Two species of aliens, a frozen world, and a no-contact policy that is more than badly bent are the ingredients of A Darkling Sea, a first novel by short story writer and roleplaying game supplement writer James Cambias.
I’ve been familiar with Cambias’ roleplaying work for a long time, most notably the GURPS: Mars and GURPS: Space supplements. The rigor and careful research in those supplements translates here to a novel quite well. Ilmatar is an Europa-like body, a gas giant moon with an ocean covering the surface, a layer of frozen water kilometers thick insulating the liquid interior ocean and letting the hydrothermic vents warm the ocean underneath toprovide a basis for life.
And intelligent life as well. It is the Ilmatarans that have drawn the interest of Earth explorers taking its first steps into the solar neighborhood. Beneath a crust of ice on the bottom of an ocean seems an unlikely place for intelligent life, and so a small research group of humans have come to study the amazing ecology underneath the ice. However, the humans are here on the sufferance of the Sholen, a starfaring race simultaneously retreating from space exploration and extremely skeptical of the burgeoning human presence not only on Ilmatar, but in space itself.
When an attempt to document the Ilmatarans goes horribly wrong, this incident may be all the Sholen need to take action. And what do the Ilamatarans make of the visitors to their world? What can happen when three types of intelligent beings share the same space?
Therein hangs a tale.
The point of views of the novel are three: Rob, one of the human researchers, Broadtail, one of the Ilmatarans, and Tizhos, one of the more scientifically curious of the Sholen who comes to the station to investigate the incident. Interestingly, the novel moves from a third person past tense to third person present when switching its focus to Broadtail. This, combined with the unusual senses of the Ilmatarans, makes for a very different reading experience and immersion than when in the other parts of the novel.
Indeed, the novel is strongest and on the best ground when it focuses on the aliens, the Ilmatarans as well as the Sholen. While the human characters are mostly serviceable rather than scintillating, it is the alien characters that are the most memorable, distinct and startling. We spend a lot of time with Broadtail in particular, using him as a guide to Ilmataran society and customs. In addition, Broadtail provides us with an immersive viewpoint into what it is like to live on the bottom of an icy ocean, the geology, and biology of the world around him. Cambias has chosen scientifically curious characters as his point of view characters, and Broadtail is no exception. While the conceit feels a little forced, it does allow the author, and the reader, to explore the interactions of characters who are genuinely interested in the alien and think about the world they move through. Comparisons I’ve seen to Clement are fairly on the mark in this regard. Hal Clement would recognize the aliens and the worldbuilding here as being very much in his tradition.
While Broadtail and the Ilmatarans are the most alien, the Sholen are a much more familiar sort of aliens: bipedal aliens that don’t quite match up with terrestrial species, but are easier to grasp. The consensus-driven sociology of the Sholen is the most interesting thing about them, providing an interesting contrast especially to the nature of the human interactions aboard the station. Although their physiology is somewhat different, I kept wanting to see the Sholen as giant otters — playful, furred, social, but not without their own defenses when provoked.
A few of the Chekov’s guns of plotting don’t fire as one might expect, and the characterization of the humans just doesn’t match up with the aliens. However, when the novel focuses on the aliens and the alien environment of this deep ocean, A Darkling Sea, belying its title, shines, and shines brightly.