Curiosity killed the explorer: A Darkling Sea by James L. Cambias

One cannot meddle in the affairs of other species across interstellar distances without spacecraft.

All kids allegedly want to be marine biologists when they grow up. I don’t know if this is really true, but I did want to be one. I remember having a lovely illustrated encyclopedia of marine life that I lugged everywhere for at least one whole summer. I knew it by heart. I can still see it in my mind, usually opened to the cephalopods section. I still harbor deep love (One! Two! Two marine puns!) for things with tentacles.

Crustaceans were not really my thing. But objectively I could see they were also fascinating. If they are your thing, however (and not just with garlic butter), you will enjoy A Darkling Sea. Crustacean aliens are one of two alien groups you will meet within. The other one is not an underwater species, but it’s equally as odd.

All action takes place on the planet humans call Ilmatar. It is covered in a thick sheet of ice with a layer of ocean underneath. A group of humans occupy a base on the bottom of the ocean, where they study Ilmatarans, an intelligent underwater species. Having a base on the bottom of the ocean, of course, is not as easy as just plonking down a bathyscaphe Captain Nemo-style. There are pressure and temperature challenges, to name just a couple of things. There are little infodumps throughout the book that tell you how you, too, can send a team to live and do science under the sea.

Where the explorers go, conquerors and exploiters always follow.

darklingIn a nutshell, this is what another alien species called Sholen think of humans’ attempts to study the Ilmatarans. They consider humans ‘a stain on the world’ of icy Ilmatar. Sholen have an uneasy truce with humans: as long as humans don’t disturb (and Sholen determine what that means) the underwater aliens and don’t interfere with their life and culture, they can conduct their studies. Unfortunately, this arrangement crumbles when one of the humans decides to go out and take a closer look. It sounds like fun and games until a group of Ilmatarans capture him. For science. They don’t really mean him harm, but not being human, they are not up-to-date on human physiology, and so they end up dissecting him out of curiosity.

There are many layers to this book. Sholen are not simply meddling ‘grand panjandrums of alien contact’. The couple sent to Ilmatar to investigate the researcher’s death face their own political hurdles at home, and their decision about whether the death is an accident or not can have serious consequences. Ilmatarans have a pretty complex society themselves, and different groups of Ilmatarans end up having different types of interactions with both human and Sholen.

Curiosity is really the thing that ties the novel together. Humans are curious about Ilmatarans, Ilmatarans are curious about humans, certain humans are also curious about Sholen (for example, how their foodmaker works, not to mention their leader/follower relationships that hinge entirely on pheromones, physical contact, and sex). It’s a powerful force that appears to tie all the cultures together.

A Darkling Sea is a nice mix of adventure, first contact, cultural miscommunication, and a slew of other themes that don’t seem like tropes mostly because the book is a lot of fun to read. Plus, it has some neat discussion of language and writing systems, if you are into that sort of thing (see ‘sound writing’ on page 204), as well as amazing descriptions of food. Doesn’t your mouth just water when you read this:

The meal began with subtle vegetable tastes mixed with stimulants, progressed to strong spices and disinhibitors to improve the conversation, and wound up with aphrodisiacs and a mild narcotic with a blend of pickled fruit flavors.

Or maybe this is more up your alley (or underwater trench):

There are cakes of pressed sourleaf, whole towfin eggs, fresh jellyfronds, and some little bottom-crawling creatures Broadtail isn’t familiar with, neatly impaled on spines and still wiggling.


    1. On a scale from zero to Peter Watts, not hard at all. There is some explanation of underwater suits and such, but all it says is ‘this is how we can be underwater!’ It’s the social interactions that drive the story.

      1. Ah, okay. I’ll definitely be reading this at some point. Probably when I want some SF that isn’t too hard.

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