Deep within the oceans of watery, ice-covered planet Ilmatar lies a deep-sea laboratory built by humans and full of scientists. Their mission is to study and absolutely not interfere with the native species of Ilmatarans, a sentient blind lobster-like race that lives on the ocean floor, farming algae and fish and harvesting the mineral-rich vents. This peaceful co-existence (founded on ignorance on one side and curiosity on the other) is strictly monitored by a third species, the offworld Sholen. If the Sholen were to learn that humans had made their presence known to the Ilmatarans then they would force them off the planet, or worse.
It’s unfortunate, then, that Henri Kerlerec, an adventurer scientist and media favourite, should choose to test the invisibility of his new diving suit on a bunch of Ilmatarans. It’s even more unfortunate that these particular Ilmatarans should be an expedition of scientists who cannot believe their good fortune in discovering such an oddity swimming in their environment. So curious are they, and so odd is it, that they have no choice but to rush it back to one of their labs and dissect it, bit by bit. Henri’s suit camera films it all. It’s not long before the Sholens are in orbit. And from then on things can only get worse. There will be war.
A Darkling Sea is a captivating first contact novel. It mixes perfectly the horrific and the fantastic by skillfully mixing the perspectives of these three species as they get to know each other kilometres below the surface of the ice-bound planet. We focus on a few representative individuals from each race – the humans Rob and Alicia, the Ilmataran Broadtail and the Sholen Tizhos and Gishora. The narrative tense alters, turning present, when depicting Broadtail’s experiences, reflecting his different perspective, one built on touch not sight, and giving it an immediacy and a difference from the human perspective. In the scenes with the otter-like Tizhos and Gishora, their sensibilities dominate. In their society status is defined by sex, dominance and submissiveness. They lick everyone and everything and continually have to reassure each other with sexual play. In some ways, though, watching the behaviour of Rob and Alicia, humans are not all that different.
The three stories here are totally compelling, the narrative moving between them, pulling the reader along and moving us from one sense of sensibilities to the next. As the humans and Sholen battle each other for supremacy (with the humans using wit and intentional misunderstandings more than force), the Ilmatarans are undergoing a far more profound experience – they are becoming aware of a whole new world around them. And while the Sholen species is becoming more insular, less inclined to journey from their own worlds, the opposite is coming true for the Ilmatarans. The humans are most definitely caught in the middle and down there in this alien ocean their situation could hardly be more precarious.
Watching the species attempt to communicate with each other is a fascinating part of the novel. Broadtail and Rob in particular embark on a wonderful relationship between two animals that could hardly be more different. And yet the glimpses we have of the Ilmataran society, complete with courts and libraries, shows that there are similarities while there are other aspects, notably their method of rearing young, which are the definition of alien. But despite his strange appearance and world, Broadtail is arguably the most sympathetic character of the novel.
The true horror of the novel lies with the Sholen. But as we watch their behaviour through their eyes – some of it completely repugnant – and see them misunderstanding entirely the curious humans they by turns want to bully or please, one realises that they are being themselves just as the Ilmatarans and humans are. This is the nature of first contact – it brings with it incredible problems of communication, cultural misunderstandings, prejudices, fear and loathing.
There is darkness and light in the tone, though. The scenes of utterly repellent horror combine with the lightness of dialogue, the humour found in dire situations and the sheer enthusiasm and likeability of some of the characters. The wit is mixed with the comic appearance of the aliens – comic until they’re cutting you apart, beating you to death or licking your face. Of course, humans look just as ridiculous to the other species and we are made very aware of that. The violence is countered by the sexual scenes but both felt they belonged here, nothing felt gratuitous, everything contributed to the superb worldbuilding and species building.
A Darkling Sea is one of the most enjoyable and memorable science fiction novels I’ve read. It has curiosities in every section. It makes the jaw drop and it makes me laugh – as well as cover my eyes. These are proper aliens. It’s hard to imagine how on earth (or not on earth) these different species could even attempt to understand each other but James Cambias does a superb job of doing just that.