Book Review: A DARKLING SEA by James Cambias

A Darkling SeaThere are many reasons to enjoy science fiction. If hard science fiction is your thing, read how Kim Stanley Robinson extrapolates our current technology to posit a utopian future. Or if you prefer social science fiction, pick up a novel by Ursula K. LeGuin and see how she integrates anthropology into fictional worlds as if they were as familiar as our own. But if the “science” in science fiction bores you, there’s still plenty left to enjoy. James S.A. Corey writes an adrenaline-filled space opera and John Scalzi blends a keen sense of humor into his stories that few can match.

So why do I mention the broad spectrum that encompasses the field of science fiction? It’s because A Darkling Sea is a novel that spans the entire genre. James Cambias manages to incorporate humor, anthropology, and the character-focused action of a space opera into what I would call a hard science fiction novel. Now to call this novel the culmination of these four diverse authors would be both untrue and unfair to the unsuspecting reader. It is too high of a bar to expect of any author — much less a debut author. I merely mention this to highlight that this novel can be enjoyed by different people for entirely different reasons.

A Darkling Sea takes place on a moon-planet called Ilmatar that is covered in a thick layer of ice. Beneath its frozen crust is a vast ocean where a sentient alien species thrives. Humans have established a base on the planet to study the Ilmatarans, but have made a truce with a third species, the Sholen, to avoid interfering with their habitat in any way.

All is well and good until a hot-shot media personality decides to get up close and personal with the Ilmatarans. His efforts at invisibility fail and he quickly becomes a science experiment for a group of sea-dwelling creatures. Even though this stand-alone act of idiocy was both unknown and unplanned by human leadership, the Sholen take issue with this breach in protocol. What begins as a friendly order to vacate the premises escalates into what could become a war between the humans and Sholen.

A Darkling Sea takes place on a planet that reminded me of Jupiter’s moon, Europa. Other novels, such as Jeff Carlson’s, The Frozen Sky, have explored this setting, examining alien life several kilometers beneath an icy surface. What made Cambias’s novel unique is that it is told from the viewpoints of each species. This was not just a novel of humans learning to understand another culture, but of each alien species learning to grow and understand each other. And like humanity, each species cannot be defined in black and white. The Sholen and Ilmatarans are each a collection of individual personalities. This naturally breeds conflict within their own kind.

I really enjoyed how Cambias blended so many elements of what makes science fiction great. By a quarter of the way through the novel I thought this might be one that I would remember for a long time. There was a lot of thought that went into the setting, characters, and alien lifeforms and the pace was strong thoughout the novel. However, as I progressed, I found some of the key characters unlikable and the consequences for their actions unrealistic. One of the main characters is a human named Rob who is both passive and foolhardy in his exploits and should have been killed or fired or left to his own devices several times throughout the novel. This led me to be somewhat apathetic of him and other characters.

To take on as many viewpoints as Cambias did in a debut novel is a daunting task. For a majority of the novel, he was successful. Even though the motives of certain characters were questionable, the characters remained consistent and unique. But the difficulty with taking on so many viewpoints and approaches to science fiction is that this sea of ideas left me lost in what the novel was really trying to achieve. A Darkling Sea is relatively short for the epic scope of the story and the setting and characters are not explored to as great of depth as one would expect when the fate of the entire human race rests on the actions of a few. Regardless, A Darkling Sea had enough positive aspects to make it worth reading. The culture-building is inventive and the story moves along nicely. While it will appeal most to those who like a lighter version of hard SF (think Haldeman or Scalzi), the diversity of ideas and approaches helps its appeal to a broader fan base.

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peter 100x100Peter – AISFP Contributor

Peter is a husband, father of twin boys, and an engineer who grew up on a steady diet of Narnia and Dragonlance books. When he’s not working, wrestling his toddlers, or writing fiction, he often can be found blogging about books and life. He also can be found on Twitter.

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