Ever since I was a kid stealing my dad’s sci-fi books the moment he laid them down for a minute (silly, silly man), I’ve loved First Contact stories and still fondly remember reading Murray Leinster’s classic, entitled, shockingly, “First Contact.” So when I was offered a chance to read A Darkling Sea by James L. Cambias, which is at its heart a first contact story, I jumped. And I’m glad I did, as it turned out to be a mostly well-executed story with a fully realized alien race and a compelling story line.
A Darkling Sea is set on Ilmatar, a large moon that (perhaps like our own Europa) has a liquid ocean deep beneath its fully frozen landscape. The ocean is home to an intelligent species called Ilmatarans, who are sort of like large lobsters (multi-legged, hard shells, pincer claws). They live in small, highly structured communities clustered around deep sea vents and communicate via sound and taste — living in the dark ocean they have no eyes or visual sense. A small group of Earth scientists have been observing the Ilmatarans from a distance, living in a specialized habitat and using cameras and drones to collect data. A third species, the Sholen, are also involved. The Sholen are older, slightly more technologically advanced than Earth, live by a very strict “consensus” mode of governance, and interact/communicate amongst themselves via shifting hierarchical dominant/submissive relationships involving sexual bonding and hormones. Having several times in their past devastated their own planet, the Sholen have turned toward being a “small footprint” kind of race and see themselves as a sort of older brother or stern parent who needs to keep the upstart and immature humans in check for their own good and the good of the larger universe. They have thus agreed to the human science base on Ilmatar, but have required a strict no-contact policy.
That policy is shattered early in the book when one of the human scientists gets a little too close to a group of Ilmatarans. Unfortunately for him, they are scientists as well who have gone on a jaunt looking for unusual specimens. Having found one, they do what they usually do in this case: capture and dissect it (having no idea of course that it is an intelligent creature). In response, Sholen immediately send down an investigating team to determine if the humans, who are already chafing under the Sholen’s restrictions, will be allowed to stay or be removed from the moon.
The complexity of this situation is one of the book’s strengths, as each of the three species, rather than being presented in monolithic terms, have factions within their societies that make resolution more difficult. The leader of the Sholen investigation, a scientist himself, while somewhat sympathetic toward the human side of things, also has to deal with a strong political group pushing a no-contamination/strong intervention (as in the Sholen dictate to humanity) policy. The Ilmatarans (who for the vast majority of the novel are wholly unaware of the other two species) have bandits and exiles to worry about. And the humans argue over the best response to the Sholen presence: cooperation, passive refusal, or active (i.e. violent) resistance.
Also preventing quick resolution to the problem is the built-in problem of misunderstanding. Time and again a character of one species will perform a certain action under the assumption that the other species will react accordingly, but due to an inability to fully understand how the other species thinks, more often than not this leads to an escalation of the problem rather than solving it. One can see where this is going early on when the leader of the Sholen, Gishora, tells his second Tizhos, “The Terrans have an obsession with rules and pride themselves on behaving rationally . . . I worry least about them. They seem entirely predictable.” Yeah, that’ll work.
What I really liked about this aspect was both the subtlety of its workings, but also how it lends a sense of tragedy to the whole situation. Again and again the crisis is exacerbated, eventually leading to violence and death, even as everyone is trying to do the right thing and would much rather be doing something else. Gishora, for instance, spends more time collecting data rather than policing Earthlings, and Tizhos is fascinated by the work the humans have done in studying the Ilmatarans. Rob, a human technician, is much more interested in having sex with his girlfriend Alicia, who herself is far more interested in continuing her studies of the Ilmatarans. And Broadtail, one of our two Ilmataran POV characters, would rather dig for relics in the millennia-old ruins he studies than deal with bandits, and later wants nothing more than to learn more about these strange soft-bodied strangers who have shown him there is an entire universe above the ice that his people had thought marked the end of the world.
That world of the Ilmatarans is vividly portrayed, from the details of their society (landowners, scientific organizations, education) to the science behind their food and energy. The sections of the book told from Broadtail’s point of view were my favorites in the novel. The Sholen are not quite as fully real as the Ilmatarans, but their system of bonding and leading was interesting, and I liked the way their past drives them towards this uber-leave-no-trace mentality, a mentality that as Tizhos bemoans, led her species to stop growing, to retreat from space and innovation, and meant many of them instead “prefer to spend all their time blowing glass and planting gardens in little woodland villages.” It’s an interesting portrayal, as the Sholen enforcement of their version of the Prime Directive is presented mostly in an unfavorable light throughout, but there’s no doubt that the human contact has some potentially tragic repercussions, as the Ilmatarans get roped into the conflict between the two others, something with its Earthly historical precedent as several characters make clear with references to T.E. Lawrence.
This latter part is a bit muddy (perhaps intentionally so), though I was a bit surprised how the Lawrence concept seems to disappear and also a little skeptical of just how quickly communication with the Ilmatarans occurs and how fully they take the sides of the aliens. And I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I had some discomfort with the humans bringing the Ilmatarans in. The ending felt somewhat rushed and in some ways wrapped up a bit too neatly. In other ways, though, there’s an enjoyable lack of resolution. It isn’t really clear where the Sholen-Earth relationship goes from here — will they retreat from violence and come to some negotiated relationship? Or will this small-bore interaction involving a few dozen people on an isolated moon spark an interstellar war? And Cambias gives us a strong closing line that opens things up rather than closing them down.
The prose is smoothly clear, vivid in many places, and goes down easily, adding to the quick paced nature of the novel. The point of view characters, particularly Rob (a typical Joe or Everyman type of character) and Broadtail (intensely curious) are engaging and likable. That, combined with a plot that ratchets up the tension nicely throughout, a vivid new alien species and setting, and a complex premise, makes A Darkling Sea a winner.