I 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?
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.”