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

In the future DarkOrbit depicts, humanity has colonized many planets, but it hasn't overcome the hard boundary of the speed of light. Oh, sure, you can travel by Star-Trek-like transporter, your body and mind translated to light beams and reconfigured at the other end, but you beam across at the speed of light - no FTL, no warp five, no instantaneous travel of large bodies, so travel between planets divides humanity into those who do and those who don't. If you do, you leave family, friends, history behind - and enemies, if you are lucky. These travelers are called, by those who remain, Wasters; those who never get out of synch with their times are called, by those who skip like stones over time's waters, Planters, and as you can guess, there is more than time's dissonance behind those names. But FTL communications are possible, harnessing quantum states, energies, and uncertainties: messages can be coded along the electron-path's squiggle and resonate to the separated/self electron on a distant planet, allowing explorers to send word back in "real time" to affect decisions, policies, and futures.

Saraswati Callicot is a Waster back from one mission that should have turned her a tidy profit but didn't, on her way to another, this time 58 light years away. It's a newly discovered habitable planet, called Iris, empty of higher life forms but capable of supporting life - an extraordinarily rare and valuable commodity. But it is in a problematic region of space, where dark matter collects and moves oddly, creating even odder gravity fluctuations. Normally Saraswati wouldn't be assigned to a planet devoid of people, as she's an anthropologist who specializes in first contacts with rediscovered human cousins of the space age diaspora, but she's been tapped to keep an eye on another Waster, one with a very mysterious and problematic past.

When the scientists, exiled trouble-makers, and their various keepers and handlers arrive, they discover a weird, dangerous, beautiful world - and people, so it's a good thing Saraswati was along. Scientists squabble over precedence and access to equipment, but when a Security officer dies horribly, the head of Security, Dagan Atlabatlow, uses this as an excuse to take control of every aspect of the mission. It is not in Saraswati's nature to submit to authority, in fact, it's against her religion, so in very short order she and Atlabatlow are at cross purposes. But it is the quiet, self-contained mystic Thora Lassiter who proves most disruptive, and who makes effective contact with the dwellers of Iris.

The residents live in darkness under the surface and navigate by sound, but they are not blind, merely in the dark, and it is Thora who is effectively blind in their midst. As Thora begins to comprehend their modes of perception, a young woman resolves to learn to see as their strange guest does. This exchange of gifts of unknown things starts out of scientific curiosity, but as the ripples of dark matter swell and amplify, mutual understanding may be the only thing that saves all their lives.

Ursula Le Guin doesn't write many endorsements, so I was impressed even before I opened the book, and as I started to read I realized the two writers have a great deal in common. Both write "hard" SF that is simultaneously character-driven and inclusive of the "softer" sciences of psychology and anthropology. You are at least as likely to experience a major spiritual insight as you are to learn about particle and quantum physics. Dark Orbit is also very funny in a wry, peeping-around-the-corner way. At the same time, in the great tradition of SF, it provides a stripped of all pretense and unapologetic critique of aspects of certain present day cultural realities. ~~ Chris R. Paige

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