fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsDark Orbit by Carolyn Ives Gilman science fiction book reviewsDark Orbit by Carolyn Ives Gilman

Dark Orbit
by Carolyn Ives Gilman is a smart, thought-provoking First Contact novel that delves into questions of human perception, identity, and knowledge construction. The philosophical questions are layered atop a plot that, even if it isn’t the strength of the novel, is more than serviceable, keeping the reader’s surface attention even as the larger ideas beckon one into deeper waters.

Centuries ago the human race sent out “Quest” ships in search of habitable planets. Ship travel has since been replaced by transportation via light beam through a “Wayport,” which while overcoming the vast distances still has the problem of relativity, so that those “Wasters” who regularly travel this way give up family and friends, returning to planets where decades have passed while they themselves aged only a few months or years. Now, one of the Quest ships has phoned home with notice of a new uninhabited planet 58 light years away and one such Waster, exoethnologist Saraswati Callicot, is sent along with a handful of scientists to investigate both the planet and the strange region of space it inhabits, an area apparently thick with dark matter and gravity anomalies. In truth, Sara’s real mission is to keep an eye on one crewmember, Thora Lassiter, in particular, for reasons only partially explained to her. Events, however, turn just a little complicated when a crew member is found decapitated, Thora goes missing during the first landing on Iris, and native life (humans who have adapted to living in a lightless environment) is discovered on the planet.

On the surface, this book can be read as a mystery/thriller: who killed the crewman (it’s a true “locked room” type mystery), what happened to Thora on Iris, what happened to her earlier to make her a potential target, and what is causing the (potentially threatening) gravitational anomalies? And that part of the story hold up decently enough, even if I wouldn’t call it particularly compelling, even when the gravity issues are meant to heighten the sense of urgency.

What makes Dark Orbit stand out, though, isn’t the plot but the underlying questions the plot allows Gilman to explore. Most of these questions circle around the issue of perception. Thora is the character at the center of this exploration, which makes perfect sense given the description she offers of herself to Sara: “I have trained as a Sensualist… a philosophy of sensory perception… Its basic tenet is that the human sensorium is capable of observing a greater range of phenomena than we normally realized. It’s devoted to discovering new techniques of observation.”  Later, she expands on the idea in a somewhat heated debate with one of the other scientists on board:

“You learn vital things by abstracting yourselves from the world, and viewing it from without. The hypothesis I am testing is that the human mind is sensitive to a wider spectrum than we suspect. It senses things we have never categorized or name . . . whose origin we are unsure of, and whose meanings we don’t know.”

Sarcodan turned to the Director. “Prem’s right. There is already a department for religion. We don’t need two.”

“Did I mention religion?”…

“That’s where you’re going, isn’t it,” Sarcodan said. “You want to meditate on the unknowable. Well, science denies there is anything that can’t be known… “

“It is unscientific, wouldn’t you say, to deny that there are things we don’t’ know?”

Granted, it’s a bit on the nose to have a character who specializes in perception, but that neat symmetry is quickly forgotten thanks to Thora’s experiences with the natives on the planet as she finds herself in their lightless world, forced to cope with her own lack of perceptual skills, and to try as well to understand their alien ones. Here Gilman runs the risk of falling into the blind-people-with-mystical-senses or wise-beyond-our-tech-natives tropes, but if she occasionally edges close, the seriousness with which she uses these situations to thoughtfully examine big questions allows us to give her some leeway.

Thora’s experiences come via a first-person narrative presented as a running recording she is making. This lets Gilman more directly explore her topic since this is, after all, Thora’s specialty. So we get internal monologues such as,

What happens when we encounter something so genuinely outside out previous experience that we have no mental categories for it, and the only truthful statement is “I do not know”? Why, we liken it to something we do know, however bad the analogy… I think of my companions… and how their expectations will affect the planet. Our first impressions will shape the our second ones, and those will shape the expectations of whomever comes after, till the planet is remade in our image forever.

This particular question presages a later landing team experience, when they come across something on the planet and label it a “forest,” something that annoys Thora to no end, confirming as it does her fears about perception affecting reality:

I realized that it was a metaphor they found helpful… but on repetition it began to assume a reality of its own, obscuring the true nature of what they were seeing… The explanatory convention replaced the reality.

One of my favorite aspects of Dark Orbit is how Gilman makes a shift from questions of physical perception (sighted versus non-sighted) to perceptual questions of a more metaphysical nature. And a social nature as well, as when Thora wonders how perception attaches to/creates identity:  “We bemind people all the time — making assumptions, creating illusory roles for them — and it alters their reality. They start to become what we expect them to be.”

Another facet of the novel I appreciated was how these questions of perception arise as well in terms of the reliability of our narrators. Being a first-person POV, Thora’s is particularly open to question, especially as we’re told how she allegedly had a past psychotic episode, how she is on meds, and how she herself at times questions whether she trusts her own thoughts. Meanwhile, Sara’s reliability as a narrator comes into question in two different ways. One is plot-based — does she actually know what is going on in terms of this ship’s mission, in terms of who her fellow shipmates are, etc.? The other is thematic — in a novel that questions the concept of perception, how much can we trust this character’s conclusions based on her perceptions?

While Thora is thrust wholly and directly into the native society, Sara (whose plot line is via a third-person limited POV) must attempt to deal with them through the official rules of First Contact, which require the Twenty Planets (the name for the human confederation of worlds), among other things, to obtain “informed consent” to for instance, extract not just materials but information from native populations. These segments don’t quite plumb the philosophical depths, but still raise questions of identity and social construction, especially with regard to Sara’s life as a Waster. These are also the sections that are more plot driven by the mystery elements as well as the concern over the gravity issues in this sector.

Dark Orbit is a well-crafted book, with smooth shifts between the different POVs, a good sense of pace, and sharply drawn characters. All of which serve the book’s best quality — its thoughtful exploration of big issues of human existence. Recommended.

Publication date: July 14, 2015. From Nebula and Hugo Award-nominated Carolyn Ives Gilman comes Dark Orbit, a compelling novel featuring alien contact, mystery, and murder. Reports of a strange, new habitable planet have reached the Twenty Planets of human civilization. When a team of scientists is assembled to investigate this world, exoethnologist Sara Callicot is recruited to keep an eye on an unstable crewmate. Thora was once a member of the interplanetary elite, but since her prophetic delusions helped mobilize a revolt on Orem, she’s been banished to the farthest reaches of space, because of the risk that her very presence could revive unrest. Upon arrival, the team finds an extraordinary crystalline planet, laden with dark matter. Then a crew member is murdered and Thora mysteriously disappears. Thought to be uninhabited, the planet is in fact home to a blind, sentient species whose members navigate their world with a bizarre vocabulary and extrasensory perceptions. Lost in the deep crevasses of the planet among these people, Thora must battle her demons and learn to comprehend the native inhabitants in order to find her crewmates and warn them of an impending danger. But her most difficult task may lie in persuading the crew that some powers lie beyond the boundaries of science.