Dark Orbit by Carolyn Ives Gilman

Dark Orbit was a book that literally had my name on it. Having grown up on big, philosophical science fiction, from Asimov, Aldiss and Clarke, to Le Guin and Pohl, it was certainly a concept that would've caught my attention, quite aside from the book having some definite personal resonances for me.

In the distant future universe of the Twenty Planets, there is no more valuable resource than a new habitable world. When a robotic questing ship discovers the apparently fully terraformed planet Iris therefore, the powerful Epco Corporation is quick to capitalise on the discovery, sending a team of multi-disciplinary scientists to investigate. Saraswati Callicot however joins the expedition for a very different purpose, to keep an eye on the mystic and unstable Thora Lassiter, a member of the Vind ruling caste who was previously kidnapped, and made a religious leader by a cult on the barbarous world of Orem. Things begin going wrong however almost immediately. First, a security guard is murdered, with no apparent means or motive. Then, during the first expedition to Iris surface, Thora disappears. Iris; it turns out, is not uninhabited after all, but is home to the Torobes, a far flung human colony, who have formed a society in pure darkness, a society who live entirely without sight. As Thora and Sara begin to investigate this distinct culture however, it soon becomes clear there is more to the Torobes than meets the eye; as it were. Whether due to Iris' abundance of dark matter, or to their lives lived entirely without vision, the Torobes have developed skills that go beyond normal human perception, questioning the very nature of knowledge itself, skills which might prove the next step in humanity's journey.

I will admit, the first few chapters of the book I found rather hard to get into. The book is told from two very distinct viewpoints, Sara's standard, third person view, and Thora's first person audio diary entries. Sara's view is terse and abrupt, and rapidly introduces aspects of the book’s background, and a plethora of characters in quick succession. I have no problem being thrown into a far future world and expected to cope, and many of the concepts Ives Gilman tosses off here are fascinating ones. For example, even though teleportation technology exists, all teleporting is done at light speed, meaning that "wasters'', like Sara form a distinct social group, people who travel instantly from one world or place to another, but who are then decades out of touch with those they've left behind. These ideas come thick and fast, from a society where information and copyright are almost their own currency, to the idea that religious perspectives could form a distinct scientific discipline, uniquely contrasted against the specific objectivism of empirical science. Some aspects of this world, such as Sara's balavati upbringing, which apparently instilled an almost dogmatic mistrust of authority, and what indeed the "vind", ruling class were even felt just as mysterious as any of the far less familiar cultures we encounter in the book.

Unfortunately, for all of its great concepts, the terseness of Sara's perspective also meant that characterisation very much takes a back seat. Ives Gilman throws names at you one after another, with only a short physical or personal description attached to each, then just assumes you'll remember who these people are. This meant that few of the secondary characters felt like real people. Of all of the scientists, only the unpleasantly corporate director Nelson and aggressive security chief Batlatlo really stood out to me, and even there there were lapses, for instance when the chief complained at people making assumptions about him based simply on his physical resemblance to the primitive people of Orem, even though I honestly couldn't remember what either he, or the Orem natives actually looked like since their descriptions were so cursory. This was especially an issue given that Sara's perspective involved a lot of politics and conflicts of interest, since in any conflict where there are a number of different sides and opinions, it really doesn't help when the people holding those opinions aren't made distinct to the reader.

The other viewpoint, Thora's diaries, tended to be told with more style and poetry, albeit much of the time, Thora's perspective felt more like a philosophical treatise than a character. That being said, her discipline of sensualism, a part scientific, part mystical doctrine based round the idea that human senses take in more information than we actually recognise, and that knowledge can be gained through meditation and experience, was an interesting one, and one that obviously had bearing on the book’s main plot.

Then, almost abruptly, matters started to pick up. This was due to the parallel stories of Thora becoming lost and interacting with the totally blind society of Torobe, while Moth, a teenaged girl from Torobe found her way to the scientific expedition, where Sara attempted to teach her to gain the ability to see.

Moth is the one exception to all of the other secondary characters in this book, a genuinely engaging teenager, at times sweet, irritating, arrogant and curious. It is also through Moth that we are first introduced to the people of Torobe.

This society of entirely blind people is undoubtedly one of the most fascinating things in the book, even compared to planet Iris itself, a world of trans-dimensional mirror forests and crystal caverns. Ives Gilman comes up with some truly unique ideas, from aroma as an art form, to a world where everyone goes barefoot to pick out tactile markings on the floor, and where ropes containing bells and wind chimes are used to show direction. From complex, polyphonous music born out in specially constructed echo chambers, to formal clothes sewn with chimes, there are so many aspects of this society which are truly fascinating to explore.

It is also here that Ives Gilman also raises the interesting question of competency. Thora finds herself not only less competent than those around her, lacking skills such as special navigation, and use of a cane to explore the environment, but also having to interact on a social and philosophical level, adapting sight based language and concepts to a lightless environment, and sightless perspective. I also appreciated that the blind characters, whether the canny trio of elders who are eager to make trades with Thora and her people, the kindly Hanna or the mystic Daggat are far more distinct than those in Sara's plotline.

Even though the Torobe people's abilities with "wending", a form of special teleportation based on extra sensory perception play a major part in the book, Ives Gilman avoided the trap that far too many authors fall into with blind characters, by giving them a sensory or technological ability that completely negates all consequences of their blindness, indeed this is particularly obvious when Sara and the expedition’s doctor attempt to help Moth to learn to see, with Moth misunderstanding concepts such as depth perception, parallax and views from different angles, and still doing things like falling over tables, quite a contrast to how competent she is, both in her own environment of Torobe, and with wending. Indeed, though Dark Orbit is for the most part a heavily cerebral novel, with few emotional moments, Moth's struggle with learning vision and the to her, alien concepts of sight do provide some genuine touches of pathos.

Unfortunately, for all of the interesting ways Ives Gilman explores a blind society, she unfortunately suffers some rather startling; quite disturbing lapses. One of these concerns spatial and temporal perception. For all Thora's philosophical musings, at times she speculates that the people of Torobe utterly lack perceptions of time and planned space, being tied to only perceptions of what is within tactile range, yet at other times, she directly references Moth having ideas of clear spatial layout. Indeed, given how important spatial perception is to most blind people, this is a rather odd assumption. More seriously, while it makes sense from a storytelling perspective why the Torobe utterly lacks fire, (with all cooking done in geothermal vents), since its necessary for the society to be entirely in the dark in order for Thora's interactions with it to be as complete as they are. At the same time, this creates some worrying assumptions. We learn for example, that all resources are traded for by the men on their wending trips. This means however, that there is not only no fire, but also apparently no blind smiths or glass blowers. Indeed, where exploring a blind society would've been the perfect opportunity to consider how blind people might adapt normal activities of primitive cultures such as farming or metal working, Ives Gilman simply hand waves this explanation and essentially creates a world of small handicrafts. Even one section when Thora praises the people of Torobe for their building ability is later negated when we realise all their buildings are tents pitched in a cave, rather than wooden or stone houses. I'm not saying that Ives Gilman intentionally created the planet of the basket weavers, but I do wonder on her background assumptions here, especially when the Torobe society has no written language (braille apparently not having been invented on this planet), and where the standard Torobe greeting is to touch each other's faces. Face touching is something which most sighted people weirdly assume blind people do, but which few to no blind people do in reality, since it would be as intimate and invasive to a blind person as to a sighted person.

Speaking of intimacy, it is rather convenient that when Thora arrives in Torobe, there are literally no young men present, indeed the only man she interacts with is an old mystic. Apparently, literally all of the men are out on wending trade expeditions, since in Torobe wending is supposedly a male occupation, even though the main person we see wending in the book is Moth. Again, I am not sure if Ives Gilman intended to play into the stereotype that all blind people are asexual, but I'll admit this total lack of men, or indeed of showing any sexual relationships in Torobe did feel quite pointed, especially when contrasted against the other primitive society we see in the book, the flashbacks to Thora's time on Orem. Orem is a culture so rampantly chauvinistic that all women are constantly swathed in heavy cloth shawls, and a man touching any woman; even his wife is considered a weakness, accept for the weaponised rape and disturbing predator prey relations.

All that being said, the contrast as Moth learned of Sara and her people, and their ability to see, and Thora learned of wending, interspersed with philosophical, and at times artistically mystical musings on the nature of reality, perception and the construction of images was an interesting story to read about, albeit Thora's occasional flashbacks to her mistreatment on Orem, and how she transformed from tortured captive to the divine embodiment of female empowerment, felt a little at odds with the rest of the story.

Things abruptly take a downturn when Sara's party shows up at Torobe. Under the harsh light of day, all of those aspects of Torobe's society which Thora saw as fascinating in the dark, are directly lessened. This would have been fine if it lead to a discussion of different social or sensory values, for example, with what is texturally or sonically beautiful not contrasting with what is visually beautiful, indeed Ives Gilman starts this sort of discussion with ideas of cultural contamination, and Sara's invocation of various first contact social protocols. The problem however, is that at this point, there are barely two hours of the book to go, and Ives Gilman needs to introduce an upcoming natural disaster which affects both Torobe and the scientific expedition, and the end of the political plot. Thus, the Torobe people transform from a unique society, into a gang of refugees, unable, in a technological environment, to open a box of rations or use toilets. Furthermore, Thora; despite her slow philosophical and mystical exploration of wending, and her repeated novice status, suddenly magically masters the skill just in time to end the plot, with finding the Torobe people a new home where their "special needs", can be dealt with, gaining access to wending as an important ability in the process. This meant that all of the blind characters, including Moth simply fade into the background, the political plot is packed up in a few short sentences with characters I rarely cared about implicating each other long after the fact, and the book ends very abruptly.

I find it very disturbing when viewing reviews of Dark Orbit, a book published in 2015, how many people simply refer to the Torobe people as "alien". On that basis, I am mostly alien myself, I have a small amount of vision, so am presumably partly human; like Spock. Not only this, I'm married to someone who is fully alien, am the son and grandson of aliens, and have also obviously interacted with probably more aliens than most people. I therefore have a clear interest in how us aliens; aka blind people, are depicted in fiction. Often, blind characters are given some sort of technology or special power that makes them not blind at all, the Geordi La Forge syndrome, on other occasions, blind people are depicted as completely helpless beings, who make Tiny Tim look like the Terminator. In Dark Orbit, Ives Gilman attempted something quite unique, depicting an entirely blind society, and at least partly succeeded, especially in her creation of blind characters such as Moth and Hanna, and the way she gave these people slightly different perceptions and powers, while still keeping them blind.

Apart from her occasional assumptions however, where she fails (and fails badly), is with the final treatment of that blind society. In the end, despite all the competence shown in the book, and their unique perceptions and abilities, the people of Torobe simply default to blind people who need to be taken care of by sighted people, as they apparently cannot live independently, and what valuable skills they do have (their mystical wending), are easily mastered by the book’s main character. There is a decidedly unfortunate contrast here, with the way that Thora plans to visit Orem and encourage the oppressed women of that planet to "take back their power", while at the same time, taking the people of Torobe to a place where they can be "looked after." This, unfortunately, is where Dark Orbit, seriously, fails!

In the past, blind people have often been the tools of philosophical enquiry, from John Locke's discussion of the man blind from birth as an example of acquired knowledge, to Jose Saramago's more modern novel "Blindness"; a book which has not exactly gained a good reputation with real world blind people, in which lack of sight is used to explore the idea of otherness and destruction of morality. Unfortunately, for all Ives Gilman's attempts to realistically depict a blind society, I can't help thinking that she is guilty here of exactly the same thing, even with characters like the extremely likable Moth. Of using "the blind", here simply as a tool of philosophical enquiry, without any thought to the idea of the personality, history, hopes or goals of people who happen to be blind, or of the ultimate fate of members of her blind society once it has served its narrative purpose. As a blind person who actually has studied philosophy, and has an express interest in a lot of the epistemological questions Gilman raises, here, this is something I take serious issue with, indeed, as unfortunately showed by the number of reviews who refer to people like me as "alien", for all Ives Gilman gets right here, the actual construction of her plot, the treatment of her blind society, as well as not a few of her background assumptions are are really not helpful. Therefore, while I would still ultimately recommend Dark Orbit, as an above average science fiction story with some interesting philosophical musings and several societies to explore, I'd also recommend anyone reading it has a good think about how human blind people; such as the fellow who wrote this review, really are!

6/10 An alien perspective

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