RogerBW's Blog

A Darkling Sea, James L. Cambias 03 August 2015

2013 science fiction. Six months' hyperspace travel from Earth, a small scientific team explores the lightless under-ice ocean of the planet Ilmatar.

I read the first chapters of this in the 2015 Hugo packet, as they were republished in Lightspeed #44. It's planetary-exploration and first-contact SF of the old school, the sort of thing Hal Clement or Robert L. Forward might have written: the humans try to find out about the Ilmatarans while labouring under onerous restrictions, and a different set of aliens, the Sholen, has its own set of priorities.

Cambias was of course one of the principal authors of the latest edition of GURPS Space, and is no stranger to the principles of design for alien species and strange worlds. The Sholen are the triumph in that regard: they have a consensus-based philosophy and a social structure enforced by pheromonal and mating bonds, and overall while one can readily understand why they do what they do those reasons are often not human reasons, at least in their large-scale decisions even if the smaller stuff is often depressingly familiar. They do tend to say self-defeating things like:

"The Terrans have an obsession with rules and pride themselves on behaving rationally. Predicting their behavior seems like analyzing a computer's output – as long as you know the relevant rules and inputs, determining the result poses no difficulty. I worry least of all about them. They seem entirely predictable."

The Ilmatarans are still interesting, but not as successful; they're a crustacean-like species relying on volcanic vents, and while they have a variety of interesting biological quirks (their ranged perception is strictly by sonar; they have little energy reserve and frequently pause to rest and eat; their young grow wild, presumably from release of gametes into the sea, and are captured, educated, and sold to prospective parents) their mentality sometimes seems a bit too human (and specifically Enlightenment-period human) for real interest.

The humans, alas, are rather less well-developed; Robert Freeman, the primary viewpoint character, is a techie geek type, but although we learn a little about what he likes and how he thinks there isn't much subtlety there. Most people are easily summed up as "dedicated scientist" or "would-be hero". Dr Sen, the expedition's leader, is the only one with anything like subtlety of character development.

Unfortunately, in spite of everyone's best intentions, the Sholen expedition comes into conflict with the Earth one; although everyone asserts a wish to avoid violence, most of them are very bad at putting this into practice, and some on each side positively look forward to a bit of carnage.

It's all pretty lightweight stuff, but still enjoyable.

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See also:
Hugo 2015: Lightspeed 44, John Joseph Adams

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