Carolyn Ives Gilman’s science fiction tends to invent and explore fascinating new cultures. Dark Orbit (2015) is no exception, an ambitious, challenging new novel set in her Twenty Planets universe. Sara Callicot is an exoethnologist who specializes in first-contact missions. A twist of fate lands her on a peculiar mission out of her comfort zone: a trip to the planet Iris, where her mission is to keep an eye on Thora Lassiter, an emissary who’s been banished to the far reaches of space. It’s a simple enough assignment, but grows far more complicated when Iris turns out to have hidden facets. The planet’s inexplicable scientific mysteries lead to startling new discoveries, which could revolutionize all of human-settled space—provided the expedition survives its mission.
Characterized by smooth, clear prose, nicely realized characters, and insightful themes, Dark Orbit is a subdued but engrossing novel. The cosmic mystery at its core presents unique narrative challenges, but Gilman is up to them, untangling a difficult-to-depict scenario with uncommon skill. It’s also, like most of Gilman’s work, thematically rich and conceptually thought-provoking, confronting conventional genre science-versus-faith arguments with an open mind and a fresh new angle. An intelligent and intriguing read.