Dark Orbit by Carolyn Ives Gilman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I'm glad I read this book after Neal Stephenson's Seveneves. In a way, it's almost the anti-Stephenson: a mixture of hard science fiction and space opera, with a side of metaphysics and philosophy. Not to mention tighter writing, almost no infodumping, and far better characters.
There is a lot going on here. Interstellar travel not by FTL but by lightbeam: humans broken down molecule by molecule, transported on a beam of light, and reassembled at their destinations--in this case, in an automated exploratory "questship" sent on ahead to find inhabited or inhabitable planets. With all the very uncomfortable questions and aftereffects such a lifestyle would raise: those who do so are called Wasters, as their lives are "wasted" during the years they spend traveling at lightspeed in a sort of suspended animation. A subjective second passes for them, and decades for the people, planets and cultures they left behind. There's a sort of Ursula K. Le Guin style of instantaneous communication similar to an ansible (called a "pepci" here). On the planet called Iris and in the space surrounding it, there are clusters of dark matter that wreak holy hell on the spaceship and people sent to study it. There are also inhabitants of Iris, a previously unknown colony of humans who have evolved to live in utter darkness underground, who forego their sense of sight and expand their other senses, to the point where their minds have learned to, as the author puts it, "translate quantum effects into the macro world," and thus enable them to teleport between their planet and the ship orbiting above it...and, ultimately, to other star systems and planets, some of which may be outside our galaxy.
This is a really dense book. It definitely deserves two readings, I think, to fully get the sense of what the author is trying to say (and I would read it again if I didn't have to return it to the library). It's one of the few books I've read lately (cough*Seveneves*cough) that really needs to be longer, to explore all the facets of its fascinating ideas and world. It's also filled with complex, layered characters, and two well-written female protagonists. The only reason I gave it three stars is because the pacing is off--the last third of the book rushes by, and needs to be slowed down and savored. The ending is also very abrupt, although I certainly hope there will be a sequel.
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