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A Closed and Common Orbit: Thanks for the Memories

Recommendation: A great exploration of memories and what makes life real. Read A Closed and Common Orbit, don’t let not having read the first in the Galatic Commons universe hold you back.

Nice people (and artificial intelligences) lead relatively quiet lives doing nice things in A Closed and Common Orbit, the 2017 Hugo finalist and continuation of the Wayfarer series. It’s like an episode of Firefly or a volume in the Penric and Desdemona series by Lois MacMaster Bujold or Jack Devit’s Alex Benedict series. The monikers “comfort sci-fi” and “up lit” has been applied to these books, sometimes as a burn, as they lack huge battles, robot uprisings, sturm and drang displays of emotion, or post-apocalyptic scavenging that seem part and parcel of science fiction. But while A Closed and Common Orbit is sweet and its intimate portrait of the current daily lives of the main characters is touchingly pleasant, two of the nicest characters have truly horrifying past lives. We discover their back story and for those two humans, being nice doesn’t mean they are bland, simply that they are living a life of profound empathy and with gratitude for being able to being able to choose to live a different life than what society intended.

A Closed and Common Orbit is the second in the Wayfarer series. It picks up after the first novel but reading The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is not required. The protagonist is Lovelace, a recently booted instance of the Lovelace commercially available ship manager software used in The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet. Lovelace has been ported, illegally, into a humanoid robot body. She goes to hide in plain sight on an asteroid full of quirky misfits, aided by Pepper, a girl mechanic extraordinaire, and her husband, an artist. Lovelace begins to forge an identity for herself by changing her name to Sidra and getting a tattoo. The tattoo, by the way, rivals the animation and complexity of the one the custom agent gets in Samuel Delaney’s brilliant Babel-17 (Babel-17 tied with Flowers for Algernon for the 1967 Nebula, so “brilliant” is the official term). Along the way, we learn that Pepper has been raised by robots, both good and bad, in a chilling examination of ethics and economics.

From a science standpoint, A Closed and Common Orbit provides a starting point to discuss memory. Sidra faces a literal existential crisis when she discovers that she can’t remember everything and will now have to decide what is important and what is not. Remember how Proust upended 20th century literature with that whole dipping a madeleine in tea and triggering a wealth of involuntary memories plot device? Would Proust’s narrator have consciously picked those memories? Would he even remember that particular madeleine in a few days?

More often than not, fiction assumes robots will remember everything, and, more practically, be able to immediately retrieve those memories. Lt. Commander Data in Stark Trek: The Next Generation typically chirps out what a person actually said. More recent science fiction raises the possibility of selective memories and robots as unreliable narrators. The second season of HBO Westworld, (see review here), is a dizzying display of Bernard's mangled memories. The hosts struggle to maintain their memories over iterations, with the best being able to view their existence as a kind of reincarnation. Memory sets the plot in motion for Artificial Condition (see review here), where MurderBot attempts to reconcile buried fragments of memory with how he came to murder a group of scientists. The 2017 Sea of Rust, (see review here) explores memory loss but there the loss is explained due to hardware damage and degradation. The memory loss serves to set up an unreliable narrator surprise but also hints at the robot equivalent of Alzheimer’s. In Autonomous, (see review here), having the right to privacy and memories that all only you can see is the true definition of autonomy for Paladin the robot.

Of course, the most memorable exploration of memories in science fiction, pun intended, has to be the movies Blade Runner and Blade Runner 2049 based on Philip K. Dick’s novella Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Many of Dick’s novels and short stories were about protagonists who discover they have false memories and are not who they think they are. In the first movie, the replicants had been implanted with false memories to ground their psyches. Leon, not the brightest of the rogue replicants, is convinced his memories are real- even though he knows he is a manufactured replicant- and there is a deep terror in his eyes to think that it may all be false. Roy Batty dies musing about the memory of the things that he has seen in the famous "tears in the rain" monologue.

In Bladerunner 2049 the practice of implanting false memories has been elevated to the highest artistic levels, with Dr. Stine- the bubble girl- a highly paid and prized memory designer. Touchingly, she is less a memory designer and more a memory strip miner of her own past. The memories that K (Ryan Gosling) hold most dear and appear to be the most hidden, and thus the most real and not implanted, turn out to be hers. K’s not-much-of-a-life becomes infinitely sadder. Sean Young’s Rachel in Blade Runner went frantic with the knowledge that her memories really belonged to Tyrell's niece. And yet it didn’t destroy her; it made her reach for Deckard (and ultimately Blade Runner 2049). But Gosling’s K is devastated. He didn’t have much of a life before, and not even a real name. Now he has nothing.

Is any of this realistic? In an interview with Dr. Steve Ramirez who specializes in the neurophysiology of memory at Boston University, it turns out that people may indeed be storing everything though they use buggy shortcuts such as reconstructive memory to simplify access. There is some indication that perhaps people do remember everything but that it isn’t easily accessible. (Uh, where did I put the keys to the car? Oh right there, now I remember!) People and animals do use their memories to reinforce good and bad events.

Would robots run out of memory and have to use some sort of algorithm? Maybe. Would we ever be able to uncover the algorithm that we use to store memories? Hopefully yes. Are our memories precious? Heck yeah, just ask Sidra as she finds joy, wonder, and trepidation in every moment of her new life. At the end of A Closed and Common Orbit, you hope she never loses that view of the world and the need to remember it all. And that we too remember to store somewhere, if only deep inside, the multitude of little good things that we take for granted.

Pick up A Closed and Common Orbit, and don’t feel you need to read A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet first, though it’s good too. There’s no sophomore slump for Becky Chambers and A Closed and Common Orbit may be even better than what you remember about A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet.

- Robin

For an audio version of this review, simply click below...

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