An Overgrown Bush that Could Use Some Judicious Pruning – A Review of Dark Orbit by Carolyn Ives Gilman

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The question of whether or not we are the only intelligent life in the universe is something that has intrigued humanity for almost as long as our species has contemplated the idea of some other intelligent entity being out there in the great black void of space. Many scientists have done their level best to find out the answer through rigorous research and by encouraging the creation of technology that will allow us to detect life elsewhere, no matter how remote that “elsewhere” might be. They have not found anything yet, but hopes continue to remain high that one day, some day, they will find life (intelligent or otherwise) elsewhere aside from our planet.

Science fiction writers, on the other hand, have explored the idea of alien life in their own way – one of those ways being through the “First Contact” story. Essentially, a First Contact story is about what happens when humanity meets a new alien intelligence for the first time, whether deliberately or accidentally. Many interesting questions can arise in such stories – for instance, how does one accurately portray the reactions of a human being to something he or she has absolutely no knowledge of? How “human” could something from elsewhere in the universe be? Would we even recognise an alien intelligence as “intelligent”, whatever that means? Will we repeat the mistakes of our past, and let our history of colonialism and imperialism win out?

These are the questions – along with a few other, equally interesting ones – that Carolyn Ives Gilman attempts to address in her novel Dark Orbit. The novel opens with exoethnologist Saraswati “Sara” Callicot returning to the planet Capella Two, after finishing a mission elsewhere. As soon as she arrives she is contacted by a former mentor. This mentor asks her to join an exploratory crew who are about to investigate a new, potentially habitable planet – a crew that will likely need the skills of someone like Sara if they encounter any intelligent life. But Sara’s real mission is to watch over one Thora Lassiter, who was recently involved in a revolt on the planet of Orem, and has been banished to the far reaches of the galaxy to ensure she does not revive the conflict. It seems like an easy mission, one that Sara can accomplish without much trouble. But when a crew member dies on the ship, and then Thora disappears during an expedition to the planet’s surface, Sara realises that her mission is far more high-stakes than she initially imagined.

Initially, the reader will not find anything very different in this novel from the typical First Contact story: a scientist is sent out on a mission to investigate a planet, and to engage with any intelligent life he or she may find there. But what makes Dark Orbit different from many other stories like it is how that contact is approached, and the impetus behind it. In many other First Contact stories, but especially in movies, that initial contact tends to be violent and bloody: consider Independence Day and Alien, where the first time humans come into contact with an alien intelligence, it quickly devolves into bloodshed and warfare.

In Dark Orbit, however, things are somewhat different. For one, the impetus behind initiating First Contact has less to do with warfare, and more to do with economics:

Sara had always thought of herself as a prospector, but not for crude resources like minerals or water, which were untransportable anyway. Exoethnologists were after cultural resources—new knowledge and new ideas, the ultimate source of all profit.

The fact that it is new ideas that are considered valuable, not material resources, says interesting things about humanity in this far-flung future. As a space-faring civilisation, it is safe to assume that humanity is no longer reliant on Earth’s limited natural resources, and instead has the capacity to claim similar resources from elsewhere. With materials readily available (or so the reader assumes), ideas become more important, and therefore, more valuable, since it is these ideas that guide how those resources are used (or not, as the case may be).

However, though the above paints a rather optimistic vision of humanity as a curious, but largely harmless race, even the quest for “mere” knowledge is not without its underlying dangers, especially when it comes to any alien species humanity may come into contact with. After all, as our own history attests, cultures are inevitably changed when they come into contact with each other:

But when the isolation was broken, cultures were like thermodynamic systems—uniformity quickly resulted. There was always a short window of opportunity to document and save the precious information before it was hopelessly contaminated by adaptation. Biologists’ window of opportunity was longer. Culture could change with blinding rapidity.

Because of the above danger, First Contact missions generally have strict rules and rigorous protocol, with caution being the order of the day; Sara frequently states that scientists on First Contact missions can spend months, even years just observing the aliens before making contact. There is also an emphasis on the notion of consent – most notably, informed consent, wherein anything and everything the aliens give away must be given freely, and they must know precisely what they are giving, to whom, and why. It is so important that it is enshrined not only in commonly-held cultural ethics, but in the very law itself:

”I’m really sorry to have to break this to you,” [Sara] said, “but the discovery of natives on Iris changes our whole legal situation. In Capellan law, the natives have copyright on all the knowledge generated from their planet. Until they give us informed consent, we can’t take any more information. If we do, they could sue Epco to get it back, and all our work would be for nothing.”

Now, while the above is absolutely fascinating, and it is easy to imagine an entire novel built on the themes of consent and cultural (ex)change, that is not exactly what this novel is about – or rather, it is only a part of what the novel is about, and a rather small part at that. What really drives this novel is not Sara’s story, but Thora’s – and it is at this point that the novel starts to become rather confusing.

It is not uncommon for writers to interweave more than one plot in their novels, but as a rule, any writer that does so has to have very good control over all the storylines he or she includes in the novel. Unfortunately, that does not appear to be the case in Dark Orbit.

The primary culprit here, at least to me, is how Thora’s storyline works vis-a-vis Sara’s. When the reader first encounters Thora’s voice, it is in the form of an audio diary entry, which appears in italics in order to distinguish it from Sara’s narrative. The use of the diary entry as an initial plot-building device is acceptable – after all, many other writers do something similar in their own works – but only up until the point that the reader meets Thora “in the flesh”, so to speak. At that point, the reader assumes that they will be hearing Thora speak in her own voice.

That is not the case. The diary entries persist, mingling Thora’s past, present, and dreams together in a way that makes a hash of any attempt at a more structured narrative. She also tends towards rather more abstract, philosophical language, compared to Sara’s straightforward voice. Take, for example this excerpt from one of Thora’s journal entries towards the middle of the novel:

A feeling came to me, as of a vast whirlpool turning around and within me, both majestic and swift. I looked down into it, and saw the immensity of distance it plummeted, its spiral flow growing smaller and smaller till it was no larger than a keyhole. Then I was being drawn into it, and allowed myself to drop, spinning, deeper and deeper, till I was the size of an atom in a maelstrom of dizzying proportions.

At the very bottom of the vortex there was light, and my mind yearned for it after all this time in darkness. Yet I found it was not a light I could see by; it had no source and illuminated nothing, but filled me from within till I shone. It gave me such a feeling of joy and belonging that my spirits sang.

Now, there is nothing objectionable about the above: science fiction is more than capable of handling what might be called mysticism and still make it work entirely well. What is problematic is how Thora’s narrative is juxtaposed with Sara’s. As the novel progresses their storylines overlap more frequently, and it’s quite easy for the reader to feel a metaphorical kind of whiplash as they go from the dreamy mystic to practical exoethnologist, and back again. Because of this, it rather feels like Gilman is trying to write two distinctly different stories, but tries to cram them into one novel, with the ultimate result being that neither story really gets developed to its fullest. The ending feels abrupt, leaving the reader with the sense that there are too many threads left hanging. Had this novel focused on only one storyline – either Thora’s, or Sara’s – the result would have been much more satisfying to read.

And yet, despite the above issue, the novel still manages to be rather compelling. Though Gilman’s plotting is not exactly very good, her characters are still enjoyable to read about, and the ways she deals with themes such as science versus faith and objectivity versus subjectivity are remarkably strong – strong enough that it can carry the reader through the plot to the end. If Gilman’s narrative were just a bit more polished, then this novel would be an absolute gem.

Overall, Dark Orbit is a surprisingly absorbing read, featuring two intriguing protagonists and tackling rather complex themes with good depth and zero condescension. However, Gilman’s writing talents do not appear to extend to crafting well-structured plots, because Dark Orbit tangles together two very different storylines in such a way that readers may find themselves growing a bit dizzy as the novel goes on. It is the only flaw that prevents this novel from becoming a true gem, and it is truly unfortunate that it even exists at all.

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