A Darkling Sea


James L Cambias


Science Fiction / Fantasy


Date Reviewed:

April 14, 2014

Darkling Sea is a first contact novel. It tells the story of a human exploration team on the planet Ilmatar. The planet is covered in a kilometer thick sheath of ice, but beneath the ice is vast ocean of liquid water. Because Ilmatar orbits a giant planet, it is subjected to tidal stresses, which keeps the core molten. The tidal stresses cause rifts in the sea floor, vast plumes of energy and chemicals shoot upward from the sea bed. Just like the sea vents on earth support a thriving ecology that exists without energy from our sun, so the creatures of Ilmatar subsist off of the energy released from beneath the sea floor.

The human team on Ilmatar has determined that the lobster-like Ilmatar crustaceans are intelligent. But another alien species, the Sholen, has forbidden contact between humans and the Ilmatarans. When the rule is broken, the Sholen send a team to enforce their edicts. The Sholen aren't as well described as the Ilmatarans. Cambias does have some original behavioral ideas for the Sholen; they have a society free from conflict, where all the Sholen seek consensus, but unfortunately, too much of the time the Sholen act just like humans. I wish the Sholen had been more alien.

The hero of the book is Broadtail, a scholarly Ilmataran who first encounters the humans. Cambias does a better job characterizing the Broadtail then he does describing Rob, the main human character in the story. Broadtail is the more developed character, a curious creature willing to interact with the aliens he encounters. The most interesting part of the novel is the description of the attempts to communicate between the species.

What this story needs is more background information. How did the humans detect that life existed on Ilmatar in the first place? Certainly Earth isn't sending expeditions to all icy ocean worlds in the nearby galaxy, that vast undertaking would be too difficult given the stage of human spacefaring abilities described in the book. How did the humans meet the Sholen? What was the nature of the treaty between the two races about exploration? The Sholen come to Ilmatar to prevent humans from contacting the Ilmatars, but apparently they approved of the original exploration mission?

The conflict arises because a faction of the Sholen have decided that the universe must not be disturbed, so the humans must leave the other planets alone and not contact other races? But the Sholen themselves have contacted humans. How could the Sholen police the human explorers unless the Sholen themselves fanned out throughout the galaxy to make sure no humans had visited those planets. The Sholen should just retreat to their home planet and ignore whatever folly the human explorers get into - what ever happens would be light years from the Sholen home; it would be out of sight, out of mind.

I was a bit disappointed by how seemingly routine the human exploration of Ilmatar was described. The human team puts on suits and swims in the water - but I didn't get a consistent sense of how terrifying the Ilmatar environment must be - complete darkness, unknown potentially violent creatures, crushing pressures and lethally cold temperatures. Although these aspects are mentioned, it would have been a better book if the description of the Ilmatar environment had been a bigger part of the story. Ilmatar should be a scary dangerous world, where any mistake results in death. The planet Ilmatar should itself be a "character" in the story. I suggest reading Peter Watt's Starfish novel for an excellent description of scary deep water exploration.