A Closed and Common Orbit

AI - friendships - personhood

Questioning personhood in A Closed and Common Orbit

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The enlightening, invigorating, challenging thing about really great science fiction is that it asks us to explore our own perceptions and assumptions, by exploring a great big “what if?”

What if an AI with feelings, preference and autonomous thought were given a body? Would that make it a person? What if a child created in a lab were raised by robots? Is she a person or just a factory cog? What if we were surrounded by sentient, alien beings? Are they  people?

That’s the theme explored by A Close and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers, set in the same word as A Long Way to a Small and Angry Planet. It follows two storylines – one a satisfyingly paced adventure, the other a slower, more relationship-driven plot. 

The book opens with a piece of AI software who is rebooted to find herself installed into a body kit – a totally believable human-like robot. Thrust into an entirely new experience, Sidra offers the fresh eyes we need to explore this new world. Those new civilizations in themselves provide thought-provoking “what ifs”. For example, what if there were beings who fluxed between sexes throughout their lives? What does it mean for our definitions of gender?

The second storyline follows Sidra as a child, then called Jane 23. Created in a lab as one of a batch of Janes, she spends her time sorting discarded electronic parts. Even while treated as a cog in a rubbish-sorting factory, Jane 23 is still essentially human. She takes pride in her work, feels affection for her friend Pepper, and thirsts for praise from the terrifying AI “Mothers”. In the end, it’s her human curiosity that leads her into the virtual arms of OWL, a benevolent AI installed in an abandoned spacecraft.

Both Sidra and Jane 23 face the hardships that come with sudden freedom and autonomy in an entirely alien world. What ultimately saves both is a connection to other people – whether human, alien or software – and to a purpose they choose for themselves – not the one they were given at birth (or in their programming).

It’s a well-worn, yet deeply satisfying trope – that personhood isn’t indicated by our origins, upbringing, bodies, gender or even our minds, but from a higher plane. Some would call it a soul.

That poses a challenge for me. As someone who believes wholly in the physical world, and nothing more, I don’t have the language to explain that essential personhood – the thing that separates human from machine, sentient from the reactive.

Maybe personhood is not a category that can be bestowed, but a state that can be claimed for oneself. Maybe it’s not “I think therefore I am”, but “I am, therefore I am”.

Like I said good science fiction isn’t just a story, with well-drawn characters – it sets you on a deep-think trajectory, where you can look at the world with fresh eyes.

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