DARK ORBIT is old school in ways that fans of classic sci-fi will find delightful: new planets! Weird spaceships! Strange societies! Alien flora and fauna! Reality-warping space! But it also feels modern—uncalcified and unfussy, bold and unexpected. Part of this undoubtedly has to do with the two women who are the book's chief protagonists, while part of it, annoyingly, probably has to do with the genre as a whole—particularly given the recent hubbub around the Hugo Awards, which some MRA types used as an excuse to whine about those goddamn "social justice warriors" destroying the time-honored sci-fi cliché of white dudes being the only creatures capable of saving interstellar societies.
White dudes clearly aren't the saviors of the interstellar society in Dark Orbit—but then, this galaxy's doing all right, humming along as a sprawling world split between 20 far-flung planets. When a new planet named Iris is found, the Escher, laden with about a billion quarreling scientists, investigates. Onboard is wise-cracking, tough exoethnologist Sara Callicot, who's been tasked with keeping an eye on another passenger: Thora Lassiter, who's devoted to the yet-unproven scientific method of sensualism. While the Escher's other scientists trouble themselves with studies and technology, Lassiter is more open. "The hypothesis I'm testing," she tells her smirking colleagues, "is that the human mind is sensitive to a wider spectrum than we suspect. It senses things we have never categorized or named, things we have never studied, whose origin we are unsure of, and whose meanings we don't know."
If that all sounds obnoxiously mystical, well... yeah, and there are a few points in Dark Orbit where Lassiter seems like she'd be more at home in Portland, trembling in terror of fluoride and GMOs, than on a starship. So maybe it's okay that Lassiter promptly gets lost on Iris—coming into contact with an unknown civilization, carrying out "the most botched first contact ever," and putting her woo-woo beliefs to the test.Meanwhile, Callicot is stuck onboard the Escher, trying to figure out what the hell happened to that emo weirdo she was supposed to keep an eye on.
Despite Dark Orbit's sci-fi tropes, author Carolyn Ives Gilman is interested in bigger stuff: the nature of exploration, the nature of perception (not for nothing are Iris and the Escher named as such), and the nature of humans who think they've come to comprehend. Dark Orbit's mysteries aren't always satisfying, but they do cast these space-explorer proceedings in a different, and refreshingly strange, light.
Granted, it doesn't all work smoothly: Lassiter's woo-woo never stops seeming goofy, there's a dashed-off murder mystery, and one character's hallucinogenic visions of time on a "barbarous planet"—one that shares traits with the contemporary Middle East—never quite jell. But there's plenty here that does work, from the weirdness of Iris to Callicot's healthy dislike for entrenched authority and know-it-all pretense. At its best, reading Dark Orbit feels like exploring new territory—and if one's going to measure good science fiction, that's as reliable a ruler as any.