Dark Orbit by Carolyn Ives Gilman (book review).

June 6, 2020 | By | Reply More

It’s difficult to come up with a truly original and unique human society in which to set your story. Even when writing about other planets and other times, we tend to end up with societies that have some basis in current or past human cultures. Authors who invent new alien species can often have more scope in the variety of cultures they create but, in general, humans are humans and their societies are comfortingly familiar to us.

Carolyn Ives Gilman has created a human culture on a long-lost colony world in ‘Dark Orbit’ that does not conform to the kind of long, lost colony you’re probably already thinking about.

On the seemingly uninhabited planet of Iris, humans exist in the pitch dark underground. The way they navigate, interact and go about the general routine of their lives in perpetual darkness is absolutely fascinating. It’s also very difficult to envision because the point is there is nothing to see. The description, given by Thora Lassiter, who is lost from the scientific expedition sent to explore the planet, gives a sense of the oppression and bewilderment that she feels.

The locals are not at all lost or bewildered, though. The implications for people brought up sightless are profound and, as their world view is explored, it becomes evident how much of our language and expressions are sight based. Such as world view, for example. The story of the blind men trying to describe an elephant came to mind. This is really thought-provoking stuff.

Later sections that describe the difficulties of teaching someone how to see are equally brilliant. I hadn’t appreciated how much we take for granted things like depth perception or that an item can look completely different from different angles and yet we can still recognise it. Exoethnologist Sara Callicott, sent on the mission primarily to keep an eye on the unstable Thora Lassiter, is involved in these experiments and proves to be an interesting character. She displays an enquiring scientific mind without become a caricature of a scientist. She expresses concern for the unsullied culture of locals without coming across as a starry-eyed idealist and is generally a nicely-balanced character.

Thora Lassiter, on the other hand, pursues more of what her fellow scientists would call a mystical approach to exploring new phenomenon. There are potential extra senses that the locals make use of and there are gravitational or dark-matter anomalies both in and around the planet. The rest of the scientists on the mission are refreshingly open-minded about any theory posited. I often find it frustrating, particularly in TV series, where alien cultures, strange phenomenon or new technologies are involved and yet the characters automatically dismiss anything out of the norm, even when it’s their job to explore strange new whatevers.

Sara Callicott’s sections of the book are told in the third person while Thora Lassiter’s are first-person audio diary entries. I always find that books or sections thereof written as diary entries don’t really come across as diary entries. The accounts recorded, including detailed conversations and descriptions, are far too detailed to have been remembered and recorded in well-ordered prose. Why not just write the account in the first person without attempting to justify it as the actual person recording the events? In this case, it also meant that half the novel was in italics.

Overall, there were lots of great concepts in this book, two interesting characters and a fascinating group of locals and their unique culture. It all felt a bit rushed in the end though and I felt that the ramifications of the discoveries and what Thora Lassiter decides to do were not fully delivered. I enjoyed it, though, and really came away with some food for thought.

Gareth D Jones

June 2020

(pub: TOR. 2015. 304 page hardback. Price: $25.99 (US). ISBN: 978-0-76533-629-3)

check out website: www.tor.com

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Category: Books, Scifi

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