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Dark Orbit    by Carolyn Ives Gilman order for
Dark Orbit
by Carolyn Ives Gilman
Order:  USA  Can
Tor, 2015 (2015)
Hardcover, e-Book
* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Carolyn Ives Gilman's Dark Orbit blends first contact - on a crystalline planet that is habitable (barely) and constantly altered by dark matter - with human politics and a murder mystery.

The lead character is exoethnologist Sara Callicot. Having travelled by lightbeam amongst the Twenty Planets all her life, she 'had been disassembled and brought back to life so many times, the idea of self-knowledge had become a bit of a joke.' She is a Waster, one of the voyagers who constantly outlive everything and everyone they know. Disrespect for authority is 'the lodestone of her life.'

As the novel opens, Sara returns to Capella Two, where she once studied, to find that her old faculty advisor Gossup has become one of the most powerful men on the planet. He has a job for her. A robot questship (in search of habitable planets) has found one which might be already inhabited - a chance for First Contact, 'the reward of a lifetime.'

Gossup also asks Sara to keep an eye on a young relative on the expedition team, Thora Lassiter. One of the planetary elite, she apparently suffered 'a mental breakdown' when an emissary to Orem, whose oppressed women 'embraced her as a prophet', causing all kinds of political problems.

That sets the scene. Over time readers learn what really happened on Orem as Thora and later Sara make contact with an alien race with unusual attributes. On the questship (and on the planet) there's constant tension between scientists and security (headed by Colonel Atlabatlow), especially after a security guard is murdered. Atlabatlow seems suspicious of Sara, more so after Thora disappears.

Though the story develops rather slowly in Dark Orbit, the concepts behind it are totally fascinating. In particular, Gilman does a fine job with sightless first contact and with the planetary effects of dark matter. This is a must read for serious SF fans.

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