Presenting another SF novel review! I just tore through 2014’s A Darkling Sea by James L Cambias in a handful of days, and very much enjoyed it. Here’s an Amazon link if you want to read the blurb, or other reviews, otherwise read on to find out what I thought of it!
This standalone alien contact novel is a fast-moving and fun read. It takes place on an icy moon called Ilmatar (which is very much like Europa) in a far off star-system, where a gruesome first contact accident leads to a multi-species diplomatic incident.
I can’t help but think of this as Vernor-Vinge-lite, in a good way. In half the page-count of a sprawling novel like A Deepness in the Sky or A Fire Upon the Deep, Cambias tells a story similar to both (but far less complex) about human and alien interaction on a distant planet. However, instead of orbiting above the alien planet like in Deepness, the humans in this novel are in undersea scientific habitats like those in Michael Crichton’s Sphere and other novels with a similar setting. There, the humans are conducting research on the biota of Ilmatar, while being careful not to overstep interplanetary contact laws. Policing those laws are another alien race, the Sholen, who act as the main antagonists in the novel, but who aren’t necessarily the “baddies”. The narrative is told from the perspective of all three races, and I found I sympathised with all the main characters equally.
The alien races are great. The Ilmatarans are a crustacean-like race who see and communicate with sonar, and who have a tenuous grasp on the concept of linear time. They are just beginning to enter a scientific age, and the main Ilmataran character we deal with is an enthusiastic scientist, Broadtail, who puts you in mind of a Victorian-era scholar, planning expeditions and collecting specimens. Throughout the story we learn a lot about Ilmataran biology, culture and (particularly) language. Cambias has definitely done the leg work in creating a believable alien race with some amusing similarities to humanity, but also some stark differences. On top of this, Cambias did well in fleshing out the wider ecosystems of Ilmatar. It’s a nice approach to world-building based on believable biology and geology.
Cambias could have left it as a simple contact story with only one alien race, but he also decided to include the Sholen. These aliens are my favourites of the book: huge, six-limbed creatures that look a bit like hairless otters. Despite having superior technology to humanity they are largely pacifists; and they are troubled by humanity’s recent emergence as a starfaring race. Despising violence, they nonetheless prepare to do whatever necessary to stop humans “tainting” Ilmatar with colonial notions. The Sholen’s intentions come across as well-meaning at first — albeit mistaken when it comes to interpreting the humans’ intentions. Later, the Sholen become increasingly reactionary, and because we know the humans on Ilmatar are (mostly) peaceful scientists, we’re meant to view the Sholen as the irrational invading force. But they never transformed into full enemies in my mind. I still liked the Sholen characters, especially because the one whose perspective we read from the most, Tizhos, is ambivalent towards humans rather than hating them outright, and she is curious about the Ilmatarans as well.
The Sholen are also fascinating in that all their social interactions are based on reciprocated sexual attention. This leads to a hilarious scene where two Sholen try to seduce a human to obtain information. It’s an almost farcical moment. There’s plenty of humour throughout the book, making it a pretty light-hearted tale, even though there are a number of deaths and moments of tension. Adding to the easy-going tone is the likeable human hero, a drone technician named Rob, who is a bit of a slob as well as being pop-culture obsessed. Switching often between his perspective and the equally-enjoyable perspectives of Broadtail and Tizhos means that the narrative keeps the reader engaged, and maintains a fresh pace. I’m not usually a fast reader, but I found myself putting away up to a hundred pages a day with this book. That’s a phenomenal rate for me.
If anything, this book needed one more chapter at the end to deal more thoroughly with the fallout of the climactic action scene, as well as wrapping up each of the characters’ stories. The ending just feels a little too brief. Perhaps, though, Cambias intends to write more books in this universe, in which case I eagerly await them. I’d really like to see what other worlds and races humanity and the Sholen might butt heads about.
Note: There’s a pretty nifty (although visually bare-bones) website with lots of in-universe information about the scientific mission to Ilmatar, the researchers, the biology of the planet, the technology featured in the book, and more. It’s fun to explore, and spoiler-free. Here’s the website, and if that link ever goes down, here’s a backup of the site on Archive.org.