Monday, August 10, 2015

Chicago Nerds: Dark Orbit

Just wrapped up the Chicago Nerds' discussion of Carolyn Ives Gilman's "Dark Orbit" (2015). A good discussion of a book that the group mostly enjoyed, with a few reservations. Most of us found it a pretty quick, engrossing read.

"Dark Orbit" takes place in the same universe as some of Gilman's other work. In discussion, we noted that is a distinctly Leguinean universe--humanity colonized many planets so long ago we've forgot about them, humanity somewhat separated into different tribes as a result  (doesn't seem like a species-level change as in Le Guin), there's instantaneous communication. In "Dark Orbit", a group of researchers is exploring a planet with many dark-matter related anomalies when they discover a settlement of blind humans living underground, whose different perception of reality may have granted them some unusual abilities. Possible spoilers below!

We started with a discussion of the cover, which a few of us were a bit leary of--the "amazon walking through crystal forest" imagery calling up such classic gems (see what I did there) as Anne McCaffrey's "Crystal" series (1982-1992).

We noted, but do not necessarily disapprove of, the heavy Le Guin influences here. Mostly we lamented a lack of depth to the investigations here. There are a number of different (somewhat abstract) concerns in "Dark Orbit", which is fine, but some of us thought they felt a bit forced and not fleshed out enough. Core ideas that Gilman is playing with here seem too include "the dangers of being too empirical" or perhaps more charitably "investigating the way that different perceptions of reality can reveal radically different things about it".

If anything, I could have used some MORE handwavium here--I accept handwaves pretty readily in SF as long they're spelled out, so I can focus on what the story's really playing with. But we found just a few too many, not plot holes, but world-building holes when we considered it for a bit.

One technology in the novel is travel by "Lightbeam", which consists of sending a person by laser signal to a distant location, where they're reconstituted. We weren't entirely sure if it's their actual particles being "photonized" a la Star Trek, or if it's the information being sent. In either case, seems like there is a lot of room for identity questions--we mentioned James Patrick Kelly's "Think Like a Dinosaur" (1995 novella & 2001 Outer Limits episode), which explores some of the ethical/identity problems with transporter tech, which in turn reminds me of Michael Swanwick's "Ginungagap" (1980). Also we would be remiss not to mention the haunted-by-his-own-transporter-ghosts-guy in China Miéville's "Kraken" (2010), which I believe was a CNSC book club selection before my time. Richard K. Morgan's SF was also brought up, which I find to be full of kind of delightfully blatant examples of "using radical technology and only sorta kinda thinking about the implications", like transporter-type stuff.

We really liked the bits with Moth (one of the blind inhabitants) being taught to see--they're not congenitally blind, but are just not exposed to light enough to learn to process visual information. That's problematic, especially since they wander to the surface and other places with light, could have been bandaged with just a little handwave, but nonetheless it was a cool section, neat description of a person trying to consciously integrate visual input into a useful framework, in a way we do unconsciously. Reminded me a bit of some of the cases in Oliver Sacks' work with people with strangely specific neurocognitive issues, particularly "The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat" (1985).

We also liked the descriptions of Torobe, the underground village--details like the cords and textures that help them navigate, the sound and scent and even echolocation cues built into the environment. I had some issues with the description of the setting once there are people with lights exploring it--Gilman seemed to keep forgetting it's actually a cave.

Also I was reminded of and had to go re-read another story on a blind community (with possible mystic stuff going on) setting up a village to their needs: John Varley's "The Persistence of Vision" (1978). Highly recommended if you can track that down.

There's some strangely contemporary-feeling bits here, particularly the copyright discussion early in the book, the PR guy, and the sort of satirical, retreats-to-business-ese sloganizing project director.

We talked for quite a bit about Thora, one of the two protagonists. Her story's interesting because she's an unreliable narrator, and we like the tiny bit of ambiguity left in--as in, it's possible that all the teleportation/divine possession etc. are just hallucinations/hoaxes. We don't really think that, but a little bit of ambiguity is nice. I still have "Woman on the Edge of Time" fresh in mind from the Classic Sci-Fi discussion earlier in the week, which is rather similar in that way, and we also talked about works that have, or nearly have ambiguity--Lyne's "Jacob's Ladder" (1990) for instance, is a thousand times better if you skip the last, ambiguity-collapsing five minutes or so. Other Jake put forward the theory, that I've never heard before, that Shelley's "Frankenstein" is nearly ambiguous as to the monster's existence, since except for a brief appearance in the frame story it could all be Victor raving. Interesting.

That's one way to handle
diversity, I guess.
We found the cultural characterization a bit clunky. I'd characterized the "one planet, one culture, one personality" approach as, well, kinda racist, but at group it was suggested that it's actually kind of Hogwarts-House-like, which is at least a gentler interpretation.

We were a bit fascinated with the post-scarcity economy--because who isn't fascinated with post-scarcity economies--and wished we'd got to see a bit more of it. Possibly in Gilman's other books? Dunno. But we suggested Iain M. Banks' "Culture" novels as places to read about such a society--I'd also append Doctorow, Stross, & Robinson to that.

Particularly liked the concept of "nkida", core personality traits that are simultaneously weaknesses and strengths, that should be played to rather than repressed.

I was a little creeped out by the revelation of the maybe-sexual antagonism...thing, between Sara & the security chief. But it doesn't really go anywhere, and we did like the brief glimmers of complexity his character has later on.

Don't watch this film. But do read this analysis.
Anti-empiricism coupled with mystic
evasiveness really raises my hackles. That
there is a frequently a con artist underneath
all the double talk does not help.
Alright at some point I have to come clean here: I actively disliked this book. I would argue that it's actually an "anti-science" fiction, or at best a "pseudo-science" fiction. It's a victim of quantum quackery: linking up buzzwords from physics with vague mysticism. Few things turn my stomach in quite the same way. And I wasn't very articulate at the meeting about this, unfortunately. I think at some point I'll have to write a post explaining why I think this stuff should be steered clear of.

I like a lot of fantasy, and I like fiction that mixes up fantasy & SF tropes--lots of Miéville & Swanwick in particular do this well. Alternate reality "science" can be lots of fun (lots of steampunky examples, also think of Ted Chiang's work). But here, Gilman is using an interpretation of a theory that is completely bunk (the interpretation, not the theory)--the observer effect--and wedding it to "quantum consciousness" quackery. At group it was pointed out how much special pleading goes on in the novel.

Full disclosure: in my philosophy-studyin' past I waded through far too many "theories of mind" that used the word "quantum" as a way to thinly veil their mysterian natures. May have scarred/sensitized me a bit to these lines of thought.

Ah by the way the Fritjof Capra book I was trying to remember is "The Tao of Physics" (1975), which, along with Gary Zukav's "The Dancing Wu Li Masters" (1979), is definitely one of the ancestors of "Dark Orbit", indirectly at least--mixing mysticism, quantum theory, and theories of mind.

I'll have to write that op-ed post sometime, as I do feel there are some serious (and also interesting) angles to this worry I have about "anti-science" fiction. But I'll leave it, and my other criticisms, aside for now.

I'll tell you one thing I DO like about this book: it has a zoom & enhance sequence.

Supercut-related discussion: the Wilhelm scream. Which I'm not going to link to, lest the knowledge forever ruin your enjoyment of MANY FILMS.

We had a long post-novel talk about David Foster Wallace & China Miéville, strangely connected as to whether we should defend or defenestrate "Infinite Jest" (1996) & "Perdido Street Station" (2000), respectively. Also I learned that the "Best American Series" is adding SF/F to their lineup this fall?! That's exciting. Not without some sort of geek-racial-memory grumbles about SF/F being taken seriously or not by the literary establishment, but! It will probably be pretty good.

A great list of books suggested--"The Sparrow" is looking to snag "Hyperion's" place for frequent nominations, and also Le Guin's "Changing Planes" sounds awesome (SF with all world-building, no plot? SIGN ME UP, seriously though). Our selection for next time is "Throne of the Crescent Moon" by Saladin Ahmed.

By the way make sure to check Paul's Goodreads list of all the suggested books at CNSC meetings.

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