When it comes to stories about contact between alien races, you have Star Trek‘s Prime Directive of non-interference on one hand, and willingness of the Culture of Iain M. Banks to apply a little force to help a civilization on the road to what it considers the right path. Somewhere in between lies the dilemma facing the three species colliding in James L. Cambias’s A Darkling Sea.
Ilmatar is a moon covered in a kilometer-thick layer of ice that conceals, as some scientists have proposed for Europa, a deep ocean. Deep beneath the ice, Hitode Station hosts a team of humans who are examining the native flora and fauna while under strict orders not to interfere with the native sentients. The Ilmatarans are hard-shelled creatures that rely on sound and taste to perceive their lightless submarine world, and their civilization is both highly sophisticated and occasionally savage; scientists and intellectuals are treated with respect, but young Ilmatarans are scarcely considered sentient until they are taught to communicate—at one point, a teacher casually dispatches one that he deems too ill-formed to succeed.
Keeping a careful eye on the situation is a third species, the Sholen. Ostensibly pacifist in reaction to past wars that devastated their home world, their treaty with Earth is what created the rules forbidding human contact with new species. They arrive on Ilmatar after Henri Kerlerec, a fame-hungry human scientist, attempts to approach the Ilmatarans—to his great misfortune, he becomes a subject of their own scientific inquiry. A party of Sholen arrives on Ilmatar to assess the situation, but, unknown to the human researchers, their work is compromised by conflicts amongst their own political factions (“tendencies,” in their terminology).
There are hints of Iain M. Banks’s Culture in the Sholen, in that they’re an advanced civilization that’s been through some major collective growing pains—to the extent that they have “decided that they preferred to spend all their time blowing glass and planting gardens in little woodland villages”—and have assumed the role of the parent who knows best in matters of intergalactic exploration. Unlike the Culture, however, they don’t seem to have very coherent positions on how to go about this. As a result, their conflicts with the human researchers and within their own expeditionary force escalate quickly, right into bloodshed.
The real heroes of A Darkling Sea are quite plainly the scientists, who don’t want to get mired down in any of this war and politics business and just want to learn. The Sholen Tizhos envies the human expedition on Ilmatar and would rather participate in their work than stop them; technician Rob Freeman wants the pushy Sholen to go away so that he can help the researchers do their jobs (especially his new girlfriend, Alicia); and the Ilmataran scholar Broadtail is driven by his curiosity about the strange shell-less beings who “communicate among themselves with simple howls and grunts.” Accordingly, Cambias is precise and thorough in his scientific detail—the Sholen system of consensus and hierarchy is determined through sexual play, in a manner not unlike bonobos, and the Ilmatarans use ultrasound and farm for food along hot-water vents on the ocean floor. Much is made also of the technology that allows the denizens of Hitode Station to exist in the crushing depths of the Ilmataran ocean, down to the argon mix in the air and the calorie counts of their food.
Despite getting off to a promising start, A Darkling Sea never quite rises again to the levels of mordant humor in the opening chapters, where the Hitode Station team amuses themselves by inventing imaginative ways to murder Henri Kerlerec before he meets his ironic end in the pincers of the curious Ilmatarans. The Sholen plot, which drives much of the novel, delays the first meaningful contact between the Ilmatarans and the humans and also leads to some uncomfortable unanswered questions. It’s a lovely and fascinating process as the Ilmatarans and the humans try to learn one another’s language, each group expressing its incredulity and frustrations amongst themselves, but it’s hard not to be uneasy when Rob and his friends rope the Ilmatarans into their increasingly violent fight with the Sholen, especially once they invoke a comparison to T.E. Lawrence—with the humans in the role of Lawrence, the Sholen as the Turks, and the Ilmatarans as the Arabs, apparently. The implications of this and of the Ilmataran’s largely unquestioning acceptance of the human side of the conflict fall by the wayside as the Sholen decide to terminate human-Ilmataran contact with extreme prejudice and the new allies must stop them.
Nevertheless, A Darkling Sea is very entertaining, and the Ilmatarans are a charming, fully-realized non-human alien species, always a pleasure to see in space travel hard SF. It’s like watching a good episode of original series Star Trek—glibly written in spots, but buoyed by intriguing ideas and a solid sense of adventure.