weird aliens

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.


Rebuilding the TBR pile

There are times when I start five or so books and then get mired in a seemingly endless, yet completely unsatisfactory, readathon. I get busy and forget about three of those, and the other two turn out to be mediocre, or just not the books I want to read. I read two chapters of one and a few pages of the other. This goes on for days.

And so this is where we are now, with five books stuck in progress. It is clearly time to give up and rebuild the currently reading and TBR piles.

Here are the new candidates:


Reading decision was made for me by Tor with this shiny e-arc (the book is out January 2015)! I did not particularly like My Real Children, but Walton remains one of my favorite writers. Getting my hands on this is a cause for celebration. It involves time-traveling Pallas Athene, Apollo, and Sokrates, among others. Besides, I was just saying a few days ago how much I love deities in my SF.

Next is The Darkling Sea by James L. Cambias. I seem to recall reading good things about this one when it came out.


I think I am in the mood for a first contact story. I also enjoy weird aliens. I’m just a few pages in, and these appear to be crustacean, or at least have pincers.

And so as not to get carried away, I am going to stop at two.