RogerBW's Blog

Dark Orbit, Carolyn Ives Gilman 06 December 2015

2015 science fiction; a team of scientists is assembled to explore a newly-discovered planet. Saraswati Callicot is an exoethnologist, and the planet's uninhabited, but she's sent along to keep an eye on Thora Lassiter, the daughter of one of the powerful families who went a bit mad on her previous mission; she's been cured, but she might still be an embarrassment. Then things start to go bizarrely wrong.

One of the crew is decapitated in his sleep. Thora vanishes on an expedition to the surface. The planet turns out to have inhabitants after all. And then the teleporter breaks down…

"Do you trust me?" she asked.

He considered carefully before answering. "I trust you to act in the way I think you will."

"And what's that?"

"If I told you, it would affect the outcome."

He was deep water under a glassy surface: an intricate mind, complexities turned in upon themselves. Perhaps betrayal was already part of his plan.

That teleporter is actually key to the setup. There's FTL communication in this setting, using entangled particles, but things travel at no more than lightspeed, from a transmitter to a receiver. As the book opens, Sara has returned to Capella Two across a five light year gap… but what was a minor problem when she left has gone to trial and been resolved without her involvement. The "Wasters" who habitually travel from world to world see time as arbitrary, since the homes they knew will have changed completely by the time they come back somewhere, so they live in fragments; the "Plants" who stay in one place have more conventional lives.

On the other hand nobody ever comments on what happens to things, or people, in transit if the receiver stops working. When as in this case there's a sixty light-year gap, that might be quite a lot of stuff. And the quest-ship, the slower-than-light robot which discovers the planet, apparently only has a single teleport on board with no spare parts, so that when it stops working it's a major crisis rather than a routine procedure. It all smells a bit of convenient plotting; it makes the rest of the book easier to write.

On the other hand the rest of the book is jolly good. Local space is packed full of what's regarded as dark matter, though it's more complicated than that (there's a theory of gravitation which doesn't really stand up to prodding but is good fun, and some well-worked descriptions of the implications of it in really strongly-curved areas of space). Thora's madness turns out to be rather more interesting than the conventional psychotic break it looks like. The locals are a truly excellent combination of real personalities and strange ways of perceiving the world, and the frustrations of the expedition members' attempts to communicate with them ring true. (Gilman works for the National Museum of the American Indian and that may well be where she got some of the ideas for the alien world-view.)

He looked as if he wished disappointment were something he could medicate.

Things which clearly wouldn't be comprehensible to a modern reader are replaced with blatant technobabble ("the quantum imbricator is breached") which at least avoids big infodumps. But while Gilman often has an excellent ear for a turn of phrase, she sometimes goes a bit astray with terminology; both "sensualist" and "objectivist" are used here in ways quite distinct from the way most readers will understand them.

"Did you notice how quickly he got to God? There are people for whom whole categories of knowledge are off-limits because they can't be objectively explored, so the objectivist can't imagine any possible explanation but a religious one."

Characterisation is solid, with both Sara and Thora coming over as complex people. There's a bit less to the others, but they don't really have time to develop anyway. The ideas are stronger than the story, but they're well-developed ideas and the people still come across as real; it's just that the plot, which could be summed up in a couple of sentences, is a bit of a slender reed for everything it's asked to carry.

"Can I ask about the rubrics you will use to conduct your evaluations?" he asked.

"Oh, well, you know, we have customized metrics for assessing multiplatform work flows," Sara improvised.

He nodded as if he understood perfectly, and her opinion of him dropped.

This is the sort of SF book I normally dislike. Endorsed by Ursula LeGuin, shaky science with lots of buzzwords, with a strong message that some things are "beyond the boundaries of science"… but Gilman makes it work anyway, which I found very impressive. Recommended.

Disliking him seemed a little like wanting to pull the arms off a stuffed bear. Sara was ashamed at how easy it was.

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  1. Posted by Dr Bob at 01:53pm on 06 December 2015

    I enjoyed her Halfway Human a lot and quite liked the fantasy one I read (Isle of the Forsaken???), so might look this one up.

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