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A Darkling Sea
James L. Cambias
Tor, 350 pages

A Darkling Sea
James L. Cambias
James L. Cambias is a writer and tabletop game designer, whose stories have been nominated for the Nebula Award and the James Tiptree, Jr. Award. Cambias was a nominee for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer in 2001. Born and raised in New Orleans, Louisiana, he received a degree in the History, Philosophy, and Social Studies of Science and Medicine from the University of Chicago. He currently lives in Western Massachusetts with his family.

James L. Cambias Website
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Past Feature Reviews
A review by Ernest Lilley

Midway between the Earth and Sholen, the world of the alien race that's been there, done that, cleaned up their act, and now looks askance at humanity's move into the universe, lies the ice-covered world of Ilmatar, where intelligent life lies below a few kilometers of ice in its frigid seas, dwelling in communities around thermal vents. A human research station also lies on the ocean floor, carefully separated from the nearest community, its scientific efforts hampered by a non-interference agreement with the Sholen, who would prefer it if the humans stayed out of the water completely, and ideally back on their own planet.

Among the researchers is Henri Kerlerec, a scientist/media-maven of the type that often seems to show up to annoy real researchers, so much so that the story opens with a review of the station's forum thread chronicling creative ways to kill him. Henri has managed to get hold of a surplus (Russian) navy stealth suit, one that will absorb the sonar pings that are the Ilmataran's only form of vision in the pitch-black ocean. He co-opts the expedition's cameraman to come along as he gets the first-ever close-up footage of the natives, and winds up capturing an engaging clip when the very curious aliens take an interest in the little man who isn't there, confounding their senses.

Shortly after that incident, a Sholen mission arrives in orbit, and two scientists come down in the elevator to the human habitat. Their mission, they assure the scientists, is to make sure no cultural contamination has occurred, and that the humans are in compliance with the treaty. What they are less forthcoming about is the troops on board their starship, along with the representative of the militant isolationist faction. The Sholen mission, as the humans quickly begin to suspect, has a hidden agenda.

Despite Henri's inadvertent contact with what happened to be a community of Ilmatarian scientists, nothing more seems to come of it, and the Sholen scientists admit that no real harm was done. Unfortunately, that's not a conclusion their mission allows them to settle on, and their official verdict is that the potential for contamination is too great to allow the humans to remain. Fortunately they just happen to have room on their starship to offer a ride back to Earth: Would everyone please queue up by the elevator? And by "please," they mean, "or we'll bring down the troops and throw you in."

While the researchers try their hand at (mostly) passive resistance, a few take off on an (officially) unsanctioned effort to hide in the two temporary shelters brought along for field studies. Stealing off to undisclosed locations with the expedition's submersible, the dissenters hope to discourage, or at least delay, the Sholen and do some more research while they're at it.

The story switches back and forth between the Human/Sholen community and the Ilmatarans. One of the natives that had the close encounter with Henri, a young scholar named Broadtail, was exiled from his home community for transgressing a local hold-harmless law when attacked in a heated discussion. Exiled and now without property, he shows up at the holding of the leader of the scientists, Longpincer, who offers him status and protection as a guest. Both aliens had been wondering about the strange creature they encountered, and Broadtail's presence offers a chance to explore the region from which they think the stranger may have come, suspecting that he may be a fabled being from the center of the planet, which makes more sense to them than imagining that anything exists beyond the ice above them, a nice echo of colony starship dilemma in classic sf.

The collision between the humans and the Ilmatarans is deftly handled by James L. Cambias, who provides a nicely balanced mix of scientific exploration and Prime Directive-inspired political tension, which is really the point of the whole story.

In an interview the author points out that he'd wanted to write about an interstellar conflict, but the standard reason, resource warfare, failed to make sense to him. Moving mass across interstellar distances isn't practical, but moving ideas is a different matter, and the result is an ideological conflict.

Western society has been suffering colonial guilt for several generations now, but evidently James L. Cambias isn't buying it on the interstellar stage. The Sholen stand in for former colonial powers that have reformed and now decry American global influences as new colonialism, while the humans chafe at the restrictions imposed by the post-colonial Sholen. As scientists, they don't want to disturb the natives -- but they would like to get close enough capture crisp images and high quality audio for their research. It's only after the human and Ilmataran collide that they plunge into contact, a conflict driven as much by the local's ideas about property rights, hospitality, and scientific curiosity, as by the humans' desire for allies against the Sholen.

Science fiction's take on whether visitors from advanced cultures should contaminate the locals is by no means uniform. Though it's often considered up there with Asimov's laws of robotics as sf gospel, Star Trek's Prime Directive was both lauded and ignored within the series. David Brin's Uplift series, on the other appendage, had a cosmic culture that felt it was an obligation of established cultures/races to bring along the fledglings…after a millennia or so of servitude…and Hal Clement's Mission of Gravity, which also shares the human research outpost theme of A Darkling Sea, doesn't really give it much thought, though, like the Ilmataran scientists, the centipedian explorer Barlennan holds the prize the humans seek as ransom for knowledge which reflects the attitude of Earthlings throughout science fiction.

When we come across first contact situations, be they crashed UFOs or hordes invading through wormholes, it generally takes humanity no more than three books to co-opt the alien technology and step up as players on the galactic stage. If we wouldn't take kindly to the notion of aliens not sharing their knowledge, maintaining that others should be left alone for their own good seems suspect at best. Granted, there is no shortage of tragedy in humanity's history to point at, but I wonder if we aren't overlooking some successful syntheses in our zeal to prevent the obliteration of the other.

A Darkling Sea is a genuine hard-sf novel as well as an exploration of policy. Cambias' worldbuilding trades on discoveries of colonies of chemosynthetic organisms around geothermal vents in Earth's oceans, as well as speculation about Europa's ice-covered seas. There is a gritty feel to the research effort that mirrors reality; the habitat is cold, cramped, and smelly, and the high-pressure atmosphere the researchers breathe is straight out of today's technology. The only new tech the author conjures up is hyper-spatial travel, and even here it's not magically useful; a trip to Earth still takes months. Of the pair of imagined alien biospheres, only Ilmatar's is fleshed out, and though it's based closely on Earth's deep ocean, it's so well realized it engages the reader's senses. There's also a poignant puzzle in the epilogue to tease the reader's imagination.

A Darking Sea won't settle the question of First Contact versus Prime Directive, but it may spark debate on the issue while providing an entertaining read and marking the transition from short story writer to novelist for a talented author.

Copyright © 2014 Ernest Lilley

Ernest Lilley is editor emeritus of SFRevu ( and the editor of Future Washington, an anthology about what it says it's about. He lives in Alexandria, Virginia with that classic trope of science fiction, a red-haired heroine, and their alien lifeform, Rover the Dog.

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