There a lot of things that James Cambias does right with his new science fiction novel, “A Darkling Sea.” It is intriguing while keeping the reader on their toes. Each group of characters are fully realized with 3-dimensional personalities and lives. Plus it takes us to a brand new alien world that is both earth-like and incredibly foreign.
On the planet Ilmatar, under a roof of ice a kilometer thick, a group of deep-sea diving scientists investigates the blind alien race that lives below. The human explorers have made an uneasy truce with the Sholen, their first extraterrestrial contact: so long as they don’t disturb the native Ilmataran populace, 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 human and Sholen erupt, leading to a diplomatic disaster that threatens to escalate to war. Against the backdrop of deep-sea guerilla 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.
Every chapter of “A Darkling Sea” is flush with different perspectives and points of view surrounding a major event. What I found most captivating is the fact that we see the story from three different alien races: the humans who are trying to explore this new planet with water on it, the Sholen who are trying to oversee the humans and limit further destruction by them, and the Ilmatarans the alien race caught in the middle.
Cambias goes so far as to create entire worlds for the two alien races in the novel. He builds their society from the ground up for the Illmatarans. Almost from the first time we see them, we get to learn how the Illmatarans handle almost every aspect of their society. From their schooling, their laws, the way their towns work, and even how they handle scientific exploration, literature, and technological innovations at the bottom of an ocean and ice.
As for the Sholen from Shalina, we learn they are very similar to humans (aside from their appearance) but Cambias goes to great lengths to make their differences feel very unfamiliar and foreign in staunch comparison to the human scientists that they interact.
Even after all the work put into creating the two alien races, Cambias still manages to make the humans relatable and sympathetic. Rob starts off with a tragedy and from there we can’t help but root for him to succeed and be happy. However, the scientists of Earth are not as developed as the rest of our cast of players. This could be due to the fact that there is really no need to go in-depth in a society we are already relatively familiar with.
The plot itself rests on one simple inescapable truth. You can almost never have three species in a disagreement not go into war. What was once passive resistance in the beginning by both humans and Sholen turns active and deadly for all sides. Then almost unstoppable becomes an all-out interstellar guerrilla war aided by the Ilmatarans.
Yes, the story is interesting and exciting, but when it comes down to it, the real gem of “A Darkling Sea” is the societal and cultural insight by Cambias. Very few authors have mastered the interspecies interactions of intelligent species in a thought-provoking and realistic way. A true science fiction classic.