Both Walker and Eleanor are home for Christmas break! We celebrated by going to see Rogue One, which was excellent fun, and then Arrival, which is a movie that I wish more people would see. It has aliens and spaceships and interesting ideas about language and thought.
So does Dark Orbit, by Carolyn Ives Gilman. Her protagonist is Sara Callicot, who works in outer space as an “exoethnologist,” and who has accepted a job watching out for Thora Lassiter, a person who, we are told, had some sort of psychological breakdown on her previous job as a “sensualist” studying new forms of human perception. They are on an old spaceship called the Escher, as:
“The ancient designer had taken playful advantage of the fact that in the spin-gravity created by the ship’s rotation, down was always the outside of the ship, which formed a 360-degree arc. Instead of tactfully hiding that disconcerting fact for the comfort of the inhabitants, the builders had left open atriums and skylights where you could catch seemingly impossible vistas of other residents walking on walls or drinking coffee at tables affixed to the ceilings.”
Sara and Thora are on a scientific mission to study a mysterious planet with dark matter. Sara is employed by a corporation called Epco, who have hired all the scientists on the ship. As it is explained to Sara, “we’re not going to be discipline based, but method based. Our departments are Descriptive Sciences, System Sciences, Intuitive Sciences, and Corroborative Sciences.” When she asks what that last one is, she is told that they are “the people who are trying to combine scientific method with already-formed systems of thought, mostly about the creation of the universe.”
On the first survey mission of the planet, Thora discovers that the planet is inhabited by blind people who live underground and have a mysterious extra sense (and kind of super-power) they call “the Ground.” One of them, a little girl named Moth, uses her ability to “wend” to take herself aboard the spaceship with Sara, who teaches her how to use her eyes, although she is ultimately unsuccessful at teaching her to see:
“It took several frustrating days before she realized that Moth did not understand that a close thing could hide objects that were farther away. Moth had already begun to figure it out before Sara realized the problem, but her interpretation was creative. As they stood looking into Sara’s office one morning, she said, ‘Thy desk is very loud.’
Since the desk was being no noisier than usual, Sara asked what she meant. ‘It doth drown out the chair and the cabinet,’ she said.
‘No, it hides the chair and the cabinet, because they are behind it.’ Moth looked quite puzzled, so Sara asked, ‘You only see part of the chair now, right?’
‘What would you do if you wanted to see more of it?’
Hesitantly, she said, ‘Wait for the desk to be quieter?’
‘No, this is as quiet as it gets. Just walk forward.’
This defied Moth’s common sense. ‘How can my moving affect the desk?’”
While Moth is on the spaceship learning about a different culture, Thora is learning more about the blind peoples’ civilization, and beginning to learn about wending. This process involves such a change in perception that, at one point, Thora comments that her teacher “spoke in such a matter-of-fact tone that I realized he was teaching me practical knowledge, though my culture saw it as the most recondite philosophy.” Learning about wending requires Thora to enlarge her perception, much like the main character in Arrival is forced to enlarge hers. “In the Ground,” Thora’s teacher tells her, “all times are present at once, and all places. It is not many places, it is one….In the Ground we cannot travel, because it is all one place. We cannot go back in time because it is all one moment, now.”
Epco, of course, would be interested in this method of instantaneous arrival at any place in the galaxy where someone is thinking of the “wender.” The end of the adventure consists of Thora and Sara working to preserve what is left of Moth’s culture while keeping the secret of wending away from the corporation who has already dismissed it as some sort of psychological breakdown.
One of the most revealing ideas from this marvelously alien world is how difficult it is for humans to be able to look at new things without preconceptions:
“When you lot were down on the planet, every one of you called those things you encountered ‘trees.’ They didn’t look like trees, they didn’t sound like trees, they obviously weren’t trees. But because you called them that, everyone who comes after us is going to shrug and say, ‘Oh, that’s just a tree.’ We’ve undiscovered them.”
If you see Arrival and like it, try reading Dark Orbit afterwards, for a book that goes even farther with intriguing ideas about perception.