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Book Review: A Darkling Sea

By (March 6, 2014) No Comment

A Darkling Seaa darkling sea cover

By James L. Cambias

Tor, 2014


Although A Darkling Sea seems to be James Cambias’s first actual stand-alone novel, he’s got a long string of writing credits – all of them guide books to various video games. This might at first look like an easily-mocked resume, but it’s actually just the opposite: fleshing out the bare-bones, knee-jerk ad-hoc slobbering idiocy of the average video game has to be excellent training for the world-building that’s essential to space-opera style science fiction. A Darkling Sea might be his first novel, but Cambias has been world-building for a long time.

It very much shows; this book is a feast of speculative propositions. The action starts on Hitode Station, a human habitat far beneath the subterranean seas of the planet Ilmatar, a large moon orbiting the gas giant Ukko, some thirty light-years from Earth. The scientists on Hitode Station are there to study the native inhabitants (imagine a haphazard combination of beluga and lobster) who live at the bottom of Ilmatar’s oceans and evolved around the planet’s geothermal vents, far from any kind of sunlight. And those scientists aren’t alone; among their number as The Darkling Sea opens is a spotlight-hogging media star named Henri Kerlerec, a vain but essentially harmless windbag who assures the scientists “People do not want to hear that aliens are just like us. They want wise angels and noble savages.”

Kerlerac wants to get closer to Ilmatar’s natives and film the encounter, and even when those natives seize him, he keeps up his appearance of optimism over the open comm system:

“It is all right, Robert,” said Henri, sounding surprisingly cheerful. “I do not think they will harm me. Otherwise why go to all the trouble to capture me alive? Listen: I think they have realized I am an intelligent being like themselves. This is our first contact with the Ilmatarans. I will be humanity’s ambassador.”

Cambias tells his story from alternating viewpoints of the alien species involved, and almost immediately after this confident report, we read this from the Ilmataran point of view – and it doesn’t bode well for Kerlerac:

“I am peeling back the under-layer now. Amazing! Yet another layer beneath it. This one has a very different texture – fleshy rather than fibrous. It is very warm. I can feel a trembling sensation and spasmodic movements.”

“Does anyone remember hearing sounds like that before?”

The scientists on Hitode Station are horrified, and not because the natives of Ilmatar are their first alien species; mankind has already made contact with the exotic Sholen species (they do lots of nuzzling and stroking amongst themselves, they’re a sexually hierarchical species, but they don’t hesitate to take what they want), who’ve always been against any kind of human interference with the natural order of Ilmatar. When the Sholen learn of Kerlerac’s grisly fate, they investigate – and eventually establish a kind of coup (forcing one human scientist to caution his colleagues about resisting: “We are in a fragile shelter at the bottom of an alien sea. Fighting would be suicide for all of us”), which ratchets up the tensions of the narrative.

Cambias does a very credible job of imagining the inhabitants of Ilmatar’s deep ocean (the Sholen are a bit vaguer, but sexier), and he also sketches out his human characters with some skill. And best of all – as one might expect from all that world-building experience – is the conception of that deep ocean world itself. It’s a fun world to think about:

Cooks on Ilmatar had to follow an entirely different set of rules. The tremendous pressure at the bottom of the ocean affected everything. Water didn’t boil until it was hot enough to melt tin, bread didn’t rise, and foods like rice and pasta practically cooked themselves at room temperature. Added to that were the limits on what was available. The hydroponic garden produced plenty of greens, tomatoes, potatoes, and soybeans, but no grains. They had shrimp and a few catfish but no meat.

Once upon a time, a stand-alone sci-fi novel like A Darkling Sea would have been issued in a mass market paperback original with a lurid cover, priced at $2 and printed on cheap pulp. Publishing is an altogether higher-stakes game these days; this hardcover costs a quarter of a hundred dollars, and it’s printed on fine clear paper, and its excellent cover is painted by Thom Tenery. It’s a finer production than such a thought-provoking adventure story would once have been, but the fun of the experience remains. And the book’s final chapters leave open the possibility that Cambias might want to return to Ilmatar, or at least to the world of humans and Sholen. I hope he doesn’t (the genre is fairly well set up for ongoing series, thanks very much), but either way I know it’ll be interesting.