Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Review: Dark Orbit

Title: Dark Orbit
Author: Carolyn Ives Gilman
Pages: 303
ISBN: 9780765336293
Series: Twenty Planets
Publisher: Tor
Published: July 2015
Genre: Science Fiction
Source: Review copy from publisher

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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.

Appearances can be deceiving and expectations doubly so. I thought Carolyn Ives Gilman’s Dark Orbit would be a traditional murder mystery set on a newly discovered alien planet; instead it morphed into an immensely fascinating exploration of the limits of sensory perception and how the way we perceive our world shapes the reality we experience.

“We are organisms evolved to destroy unfamiliarity by the act of understanding it.” (p 58)

The story revolves around two main protagonists, Sara Callicot an exoethnologist, and Thora Lassiter a former diplomat with an unsettling and unstable past. Sara is tasked by her patron to keep an eye on Thora in order to ensure her safety, but it soon becomes apparent that everything is not as it seems. A crewmember onboard the Escher is found beheaded, no murderer can be found and while on an expedition to the planet’s surface Thora disappears – only to discover that the planet is inhabited by the remnants of a long forgotten human diaspora, the Torobes, a community of blind cave-dwellers.

This revelation introduces us to Moth, a young Torobe, who acts as initial mentor to Thora, but also as a bridge between the scientist and the community of Torobe. There is a stark juxtaposition as both Thora and Moth are thrust into environments completely alien to their normal way of experiencing their world. Thora who relies on her sense of vision is plunged into the perpetual darkness whereas Moth, who relies on tactile and auditory input, is transported to the interior of the Escher which is devoid of texture or marks to guide the way.

“With the wind, Torobe became a soundscape with dimension and direction. There was no near and far, upwind and downwind.
‘We have a saying, that the wind is gracious, for it bringeth the world out of silence,’ Hanna said. ‘Each time it comes is like a new little creation, when all things form out of the voice. When the wind speaketh, its language is the world.’
I stood a while with my eyes closed, listening to the creation of the world around me.” (p 145)

When an attempt is made to teach Moth to see she has immense difficulty in dealing with the rudimentary concepts of sight - distance, angles, apparent and intrinsic sizes. Things we never consciously think about confound her. She thinks that sight conveys a magical ability to see the future, purely because sighted people can avoid obstacles before coming into physical contact with them.

“What good is this seeing?” Moth exclaimed angrily. “All it gives thee is deception.”

Both Sara and Thora are strong, compelling female characters. Sara is headstrong with a devious, inbred contempt for authority. Thora appears as an unreliable narrator at first, the flashbacks to her past reveals her hidden depths and the truth about her as character. She acts as the sensory conduit to the world, sharing her first-hand experiences in the form of audio diaries. But it's Moth who truly steals the show; I found her one of the most memorable characters in the novel. She has an incredible heart and a unique way of looking at the world.

“Their habitude is made of boxes,” Moth said. “They have boxes that slide, boxes that hinge, boxes that fold: they are never happy till they have made more boxes for themselves and everything about them.” (p 207)

As a great danger looms which could spell doom for both the natives and the crew of the Escher Thora has to race against time to find a solution to save them all. The key to their salvation lies in the uncanny metaphysical ability some of the Thorobes have developed. An ability which can’t be explained by science.

The open-ended ending is satisfying with some unexpected turns along the way. My only complaint is that Dark Orbit was far too short, I would have loved to see the repercussions of the discovery and the impact it has. Now that I’ve discovered Gilman’s work I will definitely be on the lookout for more of her work. Hopefully her next novel will have some of the answers I still crave.

Dark Orbit has the uncanny ability to challenge your expectations and perceptions in the most profound ways. There is one observation that has stuck in my mind and makes for some powerful food for thought:
“We bemind people all the time – making assumptions, creating illusionary roles for them – and it alters their reality. They start to become what we expect them to be...” (p 286)

If you are looking for something deeply thought-provoking then this is the book for you. You won’t be disappointed!

The Verdict:
Dark Orbit is a fascinating exploration of how our limited sensory perceptions shape how we perceive each other, the world and the universe at large. A cast of captivating characters and a truly remarkable premise makes this a must-read. The story is dizzying in both scope and implication and will have you re-evaluating how you look at the world. My only regret is that it was far too short.

The Rating: 7.5/10 (Very good)

Thanks to Desirae Friesen from Tor for providing the review copy.

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