Summary: 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.
Thoughts: First Contact is a tricky situation, no matter the culture. Trickier still when you arrive in a place and don’t expect to actually encounter sentient life at all, so you’re completely unprepared for what awaits you. This is the situation that the crew of the Escher find themselves in when they investigate the newly discovered planet Iris. There are multiple confusing things about the planet: random gravity fluctuations, new species of plants, a pseudo-forest that seems to bend spatial perception. But the real trouble begins when one of the crew disappears, taken by a twist of reality to the underground village of Torobe, where the inhabitants are blind and where the ship’s scanners can’t penetrate to find her and bring her back.
But Dark Orbit is more than just a story of first contact. It forces the characters, and thus the reader, to confront their ideas of normalcy, or perception, of the things that define them. The people living in Torobe are blind; what use do they have for sight when they live in a lightless cave? It isn’t that they have no eyes, or that their eyes don’t function, but rather that their circumstances for forced rewiring of the brain to bypass the need for sight, even when they can respond to visual stimulation. It’s from Thora’s perspective, as someone who is sighted and is trapped in Torobe for over 2 months, that we get a chance to see just what that means, both for the Torobe and their culture, and for someone who doesn’t fit into it.
It’s worth noting that much of how we perceive the world has to do with sight, and Gilman makes mention of this more than once. When light is introduced to Torobe and Thora gets to visually experience the place she’s been living rather than perceive it with her other senses, she marvels that it’s odd how the place seems so different from she’d adjusted to. Like she trusted her eyes to tell her more reliably than any other sense. To enter into a world where we can’t see is, to most of us, rather terrifying, as we lose the sense we rely on most often to tell us things about the world. A surprising amount of at least the English language is devoted to visual terms. We say “you see,” when we may mean “you know,” and we don’t think anything of it. To get someone’s attention, we say, “look,” even when we may actually want them to listen.
And yet on the flip side, there’s much about sight that we take for granted. In attempting to teach Moth how to see, Sara in frustrated by the way Moth can’t comprehend angles, depth perception, that you can see through some solid objects but not others. How do we tell that a mug is still a mug when we can’t see the handle that was there the first time? Gilman does an amazing job of showing both sides of the coin, and she writes an extremely interesting culture around it.
Especially when you bring in the quantum aspects of being unable to see. People from Torobe can, in a sense, teleport from one place to another. So long as there’s somebody there to think about their existence. And provided nobody’s watching them do it. This intentionally mirrors the way some things in the universe are only stable when they’re observed, otherwise existing at multiple points of time and space until somebody observes them and forces them to confine to a narrow viewpoint. People from Torobe, in part because their method of observation is so different from ours, have mastered this on a macroscopic level.
It sounds confusing, and honestly, it’s considerably less so when you read the book. You don’t need to be well versed in theories of perception of quantum physics to enjoy Dark Orbit. It’s expected that the reader has a mind that can grasp certain advanced concepts, but not that the reader is cognizant of them in advance. They’re presented in a wonderfully comprehensible way, layman’s versions of things that can twist your brain in funny ways if you think about them too deeply, and there are enough hints at broader implications to keep astute readers grinning and pondering through the whole story.
In short, it’s one of those novels that occasionally had me staring off into space, trying to figure out how certain concepts could be applied in different ways. Sometimes my e-reader would go into standby mode, I did it for so long.
My biggest complaint about Dark Orbit is that it does take language and biology a bit for granted. Or rather, it leaves some things very vague, and doesn’t answer all the questions I had. People from Torobe speak an archaic version of Universal Standard, but there’s no real explanation of how they learned it in the first place. It could be implied that it was learned by observing other people while wending, but that doesn’t entirely explain why they don’t have a distinct language of their own, or why their dialect is still archaic if they encounter other modern cultures. There can’t be a standard universal language by default; or a least not likely, since even on Earth, languages can be so massively different across the world, let alone factoring in multiple other planets and peoples. Were the Torobes the only inhabitants of Iris? How did they get there? They’re human in appearance, and still have eyes, so it’s unlikely that they evolved there over millions of years in that same environment, or else there’d likely be differences in physiology. There’s a dropped hint about the Torobes having relocated to their current location some generations back, but for unknown reasons, from an unknown origin, and I’m not sure how many generations it would take to set up an unsighted monoculture like that.
I’m not saying that every question I could possibly have should be addressed and answered. It would be nice, but I don’t expect it. But no characters really seem to wonder about these things, so I don’t know whether it’s an issue of suspension of disbelief, or whether the characters don’t wonder because they already know and that particular story just didn’t call for an explanation.
But really, it speaks volumes that the author wrote something that made me so curious, made me ask so many questions, because it shows that Dark Orbit engaged me in the way that few other novels manage. It asks good questions, talks about intelligent theories, and leads the reader on a path of cultural exploration and identity, throwing in a little scientific spiritualism along the way. Very much impressed with Gilman’s work, and I’m very excited to read more in the future!
(Received for review from the publisher.)