Saturday, December 26, 2015

Interstellar Epistemology: Dark Orbit by Carolyn Ives Gilman

Carolyn Ives Gilman's Dark Orbit is one of my favorite books of the year.  It's also one of the most epistemological novels I've ever read.   (Epistemology is the part of philosophy that deals with knowledge - What is it?  How do you get it?  Do we have any of it?)  Knowledge is the central issue of Dark Orbit, specifically whether the senses and empirical scientific methodologies are giving us the full picture of the universe.  It's no surprise that Plato is mentioned at least twice (p. 39, 141).

Our story begins far in the future.  We're never told exactly how far, but it has to be at least a few thousand years.  We first meet Sara (short for Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of knowledge and learning).  Sara is a Waster, or a person who regularly makes interstellar trips via light beam (sort of like a long range version of Star Trek's transporter).  This means that while she's disembodied information traveling at the speed of light, her planet-bound friends, colleagues, family, etc.  are aging at a normal rate (this also brings up plenty of issues of personal identity from page one).

Sara gets a job on a mission to a newly discovered habitable planet, Iris, where she's supposed to keep an eye on one of the crew, Thora.  Once they get there, there's a murder and a disappearance.  Without giving any major spoilers from here on, I'll just say that one of the brilliant things about this book is the mirrored structure between a native Irisian learning from the crew and a member of the crew learning from the natives.

I would love this novel just for the epistemological aspect alone (more on that below).  But I was also keen to read this because of the blurb from Ursula Le Guin.  Gilman is no Le Guin when it comes to the prose (Gilman's style is much less nuanced), but as Big Ideas SF that gets you thinking on every page Gilman is in the same neighborhood, although Gilman's fondness for quantum physics and wisecracking characters exceeds Le Guin's.

The book isn't perfect.  For example, some of the threads of the plot seemed extraneous to me.  Still, whatever faults it might have are erased for me by the brilliance of a novel that brings up such rich epistemological issues in such a cool science fiction setting.

The Philosophy Report: Interstellar Epistemology

Iris is a strange planet, with far more gravity than what meets the eye should have.  It turns out that there's a lot about Iris that's more than meets the eye, since the natives live in complete darkness and navigate their world without vision.  The natives are human, but from an earlier interstellar diaspora, which means they conveniently enough speak an archaic form of the language spoken by the crew.  A lot of discussion in the book revolves around whether a lack of vision is a liability or an asset, and whether vision really gives us the accurate picture of things we naïvely assume it does.

Some debates in contemporary philosophy of perception about different modalities of perception focus on whether our theories of perception have been too focused on vision as opposed to hearing, taste, smell, touch, etc.  On that subject, Dark Matter gives a lot to consider.  The Irisians seem to have developed ways of experiencing the world unknown to the crew, and perhaps it is the very fact that they aren't reliant on vision that has allowed them to do so.

Given the Plato connection it's somewhat ironic that the Irisians live in a cave.  Check out this great claymation version of Plato's Allegory of the Cave:

But - here's the twist - it's the Irisians that have something much closer to Plato's non-empirical direct knowledge of the Forms.  Like Plato, the Irisians bring up epistemological questions of mysticism - could there be means of knowledge that are somewhat like perception, but not among the five senses?  Is this just kooky, New Age fluff?  Or are Plato and the Irisians on to something?  As William James notes, whether you have to believe the mystics given what we currently know is one thing, but completely ruling them out is another, much harder thing to do.

For that matter, how can we be so confident that our normal means of sensory knowledge give us an accurate depiction of the real universe?  Anyone familiar with philosophical skepticism and/or scientific understandings of how sensory perception works will realize that our naïve view that we see the world as it is at best problematic and and at worst deeply flawed and irrationally dogmatic.  Much to my epistemological delight, Dark Orbit also raises this issue, especially about how crazy it is to assume that vision presents us with a realistic model of the world.

Dark Orbit is definitely going to be on my 2015 Favorite Books list.  Look for that list coming soon!

Rating: 93/100

See also my Goodreads review.


  1. For an excellent review that's largely contrary to everything I say here, see this one from the nicely-titled blog, Weighing a Pig Doesn't Fatten It: