Friday, November 6, 2015

A Darkling Sea

James Cambias
Completed 9/26/2015, Reviewed 9/28/2015
4 stars

A research ship on the ocean floor of an ice covered moon, much like Io, is studying an intelligent species from afar.  Similar to Star Trek’s Prime Directive, the researchers are not allowed to have contact with the species.  When one man breaks the directive and gets killed by them, it erupts into an interplanetary incident causing a standoff between the research team and the Sholen, a race of aliens who figure themselves the enforcers of the directive.  Pretty much a standard space opera, but I have to admit, it was a very readable and entertaining novel.

My first thought with the book was that it could be considered derivative.  It’s very much like a Vernor Vinge novel with intertwining plots between the humans and the aliens.  Like Vinge, the aliens are really well described and developed.  In fact, Vinge endorses the book with a quote on the back cover.  But I thought they were much more imaginative, more along the lines of Clifford Simak.  The Ilmatar exist several kilometers below the surface ice of the moon.  Sort of a cross between lobsters and beluga whales, they have no eyes, seeing with sonar and touch.  They are modeled after our deep sea dwellers who live around thermal vents on the ocean floor.  The Sholen are a little more like us with a violent history but with sexuality and consensus as part of their normal interpersonal interaction.

The characters are not terribly deep, but following them as the narrative switches between a human, a Sholen, and an Ilmatar was really fun.  The most interesting part was how the understanding between the humans and the Ilmatar develops while it breaks down with the Sholen, even though the relationship between humans and Sholen is much older.  My favorite character was Broadtail, the Ilmatar.  Through him, we learn about his culture, and he provides a great perspective on how we would be perceived by an alien race at first contact. 

One of the best parts of the book is the very end.  There’s a twist that has spawned pages of discussion of its meaning on the net.  I won’t give it away here, of course.  Just suffice it to say it blew my mind.

I give this book four stars out of five.  This is a short review for a short book, but I think it’s enough to say it’s fun, exciting, interesting, and a fairly easy read.

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