Physics and philosophy collide in ‘Dark Orbit’


Dark Orbit by Carolyn Ives Gilman is a tale of interplanetary exploration that explores theoretical physics, neuroscience and mysticism. Gilman is frequently compared to Ursula K. Le Guin, whose influence—particularly Rocannon’s World (1966)—is apparent here. Set in the Twenty Planets—the same futuristic universe as her debut novel, Halfway Human (1998)—Dark Orbit regularly confounds expectations. Seemingly-flat characters become round, while apparently-predictable plotlines zigzag.

Ursula K. Le Guin (Euan Monaghan/Structo)
Ursula K. Le Guin (Euan Monaghan/Structo)

The story follows two protagonists. Sara Callicot, an “exoethnologist” (just like Le Guin’s Rocannon), was raised “to reject all articles of faith except disrespect for authority.” In this future, humans can convert themselves into light to travel across galaxies, but even journeys at the speed of light can take years. Wasters like Sara do not age while beaming through the stars, which leaves them disconnected from their planet-bound friends and family.

Thora Lassiter is a “Sensualist”—one who believes “our senses receive a far broader spectrum of messages than the narrow range we are taught to pay attention to.” Thora is a high-caste member of the Vind clan who suffered a mental breakdown that led her to found a cult on the barbarous planet of Orem. This incident was later wiped from her memory, although not completely.

As the novel begins, an unmanned questship has reached an undiscovered planet called Iris. Sara and Thora both take the 58-year journey by light beam to the Escher, so named because the ship’s seemingly-illogical design looks like an M.C. Escher drawing. Sara’s cover story is that she is working on behalf of an infocompany, but she’s actually on a secret mission to uncover a plot against Thora’s life. When a member of the crew is mysteriously beheaded, Sara immediately suspects the ship’s head of security, an Oremen named Colonel Atlabatlow.

"Drawing Hands", M.C. Escher (Wiki Commons)
“Drawing Hands”, M.C. Escher (Wiki Commons)

Sara, Thora and Atlabatlow are part of a team that touches down on Iris. They are baffled by the strangeness of the planet, apparently bereft of life yet terraformed for human habitation. Even the laws of physics seem different here, making the planet’s deadly terrain impossible to avoid—and the perfect tool for the assassin targeting Thora. She disappears into thin air, leaving Sara to solve the mystery while staying out of Atlabatlow’s crosshairs.

The mysteries multiply as a physical anomaly takes out the Escher’s transmitter, making it impossible for the crew to return home. In addition, it becomes clear that Iris is indeed inhabited by the human descendants of a long forgotten exodus from Earth. These inhabitants speak an archaic version of the same language as the explorers. More interestingly, these subterranean-dwelling Torobes are all completely blind.

Gilman doesn’t hand-wave physics (no hyperspace or warp-drives here). The speed of light remains the universal speed limit for objects larger than an atom. Subatomic particles like electrons, however, can be in two places at the same time. In Gilman’s world, this makes instantaneous communication possible. The riddles of dark matter and dark energy still haven’t been solved.

The interaction between members of the Escher crew and the sightless Torobes raises some interesting questions about the senses. An important theme of the novel is that what we consider to be a disability is wholly dependent on the society we have constructed. The Escher crew pities the Torobes, yet the Torobes have no trouble navigating their own environment, an environment that completely frustrates the vision-dependent visitors from beyond the stars. The differing sensory abilities of these two groups makes communication difficult even though they speak the same language, for much of our speech depends upon a shared means of perceiving the world.

Carolyn Ives Gilman (Tomas Cronholm)
Carolyn Ives Gilman (Tomas Cronholm)

I have a few small quibbles with the book. I find it hard to believe that a society that can transmit humans by light beam still uses pens and paperclips (at the rate communications technology is going, I doubt my grandchildren will know what a paperclip is). Also, the lawyer in me cringes at Gilman’s sloppy use of the concepts of copyright and trademark, which distracted from some interesting ideas about corporate power and evolving ethical principles.

On the whole, though, Dark Orbit is an unpredictable and thought-provoking tale of exploration, heavy on both physics and philosophy. Gilman raises interesting questions that her characters struggle to answer. Her reputation as Ursula K. Le Guin’s heir is well deserved, as Dark Orbit offers a page-turning blend of adventure and ideas.

About Matt Hlinak

Matt Hlinak
Matt Hlinak is an administrator at Dominican University, just outside of Chicago. He teaches courses in English and legal studies. His short stories have appeared in 'Sudden Flash Youth' (Persea Books 2011) and several literary magazines. 'DoG' (2012) is his debut novel.

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