James Cambias's A Darkling Sea is delightful. There are aliens. There's deep-sea exploration beneath the frozen surface of a newly discovered world. There are idealistic academics coming to terms with politics and violence. All these variations on first-contact stories come together in one complex, richly written novel whose author manages to strike a delicate balance between humor and a critical engagement with how and why we research, explore, and categorize the world around us.
The novel begins with Rob Freeman, a nature photographer living in Hitode Station on Ilmatar, a frozen moon whose only sentient inhabitants appear to be the blind, crab-like Ilmatarans. Located far beneath Ilmatar's icy surface, Hitode Station represents the combined labors of Earth's scientific and military community. This multinational, multiethnic group of scientists has come together to explore the flora and fauna of Ilmatar. Unfortunately, because of Earth's carefully negotiated treaty with the Sholen, a technologically advanced civilization whose violent history has led to a policy of isolation, the human scientists working out of Hitode are unable to make contact with any Ilmatarans. Rob and the other scientists at Hitode chafe at this restriction. Some are convinced that it is a reflection of the Sholen's fear of humanity's future conquest of the stars. Some long for an opportunity to learn more about the history, biology, and culture of the Ilmatarans. Henri Kerlerec, famous archaeologist and cynical media darling, wants to film himself acting in the role of an all-knowing National Geographic narrator encountering and classifying Ilmatar's primitive inhabitants.
Kerlerec persuades Rob to film him on this clandestine mission. Because the Ilmatarans cannot see, both are reasonably confident that the Ilmatarans will remain oblivious to the intrusion. Unfortunately for Kerlerec, the Bitterwater Company of Scholars has assembled at local elite Longpincer's house, where a salon of Ilmataran intellectuals have been sharing research and celebrating the induction of a junior member. After a luxurious meal, the Company decides to collect samples at a cool vent near the edges of Longpincer's hold. The vent offers the added advantage of allowing the scholars to test a new strategy for testing water temperature. They discover, capture, and dissect a strange new creature whose blood is so hot it burns. Rob is forced to watch as these scientists kill Henri. His horror palpably contrasts to the excitement of the Company, in particular Broadtail, a junior scholar whose recent defense of his work on linguistics has allowed him to join this intellectual cabal.
After Henri's death, the Sholen arrive to Ilmatar, ostensibly to keep the humans from further contamination of Ilmatar's culture and environment. Tizhos, a naïve Sholen researcher-cum-diplomat who mistrusts humanity's approach to violence but secretly admires their "oddly conflict-based method of disseminating" scientific research (p. 53), arrives with Gishora, another researcher forced to engage in a delicate political dance with both the resentful humans of Hitode Station and the growing push towards militancy and isolation coming from the Sholen home planet. In many ways, Tizhos is a true nerd, analytical of social norms but sometimes unaware of their nuances. From her perspective, other Sholen sometimes feel only slightly more familiar than cantankerous but innovative humans she has come to observe. Tizhos's growing awareness of the connections between the funding of the Sholens' visit to Ilmatar and the politics of her shipmates adds a believable note of innocence lost to the escalating tensions between the human scientists of Hitode Station and the Sholen Guardians.
As the humans mount a passive resistance to what they perceive as the Sholens' repression of scientific research, Broadtail begins a journey across Ilmatar's sea floor, encountering bandits, a deranged school-teacher, and, finally, the submarine hideout of a few of the Hitode scientists, desperately doing research before they are forcibly evacuated. These three encounters were especially powerful because each provided a lens onto how the Ilmatarans approach language acquisition. Further, because of Cambias's careful use of prose and rhythm, the glimpses of Ilmataran life we get in these moments feels both truly alien and deeply familiar.
They're also funny; one of the bandits remembers hating his teacher, a feeling probably familiar to anyone who has struggled in school. A few pages later, when the teacher Onepincer and Broadtail hunt down children old enough to be in school, cull those too weak to survive as adults, and ignore any too small to teach, the reader begins to suspect there's a reason behind this anger. When Broadtail struggles with Onepincer's advice to starve any children to stubborn to use complete sentences, that suspicion is confirmed. Cambias's skill is such that the reader is shocked at Onepincer's casual brutality, sympathizes with Broadtail's ambivalence, and questions Broadtail's own unthinking acceptance of the stereotypical stages of childhood and cognitive development. This is a delicate balance to strike. That Cambias is able to maintain it across multiple class, gender, and cultural perspectives is a mark of both the strength of his writing and the depth of the worldbuilding supporting each character's lived experiences on Earth, Ilmatar, and Shalina. This world-building includes verbs, body language, and make-up. While none of these becomes the focal point of any one scene their presence, and the skill with which Cambias deploys them, adds an immersive quality to the world of A Darkling Sea.
A Darkling Sea is not an easy read, but it's a rewarding one. While its first half may feel somewhat weighed down because of its attention to Sholen and human politics, Broadtail's journey from respected community member to vagabond scholar provides a much-needed note of sympathetic realism. As the novel progresses, the parallels between his coming of age as an Ilmataran scholar and Tizhos's growing disillusionment with the warhawks of the Sholen homeworld become both more apparent and more poignant. In fact, it is the narrative connections between these two very different characters that make this such a rewarding novel to read through again and again.
Maria Velazquez is a doctoral student at the University of Maryland, College Park. Her research interests include constructions of race, class, gender, and sexuality in contemporary media, as well as community-building through technology. She serves on the board of Lifting Voices, a District of Columbia-based nonprofit that helps young people in DC discover the power of creative writing, and blogs for The Hathor Legacy, a feminist pop culture blog. She recently received the Winnemore Dissertation Fellowship from the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities.
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