Jalapeno Score: 47/50
Remember the first time you watched the ‘Matrix’? Remember, how that movie messed with your perception of the reality? This is the analogy that came to my mind when I read the “Dark orbit”, a visionary sci fi novel by Carolyn Ives Gilman. “Dark Orbit” is a strong contender in the “JF Award” race. It immediately draws you in with the premise, the striking visionary science ideas, and exceptional writing, that almost takes this genre fiction to the level of literary. A number of philosophic and worldview ideas makes it a highly intelligent read without compromising the entertainment part. And the entertainment is definitely delivered! I’d categorize it as a ‘hard sci fi’, but I believe that fantasy and soft sci fi lovers will not find it off-putting. It is by far one of the better sci fi books I’ve read in a long time. Highly recommended read. One side-note: do not read while hangover (spoken from personal experience)! There are parts that mess with your senses, and having a vertigo does not help. This is my backward way of complimenting the author who masterfully uses writing skills in engaging all our senses.
The story is set in the futuristic human civilization that colonized many planets and actively scours space for valuable resources. Highly commercialized society of Capella Two values information as the most valuable resource of all. Patents and copyright laws are a daily reality for everyone, and science is always at service of commercial profit.
Centuries ago, humans sent in space unmanned research ships that are looking for civilizations till this day. No one remembers how many of those ships are out there. The last time they’ve heard anything from them was a generation ago. It was when Sara Callicot returned home from her science expedition, the news broke out, that one of those lost ships signaled a discovery of a habitable planet.
Sara is a researcher who belongs to a select group of space travelers who spend their career collecting information and ideas on distant planets. They are colloquially called Wasters, for living outside of the linear timeline on Capella Two and other human colonies, because traveling with the light speed leads to time discrepancy between them and the Planters, the humans who do not travel with the speed of light.
Returning home, Sara finds out that she is in the hot water over her last research material, because her paperwork was not in order. This cost her employer millions in the copyright lawsuit. But for Sara, when one door of opportunity closes, another opens. She is invited to a meeting with an old mentor and a powerful politician Delegate Gossup, who has an offer of a lifetime – a spot on the expedition team to the newly discovered planet.
Iris, an enigmatic planet, surrounded by spatial anomalies and unusually high concentration of the dark matter, is where any scientist would want to be. The catch is that the planet is 58 light-years away. When the team travels this distance in a light-beam with the speed of light, to them the trip takes virtually no time, while back home everyone ages by 58 years. As a Waster, “you detach from sequential time and join the gypsies who live like stones skipping the surface of the history”, explains Sara. However, this is not even the most difficult part about the assignment.
First, the ship and all the technology on it is old, and there is no way of knowing what dangers await those who will load their consciousness into a beam of light, venture through space to the ship orbiting Iris, and will have to materialize through dated receiving technology on board.
Finally, Sara did not receive the job offer out of the goodness of the heart of Delegate Gossup. She will have to spy for him on one controversial figure, Thora Lassiter. So many things are not normal about Thora. First, she created a diplomatic crisis on one of the planets where she served as an emissary (ambassador). There, she was considered a hero and even a goddess to the female population, which did not go well with the men. The only way of retrieving Thora from the planet was to fake her death. That is why Thora is sent in an exile to Iris, 58 years into the future, but even there her life is in danger, because of suspected Orem assassin. Second, Thora seems not to be wired straight, and she underwent a compulsory psychiatric treatment, as the result of which she is suppose to spend the rest of her life on medication. What Sara doesn’t know, is why Gossup is so touchy about this mad woman. There is much he won’t tell Sara, which makes her mission so much more difficult.
Science ideas are off-the-chart. It’s a wild medley of quantum physics, consciousness, fresh space travel ideas, brain science and so much more. Here’s only a few science premises:
- Space travel by the light beam: A great alternative to the wormholes, Ives uses the idea of sending our consciousness through space with the speed of light, where at the receiving end, the body is reconstructed down to every molecule. This is reminiscent of the Star Trek’s transporter idea, except in the “Dark Orbit” it benefits from accurate portrayal of time effects on the travelers with the speed of light.
- Space travel trough a medium – the Ground. This is an alternative space travel method developed by the indigenous population of Iris. Traveling through the Ground could be described as walking into a ‘room’ that has all the doors to any place in our space or even in any other dimension. You can open those doors through interacting with the consciousness of people on the other end. The term used for this is ‘beminding’, like anchoring someone on the other end and fetching him through this medium. The Ground itself is the place where all dimensions, including time, collapse and traveling through the Ground takes no time at all. Traveling through the Ground echoes some fundamental principles in quantum physics. For example, the process of wending (traveling) cannot be observed, either with light, cameras, or conscious observers. Just like in the quantum entanglement, observation collapses the connection. Finally, the reason why the indigenous Irisians were able to travel this way, is that their blindness allowed their brains to rely on other, non-visual sensory inputs. As the result, they are able to sense and enter the Ground. Yes, it sounds like science mixed with mysticism, but the author makes a reasonable attempt at backing the ‘fantastic’ idea with science backbone to make it an organic fit in the genre.
- A take on the dark matter. Capellans still did not resolve the mystery of the dark matter. Although I found it a bit implausible that such an advanced civilization still did not figure out the mystery of the dark matter, as a reader I was excited to explore speculations of the author on the subject.
- A take on the multi-dimensional nature of the universe. Ives allows us to explore, and more so, to viscerally experience, what a spatial anomaly would feel like, when the space tears apart and the boundaries of dimensions ripple. Irisians poetically call it a ‘fold rain’, however, the result is far from poetry. The space and all the matter literally gets distorted, and people caught in the distortion disappear or die.
- A take on the science of brain and visual information processing. We are allowed to compare and contrast the two types of processing information: visual input through observing the light reflecting from the surfaces, and auditory input as an alternative for those who are born blind. Through Thora we experience the vivid effects of visual sensory depravation, and what it does to reshaping information processing. Through the experiences of Moth, we observe how a person who all her life lived in the darkness, learns to use her eyes for the first time. I found this perspective truly fascinating.
“Dark orbit” features several plot-lines: one of Sara Callicot, and another one (mostly through the first person POV diary entries) of Thora Lassiter. Additionally, we learn a lot about the indigenous population of Iris, particularly an opinionated and curious teenager girl Moth.
I enjoyed a secondary plot-line of Orem culture, that is reminiscent of the radical Muslim cultures, where genders are segregated and women are oppressed. I also loved the ending. This was one of those strange inconclusive endings that actually somehow worked. I was left satisfied, with a sense of a closure. In the comments, some people thought that it was a cliffhanger for the sequel. I don’t know if the author is planning to write a sequel, but I personally don’t feel like it is necessary. It’s great to read a satisfying stand-alone fiction for a change.
Three main characters are uniquely distinct. Sara is a seasoned scientist and time traveler, with self-serving motives that guide her actions. Thora is a painfully introspective type, neurotic, but highly intelligent. She comes across as demure, even silenced, but we find out that her inner core is stronger than we think. Finally, Moth is a native of Iris, a teenage girl with a lot of moxie and desire to learn.
The reason why I deducted a point on the character-meter scale is that I felt that the main POV character Sara Callicot, while interesting, is not essential to the plot. The main story arc develops through the perspective of Thora, and I thought that just following her story would be sufficient. However, there is a lot that I like about Sara’s character. She is not a conventional beauty, middle-aged, an extrovert, a rather uncomplicated personality with obvious motives to everything that she does. Sara is smart, funny, tough as nails. I just felt that there was a jarring difference between 3rd person POV narrative of Sara and 1st person POV narrative of Thora.
One of the surprisingly rich secondary characters was the security director Altabaltow, who ethnically belongs to the Orem people, and we don’t know where his loyalties are. Through this character, the author achieves a sharp commentary on cultural stereotyping.
Although I deducted one jalapeño on this scale, I must admit that even if some of the ideas are not totally original, masterful rendition makes them incredibly appealing.
The number of themes that this book addresses is truly stunning. Aside from a rich plethora of science premises, the author touches on the following subjects:
- Organizational culture and dynamics
- Commercialized society in which information is the highest currency
- Stereotyping based on nationality and cultural background, an explicit hint at the anti-Muslim sentiment.
The author even develops a whole dialect for the indigenous Irisians. Although I found the dialect, based on the ‘King James’ type of English not very plausible, but the author’s consistency and commitment made up for it, and soon I forgot that odd feeling about an old English dialect in the futuristic sci fi setting. After all, this is more than most of sci fi works accomplish.
The style, word choice and the poetry of writing are hard to match. Gilman knows her SAT words! However, I found that the way Thora’s plot line was introduced (through lengthy diary entries in italics), was a bit of a lazy shortcut. I realize that rewriting it would require a major surgical effort, but the result could be truly amazing.
Thanks for reading this review. Please let me know what you think, I’m looking forward to read your comments. Do you have a favorite 2015 or 2016 sci fi novel? You can nominate it for the award.
To find out about the Jalapeño Fiction Award, go to this page.
Copyright Ellie Maloney (2016)