Friday, March 28, 2014

Surfing the Human Wave: James L. Cambias' A Darkling Sea

Have you been looking for a science fiction novel that combines Hal Clement-style alien world building with an extended reflection on the Prime Directive and other policies of non-interference? Well, look no further! James Cambias' A Darkling Sea is that book -- and I don't think I can sing its praises highly enough.

The novel takes place in the deep ocean of a Europa-type moon where a team of human explorers has set up a science station to study the indigenous life. Said team has been forced by interstellar treaty to avoid contact with the Ilmatarans, the intelligent natives, but one human, a cocky media personality, decides to skirt dangerously close to violating those rules in order to get a closer look. What results is a tragic misunderstanding that attracts the attention of a third civilization, the Sholen, whose most radical political faction believes the human race should be contained within the Terran solar system before human beings do any more "damage." As you might expect, conflict ensues.

Irona and the other radical Sholen embrace the assumptions behind the 1980's version of the Prime Directive: Contact, no matter the circumstances and no matter how peaceful its intentions, will always result in a despoiling of the local culture and environment. But through his storytelling, Cambias invites us to consider a more nuanced viewpoint -- one informed not by the boilerplate left wing reading of world history but by the more optimistic conviction that sapient beings everywhere are actually quite capable of adapting to change. Yes -- Cambias does acknowledge that the meeting of two different cultures must be handled in a way that's circumspect and responsible; the death of Henri teaches us the dangers of reckless arrogance. But at the same time, it is not the human explorers who ultimately initiate the first real conversation with the Ilmatarans -- it is Broadtail, an Ilmataran scientist whose innate curiosity leads him into a human camp. The implicit message is this: It is incorrect - indeed, even insulting - to suppose that beings from a less "advanced" culture would necessarily want to have their society preserved in amber. They may, in fact, be just as eager as we are to expand their horizons and try new things, just as capable of assimilating information that seems to conflict with their understanding of the universe and its natural laws -- and just as likely to angrily object to being "protected."

It took me mere hours to read this book. Granted, I've always been a swift reader, but in this case, my speed of completion was aided by the fact that I could not put it down. Not only did I enjoy the story and its above-discussed message, but I was absolutely riveted by Cambias' rendering of Ilmataran society. As I suggested above, the thoughtful logic of the world building reminded me of Mission of Gravity; everything from the method of record-keeping - knots in ropes - to the style of communication - a mixture of shell tapping and sonar - made sense for blind creatures who live in a lightless aquatic environment. And, true to my usual proclivities, I was equally captivated by the humans' struggles to overcome the language barrier and make themselves understood by Broadtail and the others. Aliens, folks! Just -- aliens. Fully realized aliens.

The Ilmatarans don't look like this. They're more like a cross between a beluga whale and a lobster. But still - aliens.

The end of the novel also sets up an intriguing mystery. Does this mean Cambias intends to return to Ilmatar in a sequel? I certainly hope so! I fell in love with Broadtail and would be quite disappointed if his story ended here.

Final Verdict: Highly Recommended

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