If I were to make a claim about what keeps me coming back to science fiction as a genre, it would be this: science fiction is often at its best when it readily centralizes the complications and concerns of a fictional reflection of our own world, whether it be critical explorations of utopia and dystopia (Le Guin's The Dispossessed or Robinson's The Gold Coast), deconstructions of patriarchal institutions (Russ's The Female Man), or narratives of colonization and their ethical implications (Buckell's Xenowealth Saga or Le Guin's The Word for World Is Forest). Enter Dark Orbit by Carolyn Ives Gilman, a novel I'd argue is destined to join the ranks of science fiction I'll have no choice but to teach, so I will have an attentive audience of thirty people to ramble at about why this book deserves our attention. That may not be the appropriate yardstick with which to measure a book, but it is a good indicator of my affection for what Gilman has produced.
Dark Orbit is set in Gilman's Twenty Planets universe. Previously, Gilman explored this universe in Halfway Human (Avon Books; 1998), "Arkfall" (Fantasy & Science Fiction; Sept. 2008), and "The Ice Owl" (Fantasy & Science Fiction; Nov. 2011). This particular novel follows Sara Callicot, an exoethnologist, and Thora Lassiter, a sensualist (the study of new forms of human perception). Upon returning from a decades-long journey, Sara discovers that her reputation has been ruined, and she is coaxed into taking a position on a scientific mission to study a mysterious, dark-matter-infested planet recently discovered by a long-lost questship. Sara's mission, however, isn't as an exoethnologist: she must keep tabs on Thora, whose prior god-infused delusions led to violent revolt on the planet Orem and who may now be in danger from those who haven't forgotten. For Thora, the journey is one which might lead her to the answers for which she has been looking, especially given the planet's unusual nature. When Thora disappears on the first survey mission, however, she discovers something else: the planet is inhabited by a people called the Torobes—blind humans who live underground and seem to have tapped into something beyond normal senses called the Ground. As Sara tries to uncover the plot to murder Thora and save the expedition from itself, Thora attempts to find answers not just to human consciousness, but also to her own past.
Dark Orbit is unexpectedly rigorous in its exploration of the ethics of corporate-funded deep space science. Much of what we learn about the Torobes is related through Thora's audio diaries, which are interspersed throughout Sara's struggles on the Escher (said struggles include murder, power shifts, and the ever present pressure from Epco, the mission's corporate financier). Gilman, interestingly enough, uses Thora as the anthropological model; she simultaneously represents the practice of total immersion within another culture and embodies the ethical quandaries inherent in such meetings. Whereas Sara must argue and fight to preserve the anthropological divide between subject and observer, Thora has no choice but to become immersed among the Torobes; yet it is Thora whose influence is the least pronounced. Despite the fact that Sara's profession essentially places her in a position of arbiter over the things she and her colleagues are allowed to do when interacting with the Torobes, that mission is hampered by the necessity of rescuing Thora and by the financial interests of Epco, which constantly looks for ways to spin the mission's findings for financial gain. Thora, however, fastidiously avoids concrete details about the Escher, her home, or her culture; indeed, she gives far less than she receives, as is made apparent in her diary entries.
In staging this dialogue between anthropological methods, Dark Orbit also raises a number of questions about what is and is not an ethical practice, especially when Moth, a precocious young Torobe girl, asks to be given the ability to see as we do. For Sara, the process violates her society's rules of first contact, in no small part because Moth's frame of reference doesn't allow her to view Sara's society to a degree that fully satisfies consent. For Thora, the fear of contamination from the Twenty Planets is of such a concern that she is eventually accused by the elders of Torobe of hiding information; it is this same fear of contamination that figures into the conclusion of the novel. Gilman handles the particularities of this ethical dilemma with remarkable care. In a strange way, it reminded me of Ursula K. Le Guin's The Word for World is Forest, if not because it shares the same idea, then because where the peoples of Le Guin's novel seem, in many respects, incapable or unwilling to consider the consequences of first contact, the people of Dark Orbit are almost chained to it even when they don't want to be.
The attention to detail is consistent throughout, perhaps deliberately so to highlight the areas where details are functionally useless. For example, when the scientists on the Escher finally agree to give Moth sight, the result is not a simple shift in perception; instead, Moth is utterly bewildered by her newfound sight to the point that she finds comfort in retreating back to her Daredevil-like aural perception of the world. For example, Moth cannot comprehend how an object seen at different distances represents changes in perception, not alterations to the actual object. Even Sara's attempts to explain how visual perception works in a way that would make it functionally useful are almost as confusing to the reader as they are to Moth. Whether or not Gilman meant to touch on a modernist convention which assumes language is inadequate to fully relate the senses, the result is that very thing: how do we explain a sense to someone who doesn't share it, and how do we explain how to use a sense when that person finally acquires it? The answer: your guess is as good as mine. Though the novel's overarching plot concerns political intrigue, it is Gilman's circling around these fundamental questions of perception and ethics which give the novel its heart.
Dark Orbit's ethics-heavy story also figures significantly into Thora's dreamlike remembrances from her time on Orem. I found this section compelling because of its thematic resonance with the overarching narrative and because of its feminist overtones. For much of the novel, we're led to assume, as Thora herself does, that she indeed had a psychological episode and was forcibly cured. But as the novel progresses, that assumption is challenged, particularly as Thora comes closer to understanding the Ground—best described as another dimension of consciousness which the Torobes access through an undefined form of extrasensory perception. Thora's memories, as such, reveal something more sinister at work on Orem, whose inhabitants live in an aggressive and violent patriarchal culture. Gilman explores this narrative and the feminist (and, indeed, postcolonial, given that Thora is essentially the colonial outsider in Orem) theme with particular aplomb. Rather than ruin it for the reader, I'll merely say that nothing about what Thora remembers is as it seems, so much so that Thora even questions whether what she remembers is an actual memory or simply a fabrication to fill the gaps left behind by the cure forced upon her.
Where Dark Orbit is weakest, I think, is in its final approach to the conflict between science and what scientific inquiry cannot account for. In the future Gilman imagines, scientific methodologies range from empirical or objectivist interpretations to perception or consciousness-oriented ones, as in the case of Thora (p. 39). Even religious explores are part of the expedition team to the Escher. Given that the technology of this future includes an ansible-like device whose interior contains Schrödinger's Cat-style particles, it's no surprise that this future is one in which the boundaries of scientific inquiry are more lenient than we might expect today. Though the novel attempts to maintain the conflict between these different methodologies, it is on the surface a seemingly more enlightened view of future science—and better for it.
However, since Dark Orbit remains fixed on science as a practice—even when it occasionally diverges into philosophical discussions about methodologies—the novel's abandonment of that practice at the conclusion feels somewhat out of place. Much of this shift is the result Thora's attempts to understand the mysterious concept of the Ground, whereby instantaneous travel is made possible through a combination of consciousness manipulation and what amounts to astral projection. Dark Orbit seems to discard its appearance of rigorous science in favor of a philosophical scientific mysticism, guided in large respect by Thora's audio diaries. This is an interesting turn, but it is one tempered by the fact that the pretense of scientific inquiry is constantly reaffirmed. Even Thora, perhaps the most mystical non-religious figure in the entire novel, recognizes this necessity. In a conversation with Sara about a recent crisis meeting, Thora admits that though the religious faction of researchers on the Escher are correct to identify something existing beyond mere consciousness, she can't put herself in their camp for fear that her work on the Ground would be perceived as merely mystical puffery. For Thora, the Ground is scientific, even if she, and the novel, cannot account for the "why."
It's the absence of this "why" that most bothered me by the end, not because I disliked the novel, but because I desired a more thorough engagement with the ideas present in the final pages. One possibility left open, however, is that the novel positions hard sciences in a future where empirical, hard-line explanations no longer function; the further we approach the realm beyond our direct senses, the less our rigid interpretations can account for reality. There's something quite Interstellar in that idea, and it's one I hope Gilman will explore in future works.
Regardless, the richness and philosophical depth of the narrative makes Dark Orbit a highlight of the year. When the novel plays with science, it evokes some of the wonder I come to love in the best science fiction, and when it plays with philosophy and ethics, it is as thought-provoking as it is mind-bending. If I think about the new books I need to reread this year, Dark Orbit would be one of them.
Shaun Duke is a reviewer, podcaster, and PhD student studying science fiction, Caribbean literature, and postcolonialism at the University of Florida. His work can be found on his website, or on his three podcasts: Totally Pretentous: A Podcast About Great Movies, the Hugo-nominated Skiffy and Fanty Show, and Shaun's Rambles. He also happens to be a sentient toaster.