James Cambias’s debut novel, A Darkling Sea, is an exciting throwback to the Golden Age of science fiction. It’s a tale of first contact on a distant world between humanity and the aquatic Ilmatarans and the conflict that arises with a third race, the Sholen. The book is a quick, fun read that works to some classic SF strengths: sense of wonder, explorers boldly exploring new, interesting worlds, and what happens when a bunch of things go wrong.
Humanity has touched down on the planet Ilmatar, where they’ve set up a research installation to study an elusive species: the Ilmatarans, a blind race of aliens who reside in the planet’s oceans, a kilometer under the ice. The human expedition runs into problems when one of the explorers, breaking a strict no-contact rule, is discovered by the Ilmatarans and dissected. The Ilmatarans, for their part, were unaware of the presence of humans nearby. One of the aliens, Broadtail, is the local equivalent of a scientist. His curiosity has him searching nearby ruins of Ilmataran settlements, looking for clues to his species’ long past. He’s present when the Ilmatarans capture and kill a human explorer. The human presence on Ilmatar raises concerns for a third race: the Sholen, who maintain a strict non-intervention policy, and are willing to back up their viewpoint with a bit of firepower. When they realize the extent of the expedition, they move quickly to shut it down, leaving a contingent of humans to actively resist their efforts while working to further their studies of the Ilmatarans.
At its core, A Darkling Sea is about the simple exchange of ideas between three very different alien species. And different they are. Humans are pretty much as they appear throughout any SF story: plucky, resilient and eager to explore (for better or worse). The Sholen are resistant to change, caught up with a certain logic and they have a long, cautious history behind them. The Ilmatarans are largely unaware of their long past, as well as most of their surroundings. Yet, they’re curious, bound by their own laws and far from helpless.
This is where Cambias is at his best. Communicating the motives of each group is a difficult task, even as most want to accomplish the same goal: study, explore and learn about their surroundings (as demonstrated by the Ilmatarans). Science Fiction has a long history with exploratory stories, and A Darkling Sea does a particularly good job at working out the nuances between actually getting one’s intentions across to another party. The Sholen want to contain humanity’s impact on Ilmatar, and by extension, want to contain the seemingly inevitable spread of Earth. Their motives are pretty clear cut: they’ve got their own long history with violence, one that’s caused them to retreat to their own world. Their actions, reminiscent of the aliens from Karen Traviss’s fantastic Wess’har Wars novels, are one of extreme containment: if someone goes against their wishes, it’s a sure path to violence, as the humans on Ilmatar discover.
The Ilmatarans, on the other hand, aren’t helpless, and they’re eager allies to the humans waging a sort of guerilla campaign against the Sholen trying to remove them from the planet. Lawrence of Arabia is frequently brought up as an inspiration in this story, and alongside it, the recognition that it didn’t turn out all that well in the long run. It’s reasonably easy to overcome the language barrier between each of the races to demonstrate short-term goals, but it seems as though it’s far more difficult to convey the end goal.
It’s here that a larger story emerges, one where the Ilmatarans are simply caught in the middle of a brewing Human/Sholen conflict. Both occupy opposite ends of a spectrum: one looks outward at the possibilities of their universe, the other inward, both based on their respective experiences in their galactic neighborhood. Cambias largely touches on these themes, rather than overtly explores them, but there’s plenty of foreshadowing and implications with further entries in this world. It’ll be interesting to see just how these ends play out, and just what role the Ilmatarans play moving forward. Caught in the middle doesn’t necessarily mean down and out, and so far, Cambias has set up a world of possibilities.