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.