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the genre's premiere review magazine for short SF & Fantasy since 1993

Dark Orbit by Carolyn Ives Gilman

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Dark Orbit


by Carolyn Ives Gilman


(Tor, July 2015, hc, 303 pp.)



Reviewed by Dave Truesdale


Dark Orbit is in many ways a remarkable novel, and my hat is off to its author, Carolyn Ives Gilman.

In the far future mankind has found a rare inhabited planet from one of its far earlier (and virtually forgotten) diasporas. Exoethnologist Sara Callicot, arriving home via lightbeam transportation from an exploratory mission to another world, is given a new assignment as one of the team making first contact with the planet Iris. She is going undercover, however, to monitor another passenger, one Thora Lassiter, a once prominent personage, now disgraced, who has caused traumatic upheaval on another planet due to what has been diagnosed as her prophetic delusions. But Sara has not been told the whole truth about her role as given to her by her corporate boss, which leads to complications as her mission arrives at Iris and begins to explore its deadly, chaotic region of space.

Several fascinating extrapolations on the nature of quantum entanglement ground the entire novel, leading to heady surprises, not least of which center on the strange human inhabitants of Iris and their new-found relationship with starfaring humans, for this small remnant of long-lost humanity now lives beneath the planet, the untold generations of living in total darkness rendering them totally blind, forcing them to adopt a whole new way of perceiving the universe. Why these apparently happy people live in total and unremitting blackness and have never known any other existence is but one of the novel's many secrets and unfolding mysteries. There are voyages in space and voyages of the mind, all given life through the author's research into the state-of-the-art speculative nature of quantum physics—quantum entanglement to be more precise.

I was impressed in a number of ways by how everything meshed, yet was always centered by the hard SF conceit from which everything flowed. So much impressed that I asked the author if she would take time for an interview, which she did, and for which she has my sincere thanks.



TANGENT: It seems as if Dark Orbit is set in the universe of some of your other work. If so, could you catch readers up if you feel it is necessary? I read Dark Orbit without any difficulty and didn't feel lost at any point.

CAROLYN IVES GILMAN: Dark Orbit is a stand-alone novel, but it is set in the same universe as several of my other stories—my novel Halfway Human, and my novellas "Arkfall"  and "The Ice Owl." I have started to call this universe the Twenty Planets. In it, humanity has already settled a cluster of planets in a great colonizing push they called the Second Diaspora—second, because they often arrived on new planets to find humans already settled there in seemingly terraformed environments. This suggested that in a past so distant as to be lost to history, there was a First Diaspora.

By the era when most of my stories take place, the Second Diaspora is long past, but from time to time new planets are still being discovered by the remnants of the fleet of robot spaceships sent out toward promising stars during the heyday of the Second Diaspora. When a ship finds a habitable planet, it contacts home so explorers can travel out to see what is there. That is how Dark Orbit begins.

TANGENT: While the science is speculative and everything flows from it in one way or another, it reads as if you did your homework to make it as accurate as possible. What went into your thinking when it came to the several modes of light beam and quantum transportation, and what are the differences between them? What research did you have to do?

GILMAN: I have done a lot of thinking about how space exploration might actually be accomplished. One thing I am pretty sure about is that this whole idea of space “ships” is absurdly backward-looking thinking. The idea of the spaceship was popularized by veterans of World War II whose ideas were shaped by the Navy of their youth. Today, people who write about manned ships are talking about obsolete technology. Ships worked fine in the 15th through 19th centuries for exploring the terrestrial seas. They are not the technology for tackling space—for one thing, prohibitively expensive; for another thing, far too fuel-dependent, bulky, and slow. We will need other means of transport for the distances and conditions of space.

The means of transport I have adopted is by coded lightbeam. A human body is reduced to code which is sent via clarified laser beams to a receiver on the other end, where the person is reconstituted. It’s a little like Star Trek’s transporter, except on Star Trek there doesn’t have to be a receiver/assembler, a thing I could never figure out. By lightbeam, people can travel at light speed without risk of radiation or centuries-long delays, and it costs much less than a can for keeping meat alive in space. The main problem is getting receivers out to unexplored regions, and in my universe that is done by robots.

But the distances of space are so vast that even light speed comes to seem impossibly slow to the characters of my novels. Traveling to a star only a couple of light years away means two years spent as a coded light beam—two years subtracted from your life, while everyone else continues on living. People who travel a lot in the Twenty Planets are called Wasters. They experience life differently from the planet-bound. On a planet, time is sequential, but Wasters experience it discontinuously. Between leaving one planet and arriving on the next, years pass, empires rise, companies fail, cultures change, and they find themselves in a place utterly different from the one they set out for. It is small wonder that they form a subculture of their own, and find the concerns of the planet-dwellers (“Plants,” in Waster jargon) trivial and fleeting.

Everyone, especially Wasters, would welcome a means of instantaneous transport. The most promising technology for this depends on quantum tunneling, or quantum teleportation, something that has already been achieved to a limited extent in labs today. It depends on entangled particles, one of the weirder quantum effects. Two entangled particles continue to have a connection, even when they are separated in space. When a property of one (such as spin) is altered, the other particle changes as well. In theory, this effect could be used to send information without traversing the intermediate space separating the particles. The drawback is, it only works on a subatomic scale, not on the scale where humans exist.

In Dark Orbit, they have managed to create a communicator that works instantaneously by quantum entanglement, which they call a Paired Particle Communicator or PPC (pepci for short). With some effort, they can send messages, but not things; the bandwidth needed to code a physical object is orders of magnitude greater than the PPC can handle. This situation—matter limited by the speed of light but messaging unlimited by spacetime—seems paradoxical, but it is based on what we presently know of the Einsteinian universe and the quantum realm. It also sets up some intriguing dramatic situations.

You’re right, it takes a lot of research. I do more or less continual research by reading science magazines and books. My files of clippings and notes for Dark Orbit form a stack about six inches high.

TANGENT: The relationship between Moth and Thora mirror each other. Moth has lived her life underground and is blind, which leads her to perceive her world and act within it using senses in different ways than a sighted person would. And Thora is just the opposite, having lived on various worlds where sight is the norm; all of which shapes her world just as profoundly as does Moth's. When they are forced to switch roles and learn how to live and perceive the world in a drastically unfamiliar manner their old senses have a tough time adjusting, while use of the new ones must be brought to the fore and trained.

This raises profound questions of Perception, and how there might be much of the world or universe we can't even imagine and which is beyond what our senses allow us to perceive, giving us a very limited (and grossly erroneous) view of what really is out there.

GILMAN: The question of perception is one I was very keen on exploring in Dark Orbit. We are fond of thinking that we accurately perceive an objective reality around us, but when you start digging into the neurology of how the senses work, it starts looking like our brains construct a model of reality using some rules of thumb. I thought the best way to demonstrate this was by portraying a group of people who construct reality rather differently than we do. The sense we rely on most, and believe most implicitly, is sight, so I took it away and did a thought experiment about how people might understand the world without it.

I’m glad you noticed that Thora and Moth are going through parallel experiences—one is a sighted person learning to reconstruct the world without light, the other is a blind person attempting to learn how to see. There is actually a fair amount published about the second scenario, and for the first I found a wonderful memoir of a man who recorded how his perceptions changed as he went blind. The experiences of Moth and Thora highlight how very subjective is our construction of reality, and how much is edited out. Humans have evolved to sense things that have a direct bearing on our survival; but what about things that fall outside that description? There may be entire aspects of the universe around us that we can’t perceive through the normal channels. That is what the explorers in Dark Orbit discover. It throws everything they think they know into question.

TANGENT: Moth's (and her people's) ability to "bemind" one another is in fact a method of mental teleportation. While an old super-science space operatic idea, you treat it seriously. What are your thoughts on this, was it merely a plot device, or could there really be something on the quantum level that parts of our minds can reach and manipulate which might give rise to this method of instantaneous travel? Did Moth and her people—combined with their blindness and other senses taking over and coming into prominence—gain their power to "bemind" due to their planet being in that crazy part of space where quantum waves periodically bend and scramble objects on their planet, and also physically disrupts a large swath of nearby space? I guess what I'm getting at is how you use speculative science in the real world (the effects of quantum physics on a large scale), to explore what might happen in the quantum world we can't see, and its possible effect on the mind, one manifestation of which is the teleportation power. How did that all come together for you?

GILMAN: A book that simply looked at perception and quantum entanglement and the other ideas you bring up wouldn’t have had much suspense or very high stakes. There had to be some effect in the macroscopic world that the plot could hinge on. I admit, it’s a leap to suggest a kind of teleportation—albeit one that works differently from any other system I’ve ever read about. But I feel it’s not altogether implausible.

For me, the key link is the role of observation on the quantum level. Physicists have shown that observation fundamentally affects things on a subatomic scale. Entities like photons and electrons exist in an indeterminate state, a probability field, until they are observed. If you build an apparatus to observe particles, the photons turn out to be particles. If you build a sensor for waves, they turn out to be waves. The observation appears to be determining the nature of what exists. And when we observe one entangled particle of a separated pair, the observation determines what exists in two different places, collapsing space itself.

So if we could somehow figure out how to observe the quantum vacuum or the ground state in which all particles/waves/fields exist, could not our observations collapse space on a larger scale?

Okay, I said it was a leap. But it’s not just hand-waving and magic; it’s a speculation. Isn’t that what science fiction is all about?

I would also like to say that the fact that people have been telling stories about teleportation for centuries suggests that it somehow satisfies our common-sense ideas about reality. We don’t know how to do it, but throughout history something has told human beings that it can be done. I am not one to lightly dismiss that.

As for your question about whether the natives’ ability to bemind one another depends on the unique part of space where they live—well, that remains to be seen. Even they don’t know the answer to that. We also don’t know what role their blindness plays. They are clearly living in a unique situation, which might explain their unusual abilities. But we also have to consider: How did they get to Iris in the first place?

TANGENT: The story opens as just an exploratory mission to see what a questship, long silent, has discovered, where Sara is sent undercover to observe Thora, who has caused great trouble on another planet due to a unique ability she possesses, but who is mistakenly labeled as mentally unstable. The Powers That Be want her out of the way and her addition to this mission seems like a good way to accomplish this. But it quickly turns into a story of hidden schemes within hidden schemes with dark corporate and personal interests guiding possible outcomes, and a case of who can Sara—and the reader—trust, for there are those who are not as they seem. So we've got the hard speculative quantum science defining the overall structure of the novel, which also plays into how this might effect the human mind on a quantum level from which beminding has possibly arisen. That's all pretty wild. And then you mix in the plotline and story incidents and Thora's background interwoven throughout (we first think Sara is our protag, but Thora's story takes up so much of the novel, both front and back story that she is almost a co-protag if not the protag herself) and stir vigorously and we end up with Dark Orbit.

GILMAN: Yes, thanks for pointing out that the book’s not all hard science and speculation. Although I did think out the science in some detail, it’s kept in the background. The foreground is full of more human-scale issues—political intrigue, self-discovery, cultural conflict, gender issues, and in the end the sheer need to survive against huge odds. In many ways, this is an old-fashioned SF exploration story in which the strangeness of the planet Iris provides a lot of adventure, discovery, and danger. But unlike some older SF, my explorers are not square-jawed military men and their expedition does not run with precision. Instead, like every institution I have ever worked for, the Iris expedition is comically dysfunctional. It manages to muddle through—up to a point. Then all hell breaks loose.

TANGENT: There's a lot going on here for the reader to absorb and appreciate on different levels—and not all of it on the surface. The best SF writes up to the reader, to challenge them in any number of ways, but at the same time must be written so that a general readership gets a whale of a reading experience from the surface story. I'd say you've succeeded on both levels quite admirably. Could you explain how you wove all of this together, what your thought process was, and how many times it took to get it all too mesh so seamlessly?

GILMAN: Dark Orbit was a very challenging novel to write, and it took me a number of tries to get it right. I abandoned it several times. The most important breakthrough was finding the proper voices in which to tell the story. The book is written from the viewpoints of the two major characters, Sara Callicot and Thora Lassiter. I often find that a multi-vocal narrative works well for me. In this case it turned out to be essential, since crucial events happen in two separate places simultaneously. The two narrators have very different personalities—Sara is irreverent and outspoken while Thora is introspective and thoughtful. And yet, as it turns out, most of the action in the book happens to Thora. Sara’s parts were easier for me to write, but Thora is the more complex character.

Once I had figured out the two main characters and their back stories, the plot came together fairly easily. There were a lot of threads to follow, and tying them all up in the end was like macrame; but by then I had such momentum I wrote the last chapter in one week.

There were times when I worried whether the book was too dense; but the majority of readers seem to be finding their way through all the ideas and plot twists. SF readers are like explorers that way. They like a challenge.

TANGENT: I think you've definitely given readers several interesting challenges to hold their interest with Dark Orbit. I found it an engaging read from start to finish—from the sense of wonder embedded in the scientific speculations, to the background corporate machinations, and last but not least to the fascinating exploration of the struggles of the two main characters. Dark Orbit is the type of SF that has always been eagerly sought and well received by genre readers, and is a sterling example of hard SF at its best. Thank you for taking the time.

Dave Truesdale has edited Tangent and now Tangent Online since 1993. It has been nominated for the Hugo Award five times, and the World Fantasy Award once. A former editor of the Bulletin of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America, he also served as a World Fantasy Award judge in 1998, and for several years wrote an original online column for The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Now retired, he keeps close company with his SF/F library, the coffeepot, and old movie channels on TV. He lives in Kansas City, MO.