Awesome Aliens: Jim Cambias’s A Darkling Sea

What’s better than a first novel with awesome aliens that includes really well done alien points of view? A first novel with two lots of different awesome aliens that includes two different alien points of view!

I’ve been enjoying James Cambias’s short work for years, and I was excited to hear about A Darkling Sea. When I was asked to read it to see if I wanted to blurb it I agreed—and at that point I didn’t know anything about it but the title and author. Then I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I enjoyed it even more reading it again now. I’d have loved this book when I was twelve, and I still love it. This is an old-fashioned science fiction novel with today’s science—biology and physics and astronomy.

There’s a human expedition to Ilmatar, which an alien Europa—a planet with an ocean under the ice. The solar system of today is in many ways more exciting than the solar system we imagined before we sent robots out to explore it for us, and one of the surprises was the oceans under the ice on the Galilean moons. Cambias has clearly thought a lot about what an ocean like that might be like, because there are aliens in Ilumatar, living around hot vents, aliens who may have a million years of history, but who are living in pitch dark icy water and who are very very alien, but also absolutely adorable. We see them from their own point of view, as well as from the point of view of the humans studying them. And then, as the humans are starting to study the Ilmatarans at a safe distance, another set of aliens shows up, the Sholen, more advanced than humanity, and quite sure that they know best. And all of them, in their own very different ways, are scientists.

The book uses points of view from all three species—and if it’s fair to say the human is the least interesting, that’s only because the aliens are so great, and because we’re learning about them as the book goes on, while we already know what humans are like.

The problem with writing about people going to an alien planet and meeting fascinating aliens is the difficulty of having a plot—“oh look, some aliens, aren’t they nifty” might be good enough for me, but it won’t do for most people. Cambias gets around this by having the Sholen essentially drive the plot once they show up. The Sholen are there to provide conflict—and they do, and very exciting conflict it is. Their different psychology and ideas interact badly with humanity—and also with the Ilmatarans. This is done extremely well, so that we can see from their point of view exactly what they think they’re doing, and we can also tell exactly how badly it’s going to work because we are human ourselves. The Sholen—space-faring, advanced, oxygen-breathing, are far more like humans than the Ilmatarans—except in all the ways they’re not. They’ve made cultural choices (aided by their biology) to turn inward and they’re trying to pressue humanity to do the same. This cannot end well.

The Ilmaratans live in the dark ocean under a thick layer of ice, and outside the ice is vacuum, even if they could get through it which they can’t. They “see” by sonar, which turns out to be fascinating and different, and they have a very interesting society. Broadtail is a scientist, and we first see him nervous about presenting a scientific discovery to a group of his peers. Broadtail is the friendliest, most intelligent and most interesting character in the book. When I picked it up to read it again, he’s the character I was looking forward to spending time with. He has the scientific method, and he knows how to use it. He makes notes by knotting rope. He wants to learn about his world, and once he knows there’s a wider universe he wants to learn about that.

There’s room at the end of the book for more—for sequels. But they’re not required. A Darkling Sea has an excellent and thought provoking conclusion, and is complete in itself. This is hard science fiction done beautifully, and it’s also a ton of fun.

Read an excerpt from A Darkling Sea here on Tor.com!


Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published a collection of Tor.com pieces, three poetry collections and ten novels, including the Hugo and Nebula winning Among Others. Her most recent book is My Real Children. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here irregularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

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