A Darkling Sea by James L. Cambias is meat and potato science fiction in concept, but wagyu beef and crunchy sweet potato chips in execution.  Or to be put it another way, I had a great deal of fun with A Darkling Sea, which is not what I expected given it’s a very traditional first contact novel.

The book is set on the planet Ilmatar, a frozen world covered in ice where underneath the surface lives an alien race that navigates through touch and sonar. The United Nations have sent a group of scientists, thirty strong, to investigate the Ilmatarans from a distance. They are forbidden to interfere with the aliens development. If that sounds all a bit Star Trek, the neat wrinkle is that the command not to make contact has come from a third alien species – the Sholen. You see before humanity came across the Ilmatarans, they first encountered the very passionate and technologically savvy Sholen and they’re dead against the idea of humans influencing the development of the Ilmatarans.  Things come to a head – as they often do when ideologies conflict – when media personality Henri Kerlerec gets too close to the Ilmatarans while filming them and accidentally gets cut to pieces by the curious aliens.  Hearing of this the Sholen decide to check out what the humans have really been doing on the icy planet.

What I really enjoyed about this novel, aside from the fact that it’s set entirely underwater in an alien sea and involves humanities interaction with not one but two alien species, was how Cambias imbued the book with a real sense of discovery. He does this by making the smart move of telling a third of the story through the eyes of the Ilmatarans, and one in particular, the curious academic and teacher Broadtail 38. There’s something immediately endearing about the inquisitive crustacean as he tries to figure out the genus and origin of the creature they’d recently dissected (that would be Henri). His constant sense of wonder is infectious and this goes up about ten notches when he comes across some live, non dissected humans. His attempts to communicate with them, first through sonar, and then using his pincer to tap out numbers which he then associates with a word or action, is utterly fascinating. And what’s all the more marvellous is how the info-dumping or exposition is integrated into the growing sense of awareness of both Broadtail and the humans he makes contact with.

Less of interest are those sections dealing with the Sholen and the human personnel on the base, possibly because it goes exactly as you expect it too. When the Sholen arrive they make the decision that the humans have to leave immediately. This goes down like the proverbial lead balloon and the personnel on the station start a process of passive resistance.  Because it’s all a little predictable – what starts as passive resistance inevitably escalates into violence – I wanted the narrative to return as quickly as possible to Broadtail and his discoveries as he bonds with a small group of humans. This would be Rob, Alicia and Josef who have escaped the Sholen and eventually set up base with the Ilmatarans.

Now that I’ve brought up Rob, Alicia and Josef I should mention that their own ability to improvise in a difficult situation and in a threatening and deadly environment is one of the novel’s strengths. The way they solve problems through science and feats of engineering reminded me of The Martian, except that Rob, Josef and Alicia are genuinely likeable and engaging unlike douchebag Mark Watney (or at least the literary version of him).

This is the sort of science fiction novel that achieves what the genre – at least as traditionally understood – sets out to do, that is evoke a genuine sense of wonder in the reader. In this case it’s the discovery of a new culture, a new way of thinking, a new way of communicating. Yes, A Darkling Sea isn’t necessarily pushing science fiction in a new direction or…uncharted waters (har de har)…but it certainly pays respect to the core values of the genre.