The Mothers and Motherboards: Disembodied Parenting in Becky Chambers’ A Closed and Common Orbit

My six-year-old daughter’s idea of a good night starts in her bed and ends with sneaking into mine. Both my children have been consummate bed-invaders, going back to their first forays parkouring out of the crib. They’re cuddlers. They long for physical presences around them, prone to sudden, deep pangs of loneliness. They’re also graduates of some rather impressive periods of night terrors, waking the whole house with wails and thrashing, having to be wrapped up tight in an embrace prepared for the full power of unconscious, lizard-brain fear tripped off by drifting neural chemistry. Every parent I know experiences some version of this full-contact, deeply physical parenting. Wounds cleaned and kissed, sobs hugged away, fevers cooled with a bath and a cloth, stories told from a perch on a lap. It can be hard to conceptualize what a parent is, absent the physical presence. Perhaps that’s why I’m so drawn to the contrast between how the physical form is longed for in Becky Chambers’ gorgeous episodic novel The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (TLWtaSAP) and how it is realized and, in many ways, rejected by its sequel A Closed and Common Orbit (ACaCO), nominated for the 2017 Hugo Award for Best Novel.

ACaCO, like its predecessor in the ongoing Wayfarers series, tracks more than one character’s perspective and story — in this case, the AI Sidra, newly downloaded into a body kit and adjusting (often poorly) to having a physical presence in a world she had been created to navigate digitally, and Pepper, a scrapper, tinker, and survivor of a life of abuses and deprivations. While the novel’s focus is largely on Sidra, it’s Pepper’s origin story I find particularly arresting, and absolutely germane to this notion of parenting as a full-contact sport. Pepper’s story belies that definition, raising the question: what does it mean to nurture (and be nurtured) beyond the physical?

Years before the events of ACaCO, Pepper was Jane 23, a gene-engineered, salvage-working child on a planet divided in two: one half a hectares-wide scrap yard for servitors like herself, and the other a utopia for gen-engineered elites (“the Enhanced”). She’s one of the Janes, who followed the Sarahs and the Claires, a piece in a matched set of laborers working her way up from picking scrap to cleaning it to fixing it. For the first ten years of her life, her world is the size of a warehouse connected to a barracks, where she sleeps cuddled against Jane 64, takes slurried “meals” from a cup, and is sometimes praised by the Mothers for doing “good work.”

These “Mothers” read as a kind of nanny-fied Battlestar: Galactica centurion:

“Mothers had hands, of course, and arms and legs like girls did, but taller and stronger. They didn’t have faces, though. Just a dull silver round thing, polished real smooth. Jane 23 couldn’t remember when she first figured out that the Mothers were machines. Sometimes she wondered what they looked like inside, whether they were full of good stuff or junk. Had to be good stuff; the Mothers were never wrong. But when they got angry, Jane 23 sometimes pictured them all filled up with junk, rusted and sparking and sharp.”

The Mothers are as nurturing as . . . well, as you’d expect a faceless, robotic nanny-figure to be, issuing pablum meals and bundles of drab overalls and discipline for “bad behavior,” defined as anything from working too slowly to being too ill to get out of bed. The Mothers can speak, but their language is a system of directives seasoned illiberally with observations about how well Jane 23 and her peers complete their tasks. The Mothers define themselves by maintaining order among the girls. The Janes and their other numbered counterparts define themselves by labor: to be a good girl is to be “real good” at your task.

When mishap leads to unexpected freedom for Jane 23, she stumbles upon a crashed space shuttle and shelters there, meeting Owl, its kindly AI. Owl is everything the Mothers weren’t: disembodied, manifesting only as a soothing contralto voice and a friendly, screen-projected face. She issues not directives, but suggestions: “. . . you had a very hard night. I think you should do anything you want today.” Encouragement: “‘Attagirl,’ Owl said. Jane didn’t quite know what it meant, but something about the sound of it made her feel good.” Queries after Jane’s welfare: “‘Hey,’ Owl said. ‘You okay?’”

Jane adjusts to eating stored ration bars, finding and filtering her own water, and living without another Jane to sort and fix with, or cuddle against, but perhaps her biggest adjustment is simply learning to be human — and that, oddly, is what the AI Owl teaches her to be, even through a years-long process of repairing the shuttle so they can escape the junk planet together.

Parents provide the physical spaces of love and security; they are a building block in what a home is, as Owl’s answer to Jane’s naive question, “What’s home?” reveals:

“Home is here. Home’s where I am, and where you can rest.” Owl paused. Her face was some kind of sad, and it made Jane feel all weird in the chest — kind of tight, and wishing she had a blanket to curl up in.”

As starved in every sense as Jane has been — emotionally, physically, intellectually, socially — Owl becomes her sustenance and shelter, despite her lack of a physical form. Indeed, though Chambers’ writing makes it clear that Jane longs for physical contact, the contrast between what physical AI has done for Jane (or to Jane, considering the cold brutality of the Mothers) and what Owl does by the ubiquity of her presence (“Oh, oh, sweetheart, don’t cry. It’s all right. I’m here. I’m here now.”), teaching Jane to read and to parse the many languages she will have to learn to navigate the world beyond the scrap-heap planet, is a powerful statement about parental nurturing.

“Jane tossed a bolt onto a pile and watched it tumble down. “Will [the people beyond this planet] think I’m weird if I don’t speak Klip right?”

“No, sweetheart. But you will have an easier time if you know more words when we get out of here. You’ll be able to tell people what you want and what you don’t, and you can answer questions. You’ll make more friends if you can talk to people.”

Owl sets herself to the task of making Jane ready for life beyond her figurative nest. It’s clear her goal isn’t just to use Jane (an embodied sentience that can rebuild her ship and liberate her from this hopeless planet) but to give her the knowledge needed to thrive in a universe much larger than the shuttle they share. And so, Owl teaches Jane to be human — a task to which she is surprisingly, heart-wrenchingly well-suited. Owl is patient. Owl is kind. Owl shares what she does have, the whole of what she truly is: her presence, her brooding concern, and even a certain, gentle nagging streak when Jane’s forays into the scrap heaps to find supplies for repairs separate “mother” from “child.” (“Don’t forget to take food with you today,” Owl said. “You forgot yesterday. . . . That’s not enough for the whole day. You’ll get hungry.”)

The trouble with calling parenting a “full-contact sport” is that it swallows up the notion of “presence” in all its many senses. Contact is more than a physical thing. It’s a child knowing they are watched over. Brooded over. Planned for. Taught, and re-taught. Parenting is the ultimate Kantian enterprise — the fundamental commitment to another being as a good unto themselves, a good because they exist, and because you are made to share this existence together, for some little time.

I’m a sucker for a good parent-child relationship, even (and perhaps especially) the adoptive parent and child relationship. I don’t have to look much farther than my own writing to be reminded of that. Owl’s mothering of Jane strikes a particular chord in me because it transcends the physical, pares away clumsy embraces and kisses, burrowing to the essence of what parenting is: teaching a child, by example, how to be a loving human — how, to paraphrase Owl herself — a family works.

There may be no parent in modern science fiction who does that job better than her.