Scientific exploration abounds in James Cambias’s A Darkling Sea. With a clash of intricate alien races, Cambias brings wonder and imagination to a scientific expedition. The setting is beautifully foreign as the underwater world is thirty light years from Earth. Cambias gives us a neat tale of curiosity and survival.
On the planet Ilmatar, under a roof of ice a kilometer thick, a team of deep-sea diving scientists investigates the blind alien race that lives below. The Terran explorers have made an uneasy truce with the Sholen, their first extraterrestrial contact: so long as they don’t disturb the Ilmataran habitat, they’re free to conduct their missions in peace.
But when Henri Kerlerec, media personality and reckless adventurer, ends up sliced open by curious Ilmatarans, tensions between Terran and Sholen erupt, leading to a diplomatic disaster that threatens to escalate to war.
Against the backdrop of deep-sea guerrilla conflict, a new age of human exploration begins as alien cultures collide. Both sides seek the aid of the newly enlightened Ilmatarans. But what this struggle means for the natives—and the future of human exploration—is anything but certain, in A Darkling Sea by James Cambias.
The beauty of A Darkling Sea is how Cambias crafted the two alien races; the Illmatarans, natives of the underwater world who are essentially intelligent fish and the Sholen, very emotionally tied fascists. While the physical attributes of both races get muddled, the true core of the races comes through. For instance, despite Cambias describing the Sholen as vertical otters, I couldn’t help thinking of them as a large insect mammal hybrid. Despite that, I was intrigued by their lack of clothing and the way no relationship between the aliens was neither platonic nor sexual. This is shown through the leader and second in command essentially cuddling for comfort despite no other relationship between them. This small detail was a great example of how Cambias made the aliens seem quite foreign and odd.
Though the aliens were quite fascinating, I found myself loving the way humans were portrayed. It showed all of the things which all humans can relate to. Despite the different nationalities and temperaments, the humans all bonded with each other in the immediate. The main protoganist, Rob, is a human and is somewhat the reluctant hero. He never quite interests me as a character since everything he does seems thrust upon him. This “go with the flow” mentality only changed when he accidentally interacts with the Illmatarans – aliens he was told not to have contact with at all. After this, he is able to forge an interesting relationship with the alien, Broadtail; which eventually leads to action through cooperation. Rob only became interesting after this and even then not much. The other characters were all one dimensional, especially the lone human female character who simply served as Rob’s girlfriend. Even with the limited character development, I was able to look at the larger themes of species which were central to the storyline.
One of the interesting things about Cambias’s writing was the shift in perspective. Each new segment brought the point of view of a human, Illmataran, or Sholen. This enabled him to create societies in depth; adding details like the Illmatarans having a name and number which defined who they were as individuals. This perspective switch occasionally becomes unnecessarily complicated when each alien species has inner conflict. Unfortunately the plot falls apart with all the power plays among the alien societies. It becomes muddled and confusing as you shift from one conflict with one set of aliens to another conflict all in the span of a couple of paragraphs. Luckily, Cambias eventually refocuses on what I, as a reader, cared about – the cross-species interactions.
Cambias may have overcomplicated his central plot but I still enjoyed reading A Darkling Sea. He brought a common thread of scientists making observations to each group of people and allowed the reader to see how each species approached new discoveries. This light science fiction book is the perfect remedy to a day home where one wishes for adventure. I can’t wait to see what comes out of Cambias. Hopefully the waters are a bit less murky in his future stories.