Sunday, December 20, 2015

Dark Orbit - Carolyn Ives Gilman

Dark Orbit by Carolyn Ives Gilman is a novel set in her Twenty Worlds setting. There are several shorter pieces and one other novel in this setting. Of these I have only read the novella The Ice Owl (2011), which earned Gilman a Nebula and Hugo Award nomination a few years back. That novella was an interesting read, although not the best that year had to offer. I always meant to follow up on it so when Dark Orbit was released I decided it was a book I had to read. It was published in July so I'm still a bit on the late side. Like the novella, this novel turned out to be a very interesting read. I would not be surprised if Gilman reels in a few more award nominations for this one.

Sara Callicot is a researcher sent on a mission to one of the strangest planets science has ever encountered. The crystalline world does not show any signs associated with an advanced culture on the surface but physically it offers plenty of material for research. Sara is there with a double agenda. She has been attached to the team to keep an eye on the scientists rather than do research herself. She has barely arrived at the ship when the decapitated body of one of the security guards is found. It's the beginning of a string of events that will set the crew against each other. When the strangeness of the planet becomes ever more apparent and more threatening, the struggle between the various factions in the crew heat up. The very survival of the expedition soon becomes doubtful.

In a way this novel reminded me of a short story by Ursula K. Le Guin. In Direction of the Road (1973) she shows us the world from the perspective of an ancient oak. Where we perceive it to be stationary, the oak has decidedly different views on the matter. It forces the reader to wrap their mind around a truly alien perspective and think about the meaning of relativity. That is in effect what Gilman does in this novel. Events on the planet the expedition is exploring unfolds in more than four dimensions and that has very interesting consequences for the story.

Part of the plot revolves around a number of well known observations involving quantum mechanics and relativity. The story contains a device that makes it possible to communicate in real time with people many light years away by making use of entangled pairs of quantum systems. My understanding of such theories is not very deep but as I understand it, it seems unlikely that information can actually be transferred this way. A second element in the plot rooted in physics is the effect that observation influences the outcome, or in quantum terms that a particle can in effect be in two states until an observation causes a probability wave collapse and forces the particle to be in one state or the other. This effect is the subject of the famous Schrödinger's cat thought experiment. There are references to other theories as well. String theory and references to branes also pop up at one point for instance.

Gilman applies many of these theories on the macro level, allowing people to travel between dimensions, or witness events many light years way. There are many references to physics in the book but most of the characters don't view these occurrences in a strictly rational way. For many, a more spiritual explanation makes more sense, or at least enables them to wrap their mind around the strange things they are seeing. Gilman constantly challenges perceptions, and whether or not we can trust our own senses. She consistently does so for all the viewpoints presented in the novel, leaving the reader to sort it all into their own framework.

Perception and views on the universe are of course linked to the way our brain works. The way it is wired in the absence of light for instance is one of the many examples of how perspectives differ from one person to another. A village designed by people used to relying on hearing and feel to get around looks radically different to one designed for people relying primarily on sight.  Both make sense to the people involved in developing that particular structure but when seen through the others' eyes it makes little sense. Our brain selects, edits and distorts the bombardment of sensory information it receives. Gilman gives a number of very interesting examples of how this works and how it shapes our view on our surrounding.

At just over 300 pages, Dark Orbit is a relatively short novel. Structurally it is probably closer to a novella than a novel. It is efficient to the point where I wouldn't actually have minded a bit more detail on the universe the story is set in. There are plenty of references to the Twenty Planets but after reading this novel the reader only has a very sketchy idea of how this future history came to be. Gilman is equally brief with the back story of her characters. In a way this is fitting as the scientists that are part of the mission have travelled fifty-eight light years, leaving all they knew behind and knowing it will all be ancient history by the time they come back. Information can be transmitted fast but people cannot. I guess there is no point in dwelling on the past for these people. The novel is very focussed on the now. I suspect it will leave more than a few readers with the feeling that they would have liked it to be a little longer.

The year 2015 is a good one for science fiction. Despite the fact that a handful of angry fans almost succeed in wrecking the genre's best known award, the number of books that challenge the genre's boundaries, that push the reader to think, and that allow them to experience cultures, frameworks of thought and lifestyles unfamiliar to them has never been greater. Gilman's novel does not take this development to extremes, one could say this approach to science fiction is fairly traditional. What it does do is make the reader think about where their own viewpoints fit in a whole larger than we could possibly perceive. In a world where debates become increasingly polarized and many parties seem to feel theirs is an absolute truth, that is a very necessary thing indeed.

Book Details
Title: Dark Orbit
Author: Carolyn Ives Gilman
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 303
Year: 2015
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-7653-3629-3
First published: 2015


  1. Great review! I just finished this book yesterday and loved it.

    1. Thank you. This is one of those books I wish I had reviewed a little closer to the publication date. I don't think it quite got the buzz it deserves.

    2. Yeah, I haven't head much buzz about the novel. But the buzz that I did read, comes from respectable corners. I suspect it will be one of the good novels of 2015 overlooked in favor of better advertized or more mainstream works...

    3. Entirely possible. In July and August a number of books were published that got a lot of attention. I would not be surprised to see this one end up on the Nebula shortlist though. Maybe it'll get a nudge from that.