Becky Chambers Takes Readers Out of this World — Again!
Mon, 02/13/2017 - 11:58am — Emily Walton
Last year Becky Chambers took the RT staff hostage when she released The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (Harper Voyager, 2016). Her exciting and fresh take on SF conventions was addicting, and she received a Five Star Gold for her out-of-this-world, soon-to-be-classic story. Now, after leaving fans with a tear-jerker ending, she’s back to expand her sandbox with A Closed and Common Orbit (Harper Voyager, Mar.) — and not a moment too soon!
A Closed and Common Orbit lives up to its high expectations and nabbed a Top Pick in RT’s March edition. We caught up with Becky to ask her to elaborate on what it was like writing this much-anticipated sequel.
(Spoiler warning: Since A Closed and Common Orbit is a sequel, I’ll be spoiling a big part of the ending to The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. As for Closed and Common, you won’t get anything here you wouldn’t find on the book jacket.)
Years ago, I read a blog post by a software programmer. I couldn’t tell you who wrote it or what the crux of the piece was. All I remember is one short paragraph that recommended against deleting projects that didn’t work. That code, the author said, might not have done what it was intended to do. It might be unfinished. It might have failed entirely. But there’s a strong chance that something in there is still usable. Maybe not today. Maybe not this year. At some point, though, one of those ideas you deemed worthless could be scavenged and repurposed, thus saving you a lot of time.
On the same note: Pepper’s childhood is the first short story I ever got a rejection letter for.
This would’ve been 2010 or so, right at the time when I decided to attempt turning my lifelong hobby into something I could make a living at. Rest assured, that rejection letter I got (and the ones that followed) was deserved. There was a good idea in there, but I lacked the skill and the discipline to turn it into something other humans would want to read.
I moved on to other projects, but Pepper stuck with me. I’m not sure what about her grabbed me so hard, but for years, I had this hazy movie in my head of a little girl building a spaceship in a junkyard. If somebody out there wants to dig into the psychology or deeper meaning in that, go for it. For my part, I just liked the idea. So when I was writing The Long Way and found myself in need of a tech-savvy friend for Jenks, I repurposed Pepper (which, as I’m writing this, I realize is absurdly appropriate). It was my own little easter egg, a character that had significance for me and nobody else. I never intended to do anything further with her.
While bringing Pepper in was deliberate, pairing her with Lovelace was a happy accident. I knew from the get-go that Lovey wouldn’t see the end of the book, and that Lovelace 2.0 would be left in her stead. But where would our newcomer go from there? I wrestled with that decision right up until I was almost done with my first draft. Making Jenks care for her seemed cruel; uninstalling her was unthinkable. It took me forever to realize that I’d already solved the problem: Pepper had taken delivery of Lovey’s body kit. All I had to do was get Pepper to the Wayfarer (easy) and get Lovelace to agree to go with her (super easy). Looking back, it’s hard imagining that that could’ve gone any other way.
Shortly after The Long Way got picked up by Hodder & Stoughton, my editor asked me if I had any thoughts for a sequel. And I didn’t, truthfully. I’d told the story I wanted to tell about the Wayfarer gang, and I didn’t want to force something further just for the sake of having a second book. But Pepper and Lovelace … that, I wanted to explore. The more I thought about those two, the more complementary they became. On the surface, they’re night and day. You’re talking about a refugee from a genetically-modified slave caste and an artificial intelligence stuck in an illegal synthetic body. Strip away the details, though, and they’re both individuals who were thought of as disposable, as lesser. They’re both people who society forgot to make room for. They’re both survivors who defied their expected purpose and had to create niches for themselves. If The Long Way was a book about how space belonged to everybody, the next book would acknowledge that there’s no such thing as a perfect society, and that there will always be people on the margins who have to make their own path.
I thought about the structure of the book, a balanced back-and-forth between two POVs and two timelines. I thought of how each character was encountering the same struggles — self, body, meaning. I thought about how their stories would come full circle, and how neither could get to that point without the other. That brought me to binary stars: two objects of roughly equal mass, caught up in each other’s gravity, both leading and following along the same trajectory. So, a closed orbit, in which an object returns to its point of origin (like our planet orbits the sun), and a common orbit (shared by two or more objects). Voila.
From there, all I had to do was write the bastard. I won’t lie, it was one of the toughest things I’ve ever done. Everything you’ve heard about the second novel being harder than the first is one-hundred-percent true. Bear in mind, I tinkered with The Long Way over the course of nearly a decade, and the heavy lifting was done within the comfortable flexibility of a freelance schedule. Closed and Common, on the other hand, was written in nine months alongside a full-time desk job. My days went as follows: get up, go to work, come home, shove some food in my face, write for two hours, go to sleep, rinse, repeat. As my deadline got closer, I got a membership at a local coworking space and spent Saturdays doing book-work there. I sent in my final draft wholly convinced that it was garbage and that my wife was going to leave me. Both editor and spouse assured me otherwise, I’m happy to report.
None of that is to say that the book was misery from start to finish. There were a lot of hurdles I enjoyed. Even though Pepper’s story was tucked away in the back of my head, I had to flesh out the particulars (the thing 2010!me neglected to do). The biggest element to unravel was how little Pepper — aka Jane — would even remotely resemble a functional human being if she’d been living alone through her entire adolescence. The timeline I’d set for Pepper in The Long Way — which I’d plunked down without any notion that it would affect a whole future book — said she’d only been in the Galactic Commons for about a decade. To make that work, I needed to give her a teacher, someone who would not only walk her through rebuilding a spaceship, but who could prepare her for life in a busy galaxy. The derelict shuttle Jane lived in probably had a computer archive, I figured, but I doubted Jane would know how to read. What if it’s not just a computer, I thought. What if there’s an AI? And with that, I had Owl, who solved more problems than I can count. Developing her relationship with Jane was my favorite thing to work on.
Sidra (aka Lovelace 2.0) was more of a challenge. Her half of the book was totally from scratch, but it included my second-favorite bit: figuring out AI perception. Well, okay, figuring it out was fun. Getting it down was tricky. The decision to have her view her body as an object she was operating (”Sidra raised the kit’s arm” instead of “Sidra raised her arm”) was one I feel very good about, but writing that way was a pain. In review, I kept stumbling upon places where I’d unconsciously defaulted to her arm, her face. I wound up doing a Ctrl-F “her” of the entire document, then spent a mind-numbing afternoon combing for mistakes. I’m still paranoid I’ve missed some.
In the end, yes, it was hard, and yes, there are things I would’ve done differently. But I’m proud of this book. I love this book. That’s an important thing for me to reflect on, as I’m here in the throes of my third novel, hating it and convinced everybody else will hate it, too. I did the same with Closed and Common, and The Long Way as well. I’ll probably do the same with everything I write. This job isn’t always fun. Writing is work, and more often than not, it feels like it.
I can’t imagine doing anything else.
— Becky Chambers