Tor, 2014, 352 pages
Beneath a sky of ice, three worlds collide.
On the planet Ilmatar, under a roof of ice a kilometer thick, a team of deep-sea diving scientists investigates the blind alien race that lives below. The Terran explorers have made an uneasy truce with the Sholen, their first extraterrestrial contact: so long as they don't disturb the Ilmataran habitat, 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 Terran and Sholen erupt, leading to a diplomatic disaster that threatens to escalate to war.
Against the backdrop of deep-sea guerrilla 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.
James Cambias used to write books like this for Steve Jackson Games:
So I was not surprised that his debut novel is very much a planetary adventure, though it's not quite the golden-age Vanceian sort of SF represented in much of his RPG work.
A Darkling Sea is a story of first contact and alien diplomacy. There are two spacefaring races - humanity and the Sholen - and the Ilmatarans, a pre-industrial civilization living in the oceans of an ice world.
The Sholen are more advanced than humanity, but less warlike. Both are worried about going to war with the other, but naturally, they've found potential causes for conflict. Namely, the Sholen's insistence that the Ilmatarans be left alone and not contacted by either race.
A research crew stationed beneath the ice of Ilmatar has been given permission to observe - but not contact - the Ilmatarans. After a tragi-comic incident in which a media celebrity pulls a Steve Irwin and gets himself dissected by curious Ilmatarans, the Sholen come to investigate and pass judgment on the human researchers.
Humans, Sholen, and Ilmatarans all have POV characters and their own subplots. The Ilmatarans were the most interesting, as the author had to portray their deep sea existence through their eyes - or rather, lack thereof. The Sholen were less interesting - while they have a "consensus based" culture that involves a lot of public sexual displays, I never quite got past feeling like they were just humans in big, six-limbed fur suits with strange customs.
Once things go pear-shaped, both sides break the rules and begin recruiting Ilmatarans into what becomes a guerrilla war at the bottom of Ilmatar's ocean.
A Darkling Sea is a fine space adventure, reminiscent of Larry Niven, Alan Dean Foster, and Robert L. Forward. It reminded me somewhat of another more recent first-contact story: Damocles. It does not achieve brilliance, but it's a perfectly solid entry into the genre, and should be read by anyone complaining that there's no "classic" SF being written nowadays.
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