Becky Chambers on A Closed And Common Orbit, AI and Star Trek

Becky Chambers on giving her AI ownership and avoiding villains

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Becky Chambers jumped onto our “must-read” list last year with her Kickstarter-ed debut The Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet. The warm-hearted, progressive blast of deep-space sci-fi was self-published in 2014 before being picked up by major publishers and re-released as one of the breakout novels of 2015.

“When I first self-published it, it was just like ‘Oh, OK! I broke even! And that’s good and I will take that as a win,’” laughs Chambers. “So everything that’s happened has just been so much more than I could have hoped for.”

Now, Chambers is back with a second book in the same universe: A Closed And Common Orbit. It follows Lovelace, the ship’s AI who was downloaded into a human-ish body at the end of the last novel, and Pepper, the genius mechanic who has a difficult past of her own. As Sidra (as Lovey is now called) struggles to get to grips with her new form, we learn more about Pepper’s past, and the similarities that these two women share.

We spoke to her about her inspirations, giving her female AI some ownership, avoiding nemeses, and why she’s always wanted to join Starfleet.

Had you always anticipated writing a second Wayfarers book?

I didn’t have any concrete plans for future novels when I wrote The Long Way but I knew it was somewhere I could continue to explore. So I definitely left that door open for myself. I wasn’t really sure what was going to happen with the first book, whether I was going to write another one, but there was a lot of stuff that I didn’t get into in the first book, so I’m really happy to have that opportunity now.

When my publisher asked me “Do you have a sequel in mind, do you want to continue in this series?” I didn’t have anything further for the crew of the Wayfarer in mind. I told their story and that was it. If another story with them comes to mind in the future I’ll write it, but I wasn’t going to force it. I’m really sort of adamant against that, I’m not going to write another story about them just for the sake of writing a story about them, I feel like that would come out really hollow.

So when they asked me, “What would you like to do next?” I was like, “Well, I don’t have anything for this crew, but Pepper and Lovelace, those two are, they’ve got stuff that I’d like to explore.” So that was just the thread I picked up and went with.

They’re such a great pairing! So they were the starting point?

Yeah, it really did happen by accident. That was one of the last things that I figured out in The Long Way. A lot of the stuff that happened in the book I’d scribbled down and imagined well before I actually sat down and wrote the thing, but I was a long way through the first draft before I knew where Lovelace was going to go after the first book. Somehow Pepper just sort of naturally took that spot.

It was one of those wonderful moments where something happens when you’re writing that you didn’t intend and it’s just like, “Oh, that actually works really well!” I started thinking about how these two women have vastly different backgrounds and life experiences but they actually have quite a bit in common, and it was fun playing with that. It was fun finding the similarities between two characters who, at first blush, don’t look like they could have anything similar at all and yet are walking such similar paths.

They’ve both got complex and difficult pasts, and adjustments they’re making. Did you do much research to make sure you were portraying their development accuracy?

I did a lot more research for Pepper than I did for Sidra. I’m not sure I actually did any formal research for Sidra, I just spent a lot of time thinking about it. Thinking about what it would be like to be in a body. So often in science fiction, having a physical form is something that an AI aspires to. And once they get a body that’s sort of this levelling up, and I wanted to explore the other side of that.

What’s that like, if that body doesn’t fit? What’s it like to only have one set of eyes, all of these things. And that’s stuff that’s kind of hard to research! So I really just spent a lot of time just trying to put myself in her shoes. Trying to imagine how a crowd would look to her, trying to imagine how an enclosed space would look to her. So a lot of it was sitting around and just thinking and putting my head into hers.

With Pepper, since her story is crossing generations so we’re seeing her at different ages, I did do some research into child development and the behaviours we could expect from her at those ages. It’s difficult as an adult going back and writing from the perspective of a child because we often have this idealistic view of what kids are like, so I really wanted to try and get it as kid-like as possible. And I also recognise that she’s a child going through trauma. This is not a kid who is growing up in a nice stable picket-fence kind of reality! So I did a lot of research into child development and how kids react to trauma, how kids react to psychological stress.

Owl is a great character; how was it writing that maternal AI?

Yeah, that was really fun to explore because of course Owl doesn’t have a body and she isn’t programmed for this. She’s doing her best, but there’s a moment where Owl is trying to teach Pepper about solid food, and of course you have a child who’s never eaten solid food before and you have an AI who has never eaten anything period. So these moments of a translation gap between the two of them were really fun for me to explore. How is Pepper who has no concept of these things going to process this and how is Owl who has only ever observed this behaviour but never had to do it herself, how is she going to communicate these ideas to this kid? That stuff was some of the stuff I enjoyed working on the most.

So are you going to stay in the Wayfarers universe?

Yeah, definitely, I’ve actually just started working on one. I can’t really talk about it yet, but I plan to stick with this setting for a couple more books yet. In the same sort of thing that I did with this one where I’m not going to be following the same characters or the same places, each one’s going to branch off and branch off and branch off, and I think that’s a good way to look at the galaxy because there’s so much going on in so many different places and I like the idea of exploring all these different pockets as opposed to just following one group around.

There aren’t really villains in either of the two books. Was that a conscious choice, to shy away from having a Big Bad?

Yeah, exactly. I’m drawn to stories in which there isn’t a villain. I do like villains in some things but I find it compelling when you don’t have the bad guys. In this book, there are people who we know have created these social systems that the main characters are struggling with but they don’t actually meet these people. They’re not confronted by these people. It’s more of a struggle against society than a struggle against other characters and I tend to think that’s something more relatable, you know?

Very few of us actually have a nemesis! Most of us are just struggling against social constructs and we never get to see the faces behind those constructs, often because those things have been built over a long period of time. So that’s the struggle I want these two to be focusing on, is not so much a person but a societal reality. That to me was a very natural thing for me to write about and hopefully it’s a compelling one.

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Were there any specific influences on Sidra’s journey?

I’m hugely inspired by the science fiction I was exposed to when I was young. I grew up with Star Wars and Star Trek and moved into Farscape and everything later on, so I was very much writing the first book from a place of love for universes with multispecies communities, right? Aliens and space ports and all that good stuff, and you see some of that in the second, because it’s the same setting, but the second is a much more inward looking book. It’s much more focused on these two people in these very specific places.

I’m not sure if I had any specific influences that I was drawing from with Closed and Common but I was thinking a lot about the portrayal of AI in science fiction. AI tends to be, as previously mentioned, a body is the be all, end all, and you also have female artificial intelligence that are seen through the eyes of a protagonist, or they’re a sidekick kind of character. A lot of AI that you see now, especially in film and TV, you’re getting female artificial intelligences who are seen through the eyes of predominantly male characters, and I think that’s a very different story than an AI trying to figure herself out.

Rather than a human trying to figure out how they relate to this intelligent programme, I kind of wanted to flip that around and give her some ownership there.

They are usually presented as the sinister “other.”

Absolutely. There is definitely a strong element of fear and horror in a lot of AI stories as well, which kind of ties into this weird idea, especially because they’re female characters, this idea of “Oh, they’re gaining control over themselves and we’re afraid of that.” And that’s an element I definitely wanted to avoid!

So with Sidra, she’s not a threat, she’s not going to glitch out and kill the crew, it’s really about how we define personhood and what makes an entity an individual, what makes the rest of consider them to be worthy of the same respect that we give each other. So those were the things that I wanted to work with, I definitely wanted to avoid the “Scary robot episode.”

Is that kind of exploration of characters and people, as opposed to action, what you’re drawn to as a writer?

Yeah, definitely. I’m pretty omnivorous when it comes to science fiction. I think there’s room for all sorts of stories and I definitely love things that are very different than the things I write, but the science fiction that I love best is the stuff that really digs deep into what it means to be human, what it means to be us.

What makes us special? What makes us stand out in this universe in which we are so very small? Typically I gravitate toward science fiction that favours exploration over fear. And so I don’t find it a surprise that that’s what I tend towards in my own work as well.

Do you remember your first encounter with sci-fi? What really got you into the genre?

As mentioned, when I was young, Star Trek. I grew up alongside it. Next Generation aired when I was two years old and Voyager ended when I was 16 so I just knew Trek all through my formative years.

In terms of books, I had a very smart teacher who handed me The Left Hand Of Darkness when I was 15 and said I think you’ll really like this, and Ursula Le Guin remains just my be all, end all author. Reading her stuff was the watershed moment for me where I really understood what science fiction could be. What it was at its best, what it had the power to do. I don’t pretend that my work is anywhere near that level, but it is what made me want to write, reading her stuff.

Don’t get me wrong, I love spaceships and laser guns and all the rest of it, that’s the kind of stuff I watch on my Saturdays, but when it comes to writing, she really opened my eyes to that science fiction could be used to explore ourselves and that it didn’t have to be about explosions and the galaxy ending. It could be about something more intimate, and that’s something that I fell in love with and just haven’t stopped.

Finally, could you tell us your favourite spaceship crew and your favourite AI?

Spaceship crew…I’ll go with the classic, I’ll go with the crew of the Enterprise-D. I mean, I’ve been wanting to join Starfleet my whole life so that’s pretty much a given.

Favourite AI…I’m going to go with GLaDOS from Portal. The psychotic, passive aggressive…it’s one of my favourite video games and I think what they did with her was just brilliant.

A Closed And Common Orbit by Becky Chambers is available now from Hodder & Stoughton. Read our review here and keep up with the latest genre news with the new issue of SciFiNow.