Humans Meet Lobster-like Aliens in A Darkling Sea
It’s impossible not to think of classic sci-fi like Star Trek when reading A Darkling Sea, the first novel by James L. Cambias. It has a classic “humans meeting new alien species” thing going on that seems like it’s straight out of the sci-fi of the 1960s. It has an exotic world, two different creative alien species, and human scientists doing what they do best: science-y stuff!
The entirety of the story takes place on Ilmatar, a moon covered in a thick crust of ice. Deep underneath, on the floor of the moon’s enormous ocean, humans discover a lobster-like species they call the Illmatarans. They are a sentient species with their own society and communication, though they are technologically a few hundred years behind humans. They have an organized hierarchy based on land ownership, similar to the lords and ladies of our medieval times. Physically, they’re like lobsters that walk upright, with hard shells that they can curl into for defense, and pincers that they can use to grasp objects and attack. They are incapable of sight, but are instead aware of their surroundings by using sonar.
Things get interesting when one of the humans, a celebrity journalist named Henri Kerlerec, gets too close to one of the natives. Purely out of innocent curiosity, a group of Ilmatarans grab Henri, take him back to their village, and dissect him while he is still alive for the sake of their own scientific observation. They don’t realize that humans are as sentient as they are, a mistake they only become aware of much later. Naturally, this becomes a bit of a problem.
Enter the Sholen, a six-limbed species that treat sex as a “Hello, how are you?” and do just about everything completely logically. They are strictly anti-imperialist and come to Ilmatar to investigate Henri’s death, to find out how it happened and whether or not humans should be allowed to stay on the moon to learn about the natives. This starts a political minefield as the humans and Sholen, who apparently have known each other for quite a while, argue about whether the scientific expedition should be allowed to continue.
The portion of the book that is primarily political debating definitely feels a bit slow. It helps us get a clear picture of the technologically advanced Sholen’s way of doing things, and we learn a bit more about the awesome Ilmatarans along the way, but it felt like back story that could have been presented in a lot more interesting way. Still, it does at least provide some interesting world-building, despite the struggle with pacing.
Things get especially interesting a little bit after the halfway mark. One of the Ilmatarans, a young scientist named Broadtail, discovered a group of the scientists, led by Rob Freeman, and finally makes actual contact with them. The humans and the Ilmatar gradually learn to communicate with one another, just as the conflict between the humans and the Sholen starts to get into dangerous territory. The only hope for the humans on Ilmatar is to convince the Ilmatarans to help them defend themselves.
James Cambias is obviously a capable writer. The prose is strong throughout and the world-building and uniqueness of the alien species are definitely the highlights of the novel. The pacing issues are pretty glaring, but the story is still worthwhile for a great first few chapters and a really awesome second half. There are genuine questions raised about sentient beings and their potential to negatively impact the environment, as well as moments where cultural differences between groups of people can help us understand why we are the way we are, in addition to learning more about groups that might seem strange. As far as first novels go, it’s really enjoyable, especially if you like stories about human and alien first contact that go a little further than green dudes with big eyes blasting folks with laser weapons.