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A Darkling Sea by James L Cambias

A Darkling Sea by James L Cambias

Memory becomes a curiously fallible tool as we grow older. Some things seem clear in our minds, yet other details remain elusive. So it is that I forget when I read the first book by Hal Clement (pseudonym of Harry Clement Stubbs). It was probably in the late 1950s and my money says that book was Cycle of Fire (1957). Although he seriously went off the boil in later years, the early works are remarkable for their world building. At the time, there was no-one to touch him for the ingenuity and creativity that was invested in constructing the scientifically plausible planetary settings for his fiction. It’s just sad the prose would seem rather flat by today’s standards. Anyway, in this review, we’re more interested in Mission of Gravity (1954) where he devised a planet called Mesklin. As the book title suggests, the surface gravity varies significantly depending on where the main characters are placed on the oblate-shaped planet. Reading A Darkling Sea by James L Cambias (Tor, 2014) produced a real retro feel not only in terms of the attention to detail, but also the way in which the author explores life in a high-pressure underwater environment. At their heart, both Mission of Gravity (and its sequels) plus this new book are adventure stories in which the main characters are driven by a desire to advance their scientific understanding of their environments.


So how does it all play out? We humans have already met another technologically advanced alien species and there’s an uneasy calm on both sides. Midway between the Earth and Sholen is the planet Ilmatar. For Earth, this is a kind of test case. It’s not a planet that either race could easily colonise, but it does have a local sapient species — in human terms, these beings have late Mediaeval levels of technology, being held back by their deep underwater habitat. By landing a strong scientific exploration team on this world and inviting the Sholen to participate, Earth is exploring whether it’s possible to co-operate. Conflict is not inevitable and, in theory, the risk of disagreement is lower when the only likely gain is acquiring knowledge of a “new” culture. At first, the human team make good progress despite the Sholen’s insistence on no direct contact with the Ilmatarans. As is required in books like this, there has to be a catalyst. This comes in the form of Henri Kerlerec. He’s a media personality, somewhat in the mould of Jacques Cousteau, who has smuggled a Russian underwater stealth suit into the station. He wrongly believes he’ll be invisible to the locals and can directly investigate without being detected. What he forgets is that the locals perceive the absence just as much as the presence of sonar soundings. The local team which includes rising academic Broadtail, capture and investigate this strange phenomenon. Unfortunately, cutting off the suit has fatal consequences, but their knowledge of human beings rises 100%.

James L Cambias

James L Cambias


Naturally, the leader of the science team reports this death to Earth. The message is intercepted by the Sholen who turn up in orbit, armed to the teeth. So now we get into the clunky politics and somewhat superficial discussion of the different approaches to decision-making among the three species. Let’s start with the Sholen. Because they have a warlike past, they depend on consensus-building to maintain stability. This is achieved both through intellectual debate and sexual interplay. The theory says that once consensus is achieved on an issue, every individual conforms. Although the society could be caught in its own past, the emergence of new issues such as what to do about the humans, allows gradual development of thought and practice. Unfortunately, the author does not explain why this species would suddenly drop whatever they were doing and spend a vast amount of their treasure to come to Ilmatara. This species has nothing to gain by preventing humans from interacting with the Ilmatarans. The only possible explanation for this intervention is a desire to provoke the humans and use this incident as a pretext for trying to force the humans to stay within their own planetary system. This is all somewhat strange. Given this species has almost destroyed itself in past internal conflicts, why would it be lining up a war with a species which has not completely known capabilities? You would think this race would be highly risk averse when it comes to initiating conflict.


Earth has anticipated the possibility of conflict and so seeded the science team with some trained military specialists. When the Sholen arrive, they adopt the guerrilla model of T.E. Lawrence, who persuaded the colonized Arabs to fight with the British in their war. Hence, the humans persuade the Ilmatarans to join them in repelling the “invaders”. Fortunately, the local cultural system is driven by property rights. Since their survival depends on their ability to grow food close to the undersea vents, they have relatively sophisticated ideas about occupation rights and the threat of trespassers and squatters. This social system is one of the more pleasing aspects of the book.


Put all this together and you have a book that’s almost excellent in today’s terms — few readers are old enough to remember the glory days of Hal Clement. Although the concept of the Ilmatarans is interesting, the Sholen are less well explained. The mechanisms for developing factional groups and resolving views not considered part of the consensus needs to be established so we can understand the behaviour of the first two to engage with the humans. As to the humans, the responses to the arrival of the aliens are probably realistic ranging from the childish, to the passive resistance of protest movements, to the more obviously aggressive. So although it’s not a complete success, A Darkling Sea is still a very good attempt at a classical science fiction novel with a political subtext. Given this is a first novel, James L Cambias is someone to watch.


A copy of this book was sent to me for review.


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  1. May 4, 2014 at 1:47 am

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