time, and the things I felt now.
In short, all the failing of tDF were reversed here. Misogyny? Lol no. Complete lack of any characterisation? They’re the whole point of the book. Dragging prose? Pffff. BUT. But. This is still doing a lot of the things I found annoying in its predecessor, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, they’re just problems in the opposite direction to the problems of tDF, and so right now, they were the kind of problems I would be happy to deal with.
Mainly, my criticism of this book, much like its predecessor, is it’s painfully light and low on substance. There’s some stuff going on about AI personhood, but it never gets explored in all that much depth. It’s a bit emotional for the lead but then… that’s kind of it? It doesn’t get the time or thought that I’ve seen it get in other books. But then that’s kind of just how these books go. They’re deliberately light and fluffy. And I don’t think you can be fluffy /and/ do a thorough investigation of the rights to personhood of an AI in a civilisation that does not acknowledge them. It’s… too much. So it restricts itself to some emotional stuff and getting one person to see an AI differently. Which is fine, as far as it goes, but it’s not enough for me.
I guess, and this is harder to put my finger on, it felt kind of… all surface and no depth in some other ways too. Much like the previous book, it seemed like she liked the idea of something, but didn’t have the time or page space to really get to grips with it, so it stayed sort of… off to the side and that was it. One of the characters in this book, Pepper, was born on a planet where a lot of clones are enslaved as child labour. Which is presented as a plausible yet horrifying reality of the world. And she escapes. But that’s… it? We don’t know if this was illegal or not, if this is even culturally acceptable or not, if this is common or rare, if she ever tried to do anything about it (or if anyone else ever has). It’s just… a thing that happened. Because Chambers is just very focussed on the small scale, the now and the feelings of the now, without all that much connection to past foundation or future consequence. It’s a series of things that happen, and nothing more. Which, yeah, fuzzy, light reading that was a great relief right now, but most of the time it’s too empty for me.
She does at least make some lovely, believable characters. They do feel like actual people (Cixin Liu, take note) who have their own personalities and ways of speaking. Whenever someone does something, it feels entirely in keeping with what we’ve seen of them so far. I guess in that it has the quality of a soap opera. Not a great deal is happening, but it’s happening to people who feel like people, and who are different people to you, and as such is escapism. Which I get. I can see the appeal.
There’s also just the nice idea that, on the whole, overall, with some caveats, it’s an optimistic space future where people muddle along together. It’s not the glorious space utopia of Star Trek, but it’s a gentle and nice one for the most part, where lots of different species live together and get along just fine, accommodating one another’s foibles. And I do quite like that.
Likewise, the fact that it’s so light makes it very very easy to get into, and easy not to want to put down. Again, good.
But… it’s not good enough for a Hugo. If you draw a line between “enjoyable” and “good” (which I do), then it falls heavily into the former category. It’s sweet and happy and predictable and very very readable, but it’s not good literature. I won’t remember it a year from now, let alone five. Give me two weeks and I’ll probably have forgotten such plot as there is. It’s not special, and I think at the point you’re winning a Hugo, you probably ought to be a bit special. One of the ways I think about books when I’ve finished them and am trying to decide about what to write about them here, is there are two camps you can be aiming for: you either want to be new, or you want to be good. If you achieve one of those, you’re probably a decent book (at least for some people), but if you achieve both, you’re probably on to a winner. So for instance, The Three-Body Problem fulfills the first, but not the second, while The Name of the Wind manages the latter but not the former. And then you have something like Ancillary Justice, which manages both, and as such becomes something of a favourite. If you achieve well in either on its own, it can easily be good enough to win someone over. But A Closed and Common Orbit feels like it’s gunning a little for both, but half-arsing it all, and so you get something a bit meh overall, which is… unsatisfying.
It’s a better book than her first, but she’s not moved away from a lot of the things I found iffy there, and so I may have to go back a little on my prediction that her problems were things time and editing could fix. To an extent, I feel like the substance-less-ness is a feature, not a bug, for Chambers… which is a bit of a shame. She’s definitely not a terrible writer, and I can see ways in which she could move on to writing genuinely interesting stuff, because the ideas are there. I just wish she’d develop, well, any of the heavier, more interesting themes she hints at and actually gives us something a little more. Some depth, some substance… and it’d be enough for me to like the book, probably.
Overall, I gave it a three on Goodreads, and it definitely won’t be the worst on my Hugo nominee list (I’m guessing that spot will be reserved for Death’s End, though maybe Too Like the Lightning will nab it, if the change back in translator makes a massive difference). Current standings run thus:
Unknown: Death’s End – Cixin Liu.
There’s a definite gap between Chambers and Palmer there, with Jemisin and Chambers being in the “Zone of Meh”, where my objections are mostly not understanding why people think they’re anything other than rampantly mediocre, but Too Like the Lightning being actually both bad and objectionable. The main interest now is whether Death’s End is going to come out better or worse than TLtL, as tDF was definitely more objectionable, but I’m told DE is a bit better. It’s all to play for for last place in my rankings.
Next up, a quick break to read something I’ll definitely enjoy – The Bad Quarto, the last Imogen Quy mystery – then back to the Hugos for Death’s End, and finishing off the Nebulas with Borderline, by Mishell Baker.