Guest Review: A Darkling Sea

I adore guest reviews. I am quite certain most of you can figure out why. Yes, the world's laziest blogger does indeed love it when a guest comes along to do our work for us. Especially when the guest in question is a bona fide writer who can actually write a real book review, as opposed to my often incoherent ramblings.

James La Salandra has been kind enough to offer us a review of the new James L. Cambias science fiction novel, A Darkling Sea. Sci-fi and fantasy are two genres that - for no apparent good reason - I tend to shy away from. Yet on the rare occasion I do pick one up, I invariably love it. We won't even try to analyze that.  

For now, just enjoy your upcoming weekend and James' writing. And if you want to keep up on all his musings jump over his blog at The Scholar's Fane or find him on Twitter @ScholarsFane.

For now we “see” through a sea, darkling; but then feeler to face...

Author James L. Cambias has been writing for decades, in the form of support material for role-playing games and a number of award-nominated short stories. With A Darkling Sea, his first full novel, he presents a mixed bag of the best sort.
Set in a future that sees humankind traveling through “gimelspace”—which reads as a less-generic moniker for “hyperspace”—to reach distant, alien worlds. Their first encounter, with the ancient Sholen, is well behind them by the time A Darkling Sea has begun. The Sholen, a race that has witnessed the potential dangers of interplanetary travel first-hand, act as a policing organization, putting in place guidelines that dictate the behavior of Earth’s space-faring explorers. So it is that while exploring Ilmatar, the icy oceanic moon of the planet Ukko, the crew of the underwater station Hitode must research the indigenous life in secret. Contact is strictly forbidden.

Echoing the Prime Directive of Star Trek’s Federation, the crew’s efforts are frustratingly limited, though the environment does more to hinder their research than the Sholen’s proscriptions. Hitode Station is situated under more than two kilometers of sub-freezing water, itself located beneath another kilometer of solid ice. The resulting darkness leaves the crew to rely on sonar as much as artificial light, and the temperature makes any extravehicular exploration far more daunting than the average undersea venture back home.

As the story opens, the crew of the Hitode are introduced by way of a contest to see who can conceive of the most gruesome and entertaining means of murdering Henri Kerlerec, the station’s resident celebrity adventurer. Though no one truly means to follow through with their plans, they do seem to tackle the challenge with a noticeable amount of relish. Kerlerec is described as obnoxious, overbearing, and pompous, with ego enough to leave little room for anyone else on the cramped underwater station.

Rob Freeman—the crew’s photography specialist, and the novel’s main human protagonist—finds his dreams of chronicling the wealth of alien marine biology and environment usurped by Kerlerac’s need for a cameraman. This change in role gives Freeman a more personal reason to dislike Kerlerec than the rest of the crew. However, Freeman is soon approached by Kerlerec with news of a secret stealth suit that will enable him to approach the Ilmatarans undetected—skirting the Sholen directive against contact. Intrigue gets the better of Freeman and he agrees to accompany and film the adventurer on the suit’s maiden voyage. It is, predictably, a misguided endeavor.

As the story moves on to introducing Broadtail 38 Sandyslope—the primary representative of the Ilmatarans within the novel—the tone and tense of the story change. At first it appears only to serve as an indication of a change in focus, but it reveals much about the Ilmataran race. They seem to think and “speak” only in the present tense—even past events are relayed in the present, describing the past in terms of the current act of recollection. There is, for lack of a better word, a “nowness” about the Ilmatarans, and this seemingly small feature does much to imply the “otherness” of the alien creatures.

Broadtail, an amateur scientist, is an applicant to a group of fellow scientists, The Bitterwater Company of Scholars, headed by Longpincer 16 Bitterwater. After an impressive presentation of his theories, he joins them on an excursion to study a vent on the edge of Longpincer’s property. While there, the group observes—through their only means of observation, sonar—a moving blind spot which obscures their surroundings. The group pinpoints the blind spot’s location and closes in on it from all sides, capturing the anomaly in a net. The entire scene is caught on Freeman’s camera—he watches helplessly as Kerlerac is netted and dragged off by The Bitterwater Company. Once returned to Longpincer’s house, it’s a matter of mere moments before the scientific group has investigated their find—by way of dissection.

It is this tragedy which propels the remainder of the plot. The Sholen, aware of the breach in their protocols, send an investigative team to assess the situation on Ilmatar. Should the human presence in the seas of Ilmatar prove dangerous, it will be the team’s mission to remove the crew of the Hitode and deliver them back to Earth. While the primary investigators, Tizhos and her superior, Gishora, would remain impartial, their military escort, Irona, has already deemed human space travel too risky to be allowed. The death of Kerlerec and the intruding presence of the Sholen quickly diminish morale and embitter the crew. Conflict is inevitable, as is further contact with the Ilmatarans by both parties. What follows is an exploration of politics, science, and survival in the sub-freezing depths of an alien world.

Equal parts classic and modern, A Darkling Sea calls to mind works of many a science fiction titan: Clarke’s Space Odyssey, with its development of life in the seas of Europa; Frank Herbert’s Dragon in the Sea, for all its underwater technicality and detailed psychology of a crew living under such cramped conditions; David Brin’s Existence, for its general futurity and the challenges of First Contact. It has received high praise from quite a few noteworthy sources, including a number of renown science fiction authors. Robert Sawyer, who compares Cambias to Larry Niven and Hal Clement, heralds the author as one day becoming “one of the century's major names in hard science fiction.” Vernor Vinge echoes the comparison to Clement, and Gregory Benford called the novel “Fast-paced, pure quill hard science fiction”.

Such praise has been apt—A Darkling Sea is quite the adventure, as much for its treatment of the psychology of alien species as it is for its action sequences. Broadtail’s curiosity and the descriptions of his people’s culture are at times the most compelling aspect of the story, though the clash between Sholen and humans is no less deserving of attention. As with all novels, there are at least a few elements that aren’t entirely satisfactory. Freeman, for example, exhibits a baffling tendency to focus on sex in situations which shouldn’t really allow for it. The militaristic Sholen Irona—easily the novel’s villain—is at times too narrow in his views to be believed. But by and large, these brief glimpses of one-dimensionality are lost amidst the depth and detail of the world Cambias has created, slipping away quickly as the reader is compelled to turn page after page.

Ultimately, the biggest drawback to this novel is that it’s written as a stand-alone. Though there is a closing “twist” which could theoretically leave the door open for a sequel or prequel, it seems unlikely. It’s unfortunate, because the Ilmataran world is so well-crafted that one is left wishing for an even more thorough exploration of its waters. By the end of the story, the adventurous curiosity of its characters becomes the readers, which is a true testament to the author’s talent for world-building. One can only hope that Cambias’s career will someday feature many such novels, so at the very least readers’ curiosity can be piqued once again, for many years to come. 

James L. Cambias
Title: A Darkling Sea
Author: James L. Cambias
Publisher: Tor Books
Date: January 28, 2014
Pages: 352
Source: Publisher Copy

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