SEVEN CIRCUMSTANCES

Book Reviews & Essays on Literature

What makes an AI human? – A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers

A Closed and Common Orbit, by Becky Chambers, published by Hodder & Stoughton, an Hachette UK company, 2016, 378 pp. e-book. Kindle edition – Oct. 20, 2016. Hardcover edition: Hardcover – Jan 31, 2017

This novel is on the shortlist for the 2017 Hugo Awards which will be handed out at Worldcon 75 in Helsinki, Finland, in August 2017. I hope to be amongst the attendees at the conference, which is the oldest and biggest in the world for Science Fiction (SF). In preparation for that I am working through the shortlisted works in the categories of novels, novelettes, novellas and short stories. Reading the nominated novels has been an adventure so far since I do not know any of the authors, other than China Miéville. The first novel I tackled, A Closed and Common Orbit, by Becky Chambers, has been like a breath of fresh air. It seemed different from the established and well-regarded types of classical SF writing. It did one thing I have never experienced when reading a SF novel: it brought a lump to my throat. I almost cried. I actually, for once, felt for the characters. That is quite an achievement, considering that the characters are all AI machines, re-engineered humans or species of non-human sapient life forms. 

Clever – and predetermined – use of language

A second word of praise is for Chambers’ clever use of language. It is so well done it could not possibly have been by accident or without effort. It has been planned and carefully executed. One of the three protagonists, a cloned (specially grown) human meant to work in factories, dispensable and limited to one environment and one task, is called “Jane 23”. All the “Janes” in this particular factory on this particularly dismal side of a planet, have numbers, and Jane 23 is ten years old and uneducated when we first meet her. When Chambers describes Jane 23 for the first time, the language she uses for Jane 23’s inner monologue is very simple – short sentences, short words, telegram-style, repetitive. Jane 23 does not have many words at her age, due to her circumstances. As Jane 23 grows up, and becomes a “modder” or modified human, called “Pepper”, Chambers’ writing style changes, the more words and ideas Jane 23 acquires. The sentences become longer, the range of words wider, the ideas more abstract.

Language level that matches the development of the characters

I rated separate pages from the book, choosing ones that consist mostly of thoughts of Jane, using the Flesch-Kincaid Readability Test (results below). I know it is not the usual way of analyzing writing style, but it struck me that I was not reading a children’s book in the style of writing for children, but something else that had a different purpose, and readability analytics is one way of pinning down what that is.

P. 24 in the book has a reading grade level of 3.8 which means it can be comfortably read and understood by someone who has grade 3, almost grade 4. Only 5% of the sentences were passive voice and 88%+ of people would understand it. (Passive voice is generally seen as more abstract, and more difficult to understand than active voice.) By p. 204 the grade level has increased to 4.2, which is about the education level that Jane has progressed to. In the last sample, p. 261 of 378, the grade level increased to 4.5 with the passive voice sentences up to 13%. Jane, 18 years old, is preparing to leave the planet, having learned as much as she can.

To put the grade levels into perspective, about the first 50% of the novel averages at reading grade 12, which is probably lower than it would be because of the chapters about the young Jane requiring simpler language.  To achieve this flexibility and up-and down-scaling in writing style when describing the characters, as well as in the novel overall, takes huge skill, especially when one considers the invented words she has incorporated, as well as the invented languages.

Here’s the interesting bit though: You would expect the difficulty and complexity to increase towards the end. I analyzed the last section of the book, Part 3, “Circle”, pp. 305-378, when, as the title says, the lives of the protagonists come full circle, and Jane 23 is “Parrot” and an adult. Surprisingly, the reading grade is back down to 3.7, with readability at 85% and a passive voice of just 2%. Easy reading, therefore, yet forceful. I see here early evidence of the simple, elegant writing style (very hard to achieve) that writers like Sjón, Ernest Hemingway, Elmore Leonard, Alice Munro and Kazuo Ishiguro are famed for, which bodes well for any future novels by Chambers.

Reader’s experience – pleasant yet intriguing

What does this say for my experience with the novel and the author’s intentions?

Firstly, I found it pleasant to read, with almost no superfluous words, clunky transitions or expositions. I skipped very few words other than the chapter where Jane 23 plays a VR game for the first time – simply an idiosyncrasy of mine. (I measure novels against the guideline that Elmore Leonard set for writers in 1983, “try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip”. If they did, then I won’t skip any bits, which is good.)

Secondly, it was easy to connect one set of events, occurring in the past, with another set of events occurring in the present (the present being in the far future, of course). The past chapters describe the origins of the characters. These are interspersed with the characters as they are now. As the book progresses, you can see why they have become what they are, why there are problems. The tension increases to such an extent that I have to confess to skipping forward once to see what happened to a particular character. I could not bear to wait to see if Jane/Parrot got her AI “mother”, “Owl”, back, with the help of another AI, “Sidra” and Parrot’s fellow refugee and modder, ”Blue”. It was, at that moment, that I felt a sniffle of happiness bubbling up.

Therefore the clean, simple language, and the tight, systematic structure of the chapters and cross references between time periods, absolutely work to carry the reader along on an enjoyable journey. Technically, it is very, very well done. 

Thematic concept

Technical expertise is not enough, however. The big idea, the concept, has to be serious and deep enough to challenge the reader. If the author has nothing interesting to say with the novel, it will be forgettable, will have no impact, and will not, as Ben Winters has said, “…clarify, galvanize, prophesy, and warn.” Of course it need not be, but considering the labour and expense that go into producing a novel, it should be more than entertainment.

The day I finished reading the novel was the same day that Senator Ben Sasse, junior Republican Senator from Nebraska and the author of The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming-of-Age Crisis, appeared on the Charlie Rose Show on PBS. Sasse explained how work, a sense of purpose, and contact with the real world are essential to keep people sane and happy. He said that too many of today’s young people spend too much time being online and getting virtual friends, likes and achievements, rather than getting those in real life. He explained that, if the American economy is to survive and grow, they will have to get off their phones, tablets and computers, put on their clothes, and go outside where the real people live and work. Not everyone will be able to make a living in programming.

“We haven’t done a good job of helping our kids understand that, scar tissue is something to celebrate. Scar tissue is the foundation of future character. We’ve come to believe that one of the ways to serve our kids is to protect them from hardships and transformational coming of age moments and protect them from work. That’s not what we want. We want them to become free to find meaning in work and in service to their neighbor.” (May 17, 2017 – transcription of Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., speaking to John Yang, PBS, http://www.pbs.org/video/3000985861/)

Senator Sasse had hard words for the parents and grandparents of the current Millennial generation, the teens and people in their twenties who are disconnected from reality and stuck in a “perpetual adolescence”. He writes in his books that the couple of steps they need to take, and that kids have taken since people stood on their legs and made fire, are not being taken today. These are: Overcome peer culture – do it yourself. Work hard. Travel to experience the difference between “need” and “want”. Lastly, become truly literate.

This is one of the key ideas in the novel. The AI, “Sidra”, is in an artificial human body that she calls the “kit”. She has no purpose. She is a collector and holder of information and at best, something like an electronic door guard or shop assistant. She knows and wants more – she wants to alter her code so that she can express her own opinion (lie, or not lie, for instance), and take human risks. She does not want to be a machine. Humans have purpose. She wants one too. She wants to communicate with other species and other people, but both she and they are completely different and feel profoundly threatened.

Theme: Finding work and a sense of purpose

“Sidra watches the ocean go by on the Coriol Undersea. Fan art for Becky Chambers’ wonderful A Closed and Common Orbit.” (By Quinn Stephens on Tumblr)

The modified humans, “Parrot” and “Blue”, who stutters, were bred to work in factories and presumably die in them. Parrot, originally called Jane 23, escapes by a fluke, and sees, for the first time, the real world. An ugly world, filled with scrap and pollution, and mad dogs, but a free world nevertheless, with a big sky, blue, or full of stars. The first contact she has is with an AI in a crashed shuttle – “Owl”. Owl has no physical presence, just a facial outline on screens. Owl has information, but no body. Jane 23 has hands, eyes, brains and the will to survive. She rebuilds the shuttle and, more than a decade later, the shuttle takes off, with her, Blue, and Owl.

The book opens with warnings against using AIs for anything other than in ships, houses, etc. In other words, there are rules against an AI becoming sentient and becoming human. Sidra and Owl are in real danger, and so are Parrot and Blue, for helping them.

“W-want to know what I was made for? He raised his eyebrows, smirking. ‘Civil leadership. I was supposed to, uh, to be a c – a coun—‘ He gave up on the word and laughed at himself. ‘A politician. ‘Blue grinned, but there was sadness in his eyes. Something about this wasn’t as easy as he was making it out to be. ‘The b-bastards that made us, they’re not as good at, uh, good at genetweaking as they think. They think they’ve got it down. They make dancers, they make math – mathematicians, they make athletes. They m-make factories full of slave kids with no hair. But evolution isn’t a – a thing you can wrangle like that. It doesn’t always go in predictable ways. Genes and chromosomes, they, um, they do their own thing sometimes. You think you’re mixing together a politician, and instead, you get me.’ He shrugged. ‘The Enhanced call us m-misfits.’”

The question is, what happens next? What constitutes a human-like or human entity? What makes humans, human?

Chambers’ solutions for these entities and their integration into a world of many species are somewhat unexpected. It reminded me of the scene in The Big Bang Theory where “Sheldon” builds a robotic replication of himself which he calls a “Mobile Virtual Presence Device” (MVPD) that would go through all the hazards of life that Sheldon would otherwise have to experience while he stays behind in a “secure, undisclosed location” (his room). Sheldon’s MVPD spots Steve Wozniak at a nearby table so he sends the MVPD over to meet “Woz”, telling him that he has a vintage Apple II computer, to which Wozniak says that if he had the Apple II there he would sign it. Sheldon then takes his Apple II and physically rushes out of the apartment, but trips and falls down the stairs, breaking the Apple II. So unfortunately, the MVPD didn’t work when arms, hands and legs were needed. And neither did Sheldon.

The point is, the world is still real, and bodies are what are needed to get around. Work is still required for sanity and happiness. You still have to deal with people even if they are other species and you have to find ways of making a voice. Life as a robot has extreme limitations, as this woman who worked using an MVPD, like Sheldon did, proved.

How to connect emotionally with an AI

Fanart for The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by “Matchewie” on Tumblr. Some of the characters appeared previously in the prequel to this novel, A Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. Fandom was almost instant, and people could not resist producing fanart. If the portrayal is so convincing, fanart is almost to be expected.

The question that is pervasive in SF is; how does an author create a genuine emotional connection between the reader, and his characters that are usually artificial things? How does an author make a reader feel empathy for an AI machine or a robot? (I have written a summary of why we think fictional characters are real, here, which has bearing on these questions.) Sidra says:

“’That’s the logical fallacy that was passed on to me. If I’m nothing more than a tool, then I must have a purpose. Tools have purposes, right? But I’m more than that. Pepper and Blue – and you, even – have been telling me that again and again and again. I know that I’m more than a tool. I know I’m a person, even if the GC doesn’t think so. I have to be a person, because I don’t need a purpose and not having one drives me crazy.’

[…] ’So I’m stuck in that loop, just as you are. I know that if I am a person, I have no purpose by base, but I’m starving for one. I know from watching all of you that the only way to fill in that file is to write it myself. Just like you did. You make art, much like Blue does. You two do it for different reasons, but that’s the purpose you chose. Pepper fixes things. Someone else gave her that purpose, but she chose it for herself, after the fact. She made it her own. I haven’t found a purpose like that yet – nothing so overarching and big. But I don’t think purposes have to be immutable. I don’t have to have the same one always. For now, my purpose file reads “to help Owl”. That’s why I’m here. That’s what I’m for.”

The concept works because Chambers portrays the characters as having quite dense, demonstrable “interiority” – an inner life and emotions. Externally, they might look bald, tall and skinny, generic, or plastic, or just be an image on a screen. Internally, they have aspirations, drives and needs. They want to be free to choose and to work. They want to show empathy and feeling, even if it could kill them, and they want empathy from others. They want to be touched – physically. They are like you and me, in other words. The fulfilment of these desires do not come without tension and frightening incidents, which were very neatly conceptualized by Chambers. And which you’ll have to read for yourself. I almost wanted to say at times, You clever author, you! Well done.


SUMMARY OF REVIEW

  • Refreshingly atypical.
  • Clever use of language to define characters and distinguish between time periods.
  • Easy reading, yet forceful.
  • Clear early evidence of the simple, elegant writing style.
  • Tight, systematic structure of chapters and cross references between time periods.
  • Interesting theme of the question of humanistic traits and sentience of AIs.
  • Succeeds in evoking reader empathy for AIs and non-human characters.

About the author

Becky Chambers

Becky Chambers is the author of the award-nominated science fiction novels The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and A Closed & Common Orbit. She also writes nonfiction essays and short stories. She was raised in California as the progeny of an astrobiology educator, an aerospace engineer, and an Apollo-era rocket scientist. After living in Scotland and Iceland, she now lives in California with her spouse. She is a devotee of video and tabletop games, and enjoys spending time in nature. In addition to writing, she has a background in performing arts, and has worked as a technical writer, a bartender, and a production assistant, among other things. On her website, https://www.otherscribbles.com, she answers a bunch of questions about the characters in her novel which you can read about.  This is her second novel. The first, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, she self-published with finding via a Kickstarter campaign in 2012. It went on to be nominated for the 2014 Kitschies Award for Speculative Fiction and the 2016 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction. It has been translated into French (L’Atalante) and German (Fischer Tor).

 

Comments are closed.