Dark Orbit by Carolyn Ives Gilman. ★★★
Dark Orbit is an entirely readable science fiction novel that for some reason just never really connected. I feel like the length of the book relative to the story is off – it might have worked better if either if the story line had been condensed or the book expanded. As is, it feels strangely short for the story it’s telling.
Sara is an anthropologist who lives out of sync with the rest of the universe, loosing large spaces of time as she travels at light speed from planet to planet. When she gets back from a job twenty light years away, she finds out that a team is being assembled for a mission to a newly discovered planet. Also on the expedition is Thora, a member of the elite who’s being sent far away from a scandal concerning her delusions triggering a religious movement on the planet Orem. The planet they find is surrounded and shaped by dark matter, and against all scientific explanation, inhabited.
If the “against all scientific explanation” gives you a clue, Dark Orbit is one of those books that rely heavily on SF mysticism. Sometimes this works for me (I was fine with both Battlestar Galactica and Planetfall), but I wasn’t so fond of it in Dark Orbit, possibly because it’s centered around philosophy. There were some interesting ideas about how our society is shaped by how perceive the world through our senses, but I often felt like passages were just spewing philosophy at me instead of exploring it through the narrative. Thora in particular could feel like a vehicle for philosophy, although her sections were a bit better once she was lost on the planet and had other things to think about.
It’s been about a week since I’ve read Dark Orbit, and I’m struggling to recall anything in the way of character development or personality when it comes to Sara. She dislikes authority. But did we see that through her actions, or were we just told it over and over again? Thora is a clearer character, mainly because she’s got an important backstory and the aforementioned philosophy. A few of the secondary characters were distinct – Moth – for instance, but there were others that I struggled to keep track of.
Undeniably, my favorite thing about Dark Orbit was the little we saw of the planet itself. There’s some gloriously strange and alien landscapes, like a grove of chiming, reflected light. It’s too bad we got to see so little of it.
The prose style of Dark Orbit also made it easy to read, and I never had any significant issues with pacing. Some of Thora’s early sections did drag (basically they were distant and unemotional philosophical musings), but they did get better later on. I don’t know if I ever fully engaged with Dark Orbit, but it was all right. Someone with a greater interest in philosophy might get more from it.