Carolyn Ives Gilman’s mind- and space-bending novel Dark Orbit transports the reader into a uniquely imagined future universe, and it is one of the most original science fiction stories I’ve read in years. It received high praise from the great Ursula K. Le Guin, and after reading it, I totally understand why.

Dark Orbit takes place in an unspecified, distant future, where humans inhabit several far-flung planets. Two technological capabilities shape this future-verse and the book’s story-line:

  1. Instant communication between distant points in the universe is possible, using a device that relies on the principles of quantum mechanics.
  2. It is also possible to “teleport” objects and people over great distances using “lightbeam travel” where things are sent as a form of light, and are then reconstituted on the other side. However, this form of travel is not instantaneous: you “only” travel at the speed of light. So, sending a person to a destination 58 light years away takes 58 years. Meanwhile, everyone you knew ages 58 years.

For obvious reasons, not everyone uses this mode of transport. The people willing to subject themselves to it, for scientific and business purposes, are called “Wasters” by others. They are considered a group apart, and their lives are profoundly affected by constantly skipping years and decades ahead of their contemporaries.

For a Waster, time seemed like a mere convention – an arbitrary way of sorting events into sequence, no more.  — Over and over, they outlived all they knew. — Each time they leaped off into the void it was an exercise in faith – faith that the equipment would still be operating to receive them at the other end, that people would still remember, that people would be there at all.

One of the story’s two main protagonists is Sara Callicot, a scientist, adventurer, and Waster who is hired for a secret mission. As part of this secret mission, she is sent out to join a scientific expedition on-board the Escher, an old space-ship that has just been discovered in a distant part of space, near an enigmatic planet called Iris – a place where gravity and space-time behave in strange and unpredictable ways.

The other main character is Thora Lassiter, a young scientist and diplomat from an influential family who has also been sent to the Escher. Sara’s secret mission is to protect Thora who has previously suffered a mental breakdown while being involved in (or perhaps causing) some kind of violent incident on a planet called Orem. These two characters are a big part of Dark Orbit‘s appeal for me: the rather ornery, rebellious and strong Sara; and the odd and troubled, but equally strong Thora. I love how Gilman makes these two women so believable and so different from each other, and how the connection between them changes and develops throughout the story.

Early on, Thora disappears on Iris – a planet that is so strange that the human visitors have a hard time even understanding what they see there. Sara tries to find her, but soon begins to suspect that there are people on board the Escher who are working to thwart her. Throughout the book, Gilman splits the story between Sara’s and Thora’s point of view, and through Thora we are first introduced to a very unique group of humans that actually live on Iris: something that is completely unexpected for the expedition members.

What Thora experiences on Iris, and what she learns from the native community there, challenges everything she thought she knew about the universe. It also gives her a new perspective on what happened to her during her “mental breakdown” on Orem: her memories of that event have been erased from her mind in order to “cure” her, but those memories start returning in disturbing flashbacks as she delves deeper into the secrets of Iris. At the same time, the odd gravitational and space-time disturbances on the planet and in orbit become increasingly dangerous to both the planet and the Escher, putting both the expedition and the native population in danger.

Dark Orbit‘s plot twists and turns in unexpected ways, while delving into profound ideas about space, time, science, the human mind, and how we perceive the very fabric of reality. In some ways Gilman reminds me of the great Ursula K. Le Guin. Most obviously perhaps because of her interest in the spoken and unspoken rules of different societies, and how those rules shape human behaviour and human interaction. Just like Le Guin, Gilman also explores what happens when people either choose to abide by, or challenge such rules. That sounds dry and academic, perhaps, but when it’s skillfully woven into a novel (as it is here) it provides depth and detail that makes the invented world feel real.

Gilman’s prose is sleek, unsentimental, and well-crafted, and she pulls you into her future-verse easily and swiftly, and then pulls you ever deeper into a mind- and space-warping storyline. Dark Orbit is a real page-turner: I had a hard time putting this book down. One note: the ending is left somewhat open. Part of me wished Gilman had tied up all the ends more neatly (I want all the answers, dammit!), but another part of me relished the ambiguity. Also, I  secretly wish for a follow-up to this book. I already miss Thora and Sara, and would love the opportunity to re-visit the universe of Dark Orbit.

  • Get it from Amazon: Dark Orbit, by Carolyn Ives Gilman