Book Review: Dark Orbit

Dark Orbit
By: Carolyn Ives Gilman
Published By: Tor Books
Publication Date: July 14, 2015
Page Count: 303
Source: Library
Adult - Science Fiction

When a new human-habitable planet is discovered, the Magisterium dispatches a research team to explore the planet. Thora Lassiter, whose prophetic delusions have already stirred rebellion on one planet, is made part of the team in order to send her to the farthest reaches of space where she can no longer make trouble. Sara Callicot, an ethnologist coming off a profoundly unsuccessful venture, takes the job of surreptitiously watching over Thora for the Magisterium. When the team arrives in orbit around the planet Iris, all appears well until a crew member is found murdered and Thora disappears. The team soon learns that Iris is inhabited and that all is not as it seems. 

From the start, it is clear that Carolyn Ives Gilman comes from the Ursula K. Le Guin school of storytelling. The differing worlds of Dark Orbit each have their own detailed culture with varying practices and assumptions, which is what one might expect. But what set this book apart from other exploration type novels are the ways in which the characters are divided by what and how they see. The native Irisians are blind, but ‘see’ through sound and texture; the researchers sent by the Magisterium have normal human sight, but there is also an added layer of ‘sight’ added by the constant presence of surveillance. 

These concepts of perception and sight also point to how the characters observe one another. A central question of Dark Orbit is, “How does observation change that which is observed?” How does our view of others shape them? Can other’s beliefs and opinion about us change us? Gilman visits this theme from an entirely novel direction, via quantum theory, which was as awesome as it was unexpected. It made my nerdy little heart so happy! 

My husband is the one who suggested (well…more like demanded) that I read this book, and I don’t think I’ve ever been quite so grateful for a bossy book recommendation. (Yay, hubby!!!) Dark Orbit combines the best aspects of space exploration, mystery, and story-telling, sending the reader to the planet Iris and within. I love the juxtaposition in how Gilman ends up using science to leave the possibility open that there might be things in the universe that simply cannot be known via observation—they must be experienced. If you like your stories with great world building and a side of philosophical musings, this is definitely a book for you.

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.