DARK ORBIT – Carolyn Ives Gilman (2015)

Dark OrbitI just want to forget this book. Yet this review has 2107 words. I want to apologize for that in advance. If you don’t want a fairly detailed analysis (plot holes, etc.), you can just skip to the 2.5 last paragraphs. If you’ve read the book and did like it, don’t hesitate to comment!

This fourth entry in the Twenty Planet universe started promising, and I enjoyed the first 100 pages a lot, but after about 1/3rd it turned into a giant mess. Really, a giant, giant mess. Then again, maybe I have read too much Wittgenstein and Rorty and Kant and theory of mind to be impressed by the epistemological profundities this book wears so proud on its sleeves. The problem with Dark Orbit is that it tries to offer a scientific take on magic, but ultimately falls flat on its face because it’s so muddled itself. I have no problem with mystics: I’m intrigued by all kinds of mysticism. But what I can’t stand is authors who don’t think things through. Sadly, I can’t write this up without a few spoilers, starting 4 paragraphs down.

The irony of this book is that Gilman herself lets the main character, Thora Lassiter, say the following sentence, right near the climax of Dark Orbit.

“The same as Btiri’s? No. He is religious, I am a scientist, but that’s a trivial difference. The real divide is between muddy and rigorous thinking.”

Lassiter’s science is “Sensualism”, and it’s the main force behind the ideas in the book. It’s explained by the character herself in this excerpt:

The core principle is that our senses receive a far broader spectrum of messages than the narrow range we are taught to pay attention to. Our brains still receive many of those messages, but they are shunted into the subliminal and subconscious, and surface only as intuitions, emotions, premonitions, dreams and visions. If we study those experiences not as illusions but as cues to other modes of apprehension, it might give us access to layers of reality we barely suspect, since the evidence for them is drowned out by the noise of ordinary perception.

Obviously, there is more than meets the eye. Nobody debates that. Our understanding of the role of unconscious perception deepens every year. Heck, I would think that a far future society that is capable of complex quantum science (like live communication via video transmission using a few trapped and entangled pairs of particles over a distance of 59 light-years), and that is also capable of encoding people’s total information (including body, memories, character, etc.) and transmitting that information via a laser beam to other parts of the galaxy (again dozens of light-years away) where the individuals are reassembled again using different molecules, surely wouldn’t debate it, and even have a far, far better understanding of such phenomena than we do – but they don’t. Dark Orbit takes place at least several millenia from now (it’s set so far in the future that Earth is forgotten), but the theory of mind and the science on subconscious perception seems to be stuck in the 21st century (despite the fact that headsets exist that are able to record, process and even share sensory brain functions like sight, smell & hearing).

While writing the above paragraph, something struck me that I need to get out of my system first, so, accidentally, we arrive at a second example of non-rigorous thinking by Gilman. Encoding and laser beaming people over long distances at the speed of light still takes time, so there’s a huge time handicap there – which is acknowledged and explored a bit in the book. But why not use that bound quantum particles technology to transmit the encoded information, without the time delay it takes using laser light? If it can be translated into a laser beam – ultimately in some binary form – it surely can be encoded in a video message?

But I digress.

I was saying that nobody debates that our senses our limited. Nobody does that now, and nobody will do that umpteen centuries from now. The sad thing is that Gilman practically builds the entire book’s story around this insight. I makes me wonder what came first: the idea to write a book about blind aliens living near a gravitational anomaly, which made Gilman read up on blindness, senses, etc., and as a result finding a whole set of philosophical stuff going with that; or did she start out this novel with the idea of writing an epistemological themed book, adding the blindness and the gravity stuff later? It doesn’t matter much, because the result is the same: a mess.

There are 2 big plot holes that show muddy thinking, and 2 minor ones. To give some context first, the plot can be summarized as follows:

A party of humans arrive on an unknown planet, Iris, that was seeded with other humans in a distant, forgotten past. The descendants of the seeders have been living in caves and lost their sight. They live in a village called Torobe, and because they lost one sense, their other senses sharpened. As a result of that they somehow were able to tune in to a gravitational anomaly on and near the planet, and discovered a method to travel through space instantly (a kind of teleporting just by concentrating), that only really works if they are thought about (in dreams e.g.) by other individuals in the place they travel to.

1. The cave were the native populace lives is easy to enter and exit. The natives do roam the planet’s surface, and know at least parts of it pretty well. So why would they lose their ability to consciously see? Maybe their ancestors were shut in for a very long time, during which they unlearned how to see. That’s possible, but how did those ancestors get their greens & grains in that case? It is repeatedly stated that the cave people can only survive because they can import food because of the trade via the teleporting. (Also, nobody seems to give one bit about vitamin D in this book. Humans simply can’t stay alive in the dark.)

2. In fashion with popular quantum physics 101, the act of teleporting (“instantaneous travel”) can’t be observed. If it is observed (by the humans on the ship, or even by a camera) it doesn’t work. Yet ‘observing’ apparently only means ‘seeing’ in Dark Orbit, because at the end of the book the Torobes, about 500 of them, all teleport successively from their cave to one room in the ship. The fact that they can hear and feel each other doesn’t seem to count as observation. Remarkable, for a book that has multiple philosophic expositionary pages on observation and the senses, and a stake in rigorous thinking.

3. The teleporting seems to work only on the planet, on a certain place in the cave (“localized spatial phenomenon”). Yet, later, at the end of the story, the Torobes freely teleport from the ship to a totally different planet. But the “localized spatial phenomenon” also occurs on the ship, so that’s not a plot hole. Yet is implied multiple times that Thora Lassiter wants to make a workable way of transportation for all humans out of it. She’s a bit of a nutter though, and it doesn’t seem to bother her that humanity hasn’t observed these kind of gravitational anomalies anywhere else in the known universe.

4. How can the Torobes teleport to places (and even non-human planets) of which the inhabitants don’t know about their existence? It’s stated multiple times the teleporting only works decently when the traveler is mentally invited, by being thought or dreamed of. It’s not really a plot hole, since they tap into myths and superstitions that are found in all cultures on apparitions, ghosts, monsters, gods, etc. Also non-human cultures (not further described in Dark Orbit) seem to have such myths. It’s implied more than once that the Torobes seem to be the origin of those myths too, but that chicken or egg discussion is also no real plot hole, since it’s only implied. The expectations of the inviter (dreamer) also partly transform the traveler, but to what extent and for how long is not clear. Not really a plot hole either, but fuzzy handwaving nonetheless.

Aside from these more or less crucial ones, there are minor inconsistencies scattered throughout the book… Why would a blind person lose its sense of depth and, especially, spatiality? Would about 250 people living in the closed system of a space ship return to normal life in the blink of an eye after there has been a gruesome murder, reminiscent of a Sherlock Holmes case (a missing head, a mysterious weapon, no fingerprints, the doors locked from the inside), knowing the murderer was still among them? There’s some tightened security at first, but after some time, nobody seems to mind anymore. If the gravitational anomaly is prevented to do significant damage to the ship and the village because of the consciousness of humans, why can it decapitate or amputate human beings that are actually conscious? The happy coincidence of it being exactly the one Sensualist on the ship to be the person that’s lost among the undiscovered Torobes that have a ‘magic’ sense. Etc. Etc.

Characters are pretty shallow and interchangeable, except from Thora Lassister, but aside from telling parts of the story, she mostly just talks to herself about Sensualism, so there’s no real depth to her either. New crew members keep on popping up throughout the book, yet are forgotten 2 pages further on. I was never emotionally involved, aside from the scene in which scientists tried to teach a native girl to see.

There’s some hints of possibly interesting social science fiction in the beginning of the book: different ways of managing people, different cultures that react differently to authority, ways of handling a first contact, living in an economy that’s based in information, but none of it is explored at all. Still, those premises were interesting, I would have liked more on them. Maybe they are explored in Gilman’s other stories set in the Twenty Planet universe?

The prose is not bad, but it’s unremarkable.

And finally, annoyingly, several of the mysteries that are set up in the beginning of the book are left unresolved. What were the motives of the mission saboteur? What was the information delegate Gossup – the secret boss of the other main character, “exoethnologist” Sara Callicot – possessed, and what were his motives? Or is this novel actually an ironic postmodern book about rigorous thinking?

To break up this overly long review, for those interested: if you’ve never heard of ‘blindsight’, a classic case discussed in about every psychology course, click here. It’s really interesting! 

With Dark Orbit, Gilman tried to bite off a bigger piece than she could chew. Or better, pieces. One cannot expect to elegantly tackle epistemological questions, musings on sight and human senses, blindsight, the possibility of other dimensions to reality (Gilman namedrops brane theory for about half a page), the nature of mystic insanity, superstition in ghosts, demons and other apparitions, the difference between consciousness and Awareness, first contact with a primitive species, a murder mystery, dreams, dark matter, dark energy, gravitational anomalies and a new form of teleportation in only 303 pages. Let alone if all those themes end up to be interconnected!

Dark Orbit started out great, and I wanted to like this, since I’m interested in philosophy, but after about 180 pages, I started to actively dislike this book. That doesn’t happen often. I can understand readers that don’t tend to carp at everything liking it, since the book is not without merit. But what can I say, I tend to read that way… I can also understand readers that haven’t read much philosophy or theory of mind to be intrigued by some of the questions put up by Dark Orbit (how can we be sure of our senses, and as such about reality?), since these questions are interesting. I just don’t think Gilman brings anything new to the table. All things considered, let’s just end with the fact I’m simply not part of the target audience for this book.

Or maybe I’ve tackled this review in the entirely wrong way… This book shouldn’t be analyzed, since apparently allegories aren’t a form of analysis, and the reflection of myself as a reader seems that maybe I’m too analytical:

“The Corroborationists are beginning to say that Iris is actually a metaphor placed here for our benefit, and the proper mode of understanding is not analysis, but allegory. A planet of illusions, where gemstones grow from trees, and all you see is your own reflection.”

9 responses to “DARK ORBIT – Carolyn Ives Gilman (2015)

  1. That’s the first negative review that I read about this book and it was very interesting. I am intrigued by this but I don’t know if I’ll pick it up. It sounds a bit all over the place.
    Great review! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I enjoyed this book for what it was, but I have to say it was nothing like I expected. Partly, I think it was the fault of marketing – the blurb makes it sound a little like a murder mystery, when in actuality, the plot is nothing near as exciting. It took me a while to adapt to the true direction of the story.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, I thought a bit about talking about the blurb and the marketing too, but the review was already long enough as is. Aside from the murder mystery, I thought the crystalline nature of the planet would be explored more, as the “weird vocabulary” of the natives – which turns out to be not much more than English with ‘thou’ and some Dutch words. Now both are not much more than gimmicks. I’m glad that you liked it though, all things considered my allergic reaction to what I described is a handicap to enjoyment at times. 🙂


  3. I tried to post this earlier, but it doesn’t seem to have worked, so feel free to delete one if it’s a duplicate comment.

    I liked your review, which I say as a person who really liked the book! (see my review: http://examinedworlds.blogspot.com/2015/12/interstellar-epistemology-dark-orbit-by.html)

    I didn’t think the book was perfect. I rarely say this about a book (because most books these days are longer than they have to be), but this book needed to be at least 100 pages longer to fully explain everything that’s going on. That probably would have taken care of the real (or apparent) plot holes.

    Philosophically, even though I think Kant, Wittgenstein, and Rorty have a lot of insights, I don’t think they destroyed problems of skepticism as they claim to do (and I don’t think Wittgenstein ever claimed to do that, but that’s because I tend toward a therapeutic reading). So for me, the issues of how our senses map on to reality is still an issue no matter how much hand waving and vocabulary changing Rorty tried to do. And those issues are what this book explores.

    I think the biggest difference in our reactions to Dark Orbit are that you seem to be taking Gilman to be giving some sort of dogmatic and redundant view about perception whereas I think she was using the story to explore issues about perception in a literary form, which is different than scientific or philosophical exploration. And there, while of course scientists and philosophers may be more enlightened, most of us in our regular lives, even scientists and philosophers who know better, have a rather dogmatic view about the senses as providing an accurate model of reality. And I think she does explore this in a novel way, not just by attacking vision but by suggestions there might be more knowledge gained without it. But maybe that’s just my perception!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the elaborate comment! (Your first post did come through btw. I decided to keep this one and delete the first, since this one has a link to your review.)

      I fully agree that if the book had been longer, a lot of its problems could have been fixed.

      I agree as well that Kant didn’t destroy skepticism one bit, but I included him because Dark Orbit has that scene with the blind girl trying to see that table, that is kinda explicitly about the Ding An Sich. As you say, I don’t think Wittgenstein ever claimed to tackle skepticism (on the contrary I’d say), but some parts of the book are devoted to how one can define what we perceive (like color), etc., and Wittgenstein wrote a lot about that as well. I don’t think he gave any definitive answers, but he posed the same questions. I think those problems are generally unsolvable (yes, we might be brains in a vat; yes, we might be deceived by our senses; yes, we might be in Plato’s cave; yes the matrix is real), but generally, collectively, we can communicate pretty well about what we seem to perceive. That’s were Rorty comes in. Since trying to solve these question 100% is philosophically pretty much a dead end street, why not be pragmatic about it all, and not waste too much time trying to define Truth with a capital T or Color with capital C, and just let science evolve and technology build more scopes & scanners to enhance our perception. Epistemology leads to better methods, that’s about it. How our senses map on to reality is also a question about consciousness, and I don’t think Dark Orbit explored that matter at all.

      I agree that Gilman indeed tried to use & explore all this stuff in a literary form (that allegory line I quoted at the end is obvious), and that that’s something different than a scientific/philosophical approach. I didn’t want to imply she was dogmatic though. But indeed, I do think the book, philosophically, is redundant. And since I felt it didn’t have that much meat on its bones on other accounts (plot, characters, language), it started to annoy me. The main reasons for that annoyment were the inconsistencies, and ultimately, the stuff about teleporting. I’d rather liked more pages on blindness, and how that changed their society as well (hardly explored), and how it indeed sharpened other senses (even newly imagined ones), but not something as wild as the teleporting. I simply think that that’s magic, and that Gilman because of that overstretches, and ultimately, fails to convincingly asks the questions she wants to ask/explore. It would have been more convincing if the extra sense would have been something else, something smaller, more poetic even. It would have fixed a large part of the inconsistencies. But then again, there would have been no murder mystery, etc.

      I also agree that the book can help to shake up some dogmatism and question some certainties in its readers, so, in its practical effect, the book is not redundant indeed.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Certainly Gilman could have done more, but she did an awful lot as it is, maybe too much for such a short book! I agree that some of your suggestions, like focusing more on consciousness, would have made the book better. I still think the novel part of the novel is that there could be new kinds of knowledge available if we were less dogmatic. It’s not that I think we’re going to get blind people who can teleport in the future, but I guess I’d say that the book dramatizes the issue of why being too attached to certain epistemological models could be a draw back. I found the way that Gilman did that to be interesting, which is why I was willing to forgive some of the faults (of which there were many, as you point out). But the best thing about the book is that it’s fun to discuss!

        Liked by 1 person

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