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Dark Orbit
by Carolyn Ives Gilman
Tor, $25.99, 303 pp
Published: July 2015

After dinner and a few chores, with a half-hour to kill before going to bed on a week night, I picked up this book just for a few paragraphs to get the feel of it.  Suddenly, I find it’s midnight and I’ve just read the last attention-grabbing sentence in Chapter 4.  I absolutely need to know what happens next!  But, must... put down… the book….

Right from the start, I found this story completely engrossing.  Sara Callicot has just returned to her home planet of Capella Two.  To say her job as an exoethnologist involves travel is an understatement.  She travels via lightbeam to other worlds; this time she’s only been away for 5 years, but including travel time, the actual elapsed time was 23 years.  Human molecules are disassembled then reassembled light years away.  To the traveler, it feels like a subjective second; in real time, decades have passed. 

Sarah’s latest job takes her on a 58 light-year journey to Iris, a newly discovered planet with a high concentration of dark matter.  Though the planet will support human life, no signs of it have been detected.   Now, the robotically-driven quest ship is at the end of its search mission and is standing by awaiting the team of scientists.  Sarah is part of the team, ostensibly to study the interactions of the science team, but actually to guard a crewmember from possible assassination.  Thora Lassiter, a member of elite society had been involved in a volatile political situation on another planet.  To keep her alive, she is being sent to the far reaches of space. 

Shortly after arrival on the Escher (so named by the scientists because of the seemingly impossible architecture of the craft), a member of the security team is found decapitated.  When the advance team of scientists is sent to the planet’s strange reflective surface, Thora mysteriously disappears.  While searching for her, the security team inadvertently make First Contact with a human native (by shooting her with a stun gun) – a freckle-faced adolescent girl named Moth.  Through Moth, Sarah learns that Thora is alive and being cared for by Moth’s family, that Iris’s population lives below the ground, and that they are all blind.

Trapped in the deep caverns beneath the surface, Thora learns there is another way to span travel across space and that something is coming that will wipe out all life Iris, including everyone aboard the Escher. 

Gilman intriguingly weaves together two plotlines:  The scientific, theological, and political point of view on the Escher, as well as the sense of community under the surface of Iris.  Thora’s metaphysical point of view is narrated through her audio diary as we learn about her past, the stress of adapting to total darkness, and the valuable skills she learns from the natives.  Both plots are thought-provoking and play well off of each other.  The satisfying, yet open-ended conclusion left me wanting more.  Please don’t let it end here!  ~~ Marie Davis

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