A Closed and Common Orbit: Museums in books

Another chapter in my series of museums in books – previously, I’ve tackled the representation of the British Museum in Gothic Horror, I’ve looked at private collections in Hitchcockian thrillers and I’ve even ponder the lack of museums in the wizarding world of Harry Potter. Today, I’m taking on a rather unexpected genre of book; the space-set sci-fi, in particular, Becky Chambers’ A Closed and Common Orbit.

A Close and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers

A Close and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers

I know, it’s the last place I expected to stumble across a museum.

But, it makes sense in terms of the story. Chambers’ characters Sidra and Pepper explore themes of identity and memory in all sorts of interesting ways. You know what of places explore things like identity and memory in all sorts of interesting ways? That’s right – museums!

The description of the museum in the story is perhaps one of the nicest I’ve read:

“The Reskit Museum of Interstellar Migration (Kaathlet Branch) turned out to be one of those things that made civilisation as a whole look like a pretty good thing to get behind.”

There is so much to unpack here. Firstly, note that the museum is not human in origin. That’s right, sapiens, we’re not at the top of the civilised food-chain (and why on Earth, or any planet for that matter, should we be?). Secondly, the museum celebrates migration; travelling around; settling in places other than those we began. Thirdly, migration and moving around is, and I quote something that “made civilisation as a whole look like a pretty good thing to get behind.” This is something I quite like about the sci-fi genre in general, it can be so tolerant and accepting of other cultures.

The last thing I want to point out, is that this building is only an off-shoot of a central museum. Despite this, it is still described as the largest building in the city.

Conservators amongst you will be overjoyed to know that Chambers has done her research. “Sunlight,” she notes, “was rough on just about everything.” To get around this obvious lighting issue, the architects had built “…the entire complex out of thinly cut yellow stone, sliced so slim that the light from outside glowed through. The effect was haunting – magical almost.”

So far, this museum seems too good to be true. We have only seen it from the outside, what kind of wonders await within? We soon find out: “Everything in the Reskit Museum was junk.”

Oh.

We have to bear in mind, that at this point we are seeing the museum through the eyes of Pepper, a character who is very techy indeed, of course everything would be junk to her.It has become unusable, unfixable. What is fascinating to see, especially after such a glowing description of the museum’s facade, is questioning “Why this stuff?” After all, a lot of museums are full of what would be in many cases, just junk. Junk that we can’t do much with…

However, the thing Pepper is looking for is junk. Except… it’s not junk to her. Without giving any spoilers, she’s trying to reclaim something from her youth. Well, someone, if you think AI can be people (AI can totally be people). Her plight has some interesting parallels to the Parthenon Marbles, as both were obtained through legal means but no thought was given at the time to any other attachments to these objects.

So, what are the curators like? On the whole, they’re friendly and helpful. They aid our heroes when they think they are researching, but we have to bear in mind that the curators are essentially low-level antagonists, something for the heroes to overcome on their quest.

We’ve seen curators fill the role of anatagonist before – notably in The Mummy Returns and as red-herring-villains in Scooby Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed but these are movies! So far, I’ve come across one curator in the hero role, and that’s in China Mievill’es Kraken but looking forward to discovering more as I continue exploring Museums in Books.

By the way – I heartily suggest reading A Closed and Common Orbit. It’s one of the best books I’ve read this year.

 

 

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