In the context of its era, the work of James Tiptree Jr. was a slap in the face of mainstream sf. Openly challenging a number of traditions, from gender roles to the context of male authority, to say she was influential on the current group of texts expressing similar opinions on many of the same issues would be to put it lightly. In most of these texts, however, the influence is only indirect; there are similarities in ideology but often nothing more concrete ties the works together. With Carolyn Ives Gilman’s 2015 Dark Orbit, however, the antecedent is clear.
A case wherein a writer uses ideas and capabilities to expand upon what has come before, Dark Orbit is not mere imitation Tiptree, however. Examining identity, emotions vs. logic, gender treatment, response to Otherness/alien-ness, and a couple other significant areas, Gilman blunts the paranoia of Tiptree Jr. by better blending presentation with setting and character. A certain melancholy still pervades (starting with the title), but Gilman’s novel is more introspective and open to possibilities, something that Tiptree Jr.’s work can rarely be described as.
Sara is a Waster, an exoethnologist who has given up a normal life—roots, home, family, etc.—to travel the universe for work. Arriving at base at the beginning of Dark Orbit, she’s reluctant to take the assignment she’s offered. A new planet has been discovered, but appears void of life—uninteresting for an exoethnologist. But what ultimately hooks her is: she’s asked to tail a crew member. The mix of political and scientific interest pulling Sara in, she is soon she on her way to Iris with a small but select group. Arriving on planet, a surprise awaits: her target completely disappears in its mirror-like forests.
Thora is the person Sara has been assigned to track in secret. Her portion of the narrative related in journal entries, the reader is privy to in-depth questions and ideas regarding her situation. Not only reflections on the failures of her previous expeditions, but also observations as an explorer in the new one on Iris, as the narrative progresses, the story of her disappearance also transpires. With Sara also acting as an observer, much of the novel is bound up in thoughts and feelings regarding existence in a foreign culture—not so much the details of the culture, rather individual perspective and reaction to it, and the questions regarding personal identity it induces. This being the core of the novel, Dark Orbit really gets inside the heads of its two main characters, giving the reader deep characters as well as interesting material to chew over.
In the end, Dark Orbit is a novel that engages on several key fronts. The sci-fi elements are at times intriguing for the inherent mysteriousness. The characters are multi-faceted, with particular focus on the internalized reaction to the alien situations they face. Gilman’s prose is deceivingly rich—much the same as Tiptree’s. And the ideological touchpoints cover a number of personal areas clustered around identity and one’s relationship to the internal and external worlds. Readers who overlooked the novel amidst the slew of 2015 releases would do well to go back and take a look, as if it is not nominated for the Tiptree Award, I will be shocked.