A Darkling Sea

A Darkling Sea

4.7 10
by James L. Cambias

View All Available Formats & Editions

On the planet Ilmatar, under a roof of ice a kilometer thick, a team of deep-sea diving scientists investigates the blind alien race that lives below. The Terran explorers have made an uneasy truce with the Sholen, their first extraterrestrial contact: so long as they don't disturb the Ilmataran habitat, they're free to conduct their missions in peace.



On the planet Ilmatar, under a roof of ice a kilometer thick, a team of deep-sea diving scientists investigates the blind alien race that lives below. The Terran explorers have made an uneasy truce with the Sholen, their first extraterrestrial contact: so long as they don't disturb the Ilmataran habitat, they're free to conduct their missions in peace.

But when Henri Kerlerec, media personality and reckless adventurer, ends up sliced open by curious Ilmatarans, tensions between Terran and Sholen erupt, leading to a diplomatic disaster that threatens to escalate to war.

Against the backdrop of deep-sea guerrilla conflict, a new age of human exploration begins as alien cultures collide. Both sides seek the aid of the newly enlightened Ilmatarans. But what this struggle means for the natives—and the future of human exploration—is anything but certain, in A Darkling Sea by James Cambias.

At the Publisher's request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management Software (DRM) applied.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
On the planet of Ilmatar, a team of humans have set up an underwater base beneath the thick shelf of ice in order to study the native life-forms that live in the planet's depths. They work under strictures that forbid any direct contact with the Ilmatarans, strictures put in place by the alien Sholen, who believe that humanity is too dangerous to be allowed loose on the galaxy. When one of the humans gets too close and is captured and killed by an Ilmataran, the Sholen intervene. But the human team won't leave Ilmatar quietly. VERDICT Guerilla warfare at the bottom of the sea makes for an exciting sf adventure, but most of the interest comes from the aliens that Nebula-nominated short story writer Cambias has created in his debut novel rather than the bland human characters.
Publishers Weekly
★ 12/09/2013
In Cambias’s vivid hard SF debut, humans land on the oceanic world of Ilmatar to study its indigenous population of intelligent aquatic creatures. The Terran scientists successfully avoid contact until a “shameless media whore” secretly films the Ilmatarans, resulting in disastrous first interactions. The incident leads to the appearance of a second alien race, the hairless, six-limbed Sholen, who arrive on Ilmatar ostensibly to identify the cause of the unfortunate inter-species encounter and prevent further mishaps. Opinion on the Sholen home world regarding “the Terran problem” is divided—some wish to avoid any involvement while others want to ensure that humanity is confined to Earth—and that debate plays out on Ilmatar in a satisfying blend of political intrigue, military posturing, and shifting alliances. Cambias paints imaginative, convincing portraits of the Ilmatarans, who struggle to impose order on their primitive and violent agrarian society, and the Sholen, whose self-identification as “compassionate” and “nurturing” masks a capacity for savagery. Cambias writes with a light touch and occasional flashes of humor, and the science supporting his novel is sound and unobtrusive. This is an impressive debut by a gifted writer. (Feb.)
From the Publisher
"An impressive debut by a gifted writer."

Publishers Weekly, Starred Review

"An exceptionally thoughtful, searching and intriguing debut."

Kirkus, Starred Review

"Like Silverberg, who developed fully realized alien societies in such novels as Downward to the Earth (to which this novel bears some thematic resemblance), Cambias makes the Sholen and Ilmataran people and cultures as real as the more familiar human component. Beautifully written, with a story that captures the imagination the way SF should."

Booklist, Starred Review

“A stunning debut! Alien races to rival Larry Niven, world-building to rival Hal Clement, and lots of rip-roaring adventure. James Cambias will be one of the century's major names in hard science fiction.”

—Robert J. Sawyer, Hugo Award-winning author of Red Planet Blues

“Fast-paced, pure quill hard science fiction.... Cambias delivers adroit plot pivots that keep the suspense coming.”

—Gregory Benford, Nebula Award-winning author of Timescape

“This is great fun—traditional science fiction but with today's science. And I love the aliens.”

—Jo Walton, Hugo, Nebula and World Fantasy Award-winning author of Among Others

“The best story about an alien race and its environment that I've read in a long time. Cambias is in the same league as Hal Clement.”

—Vernor Vinge, Hugo Award-winning author of A Fire Upon the Deep

“Cambias's exploration of truly alien politics is fast, fun, and packed with characters you'll cheer for. It's exciting to welcome an exuberant new voice to the ranks of hard science fiction!”

—Karl Schroeder, author of Ventus

“A compelling read.”

—Michael Flynn, author of On the Razor’s Edge

“A fascinating exploration of alien lives at the extreme edges of an alien world.”

—Brenda Cooper, award-winning author of The Silver Ship and the Sea


Kirkus Reviews
★ 2013-12-02
Science-fiction novel from game designer and story writer Cambias, the first of a projected series. Like Jupiter's Europa, Ilmatar is a moon of a giant gas planet. Here, under a roof of ice a kilometer thick and beneath a deep ocean, a team of Earth scientists has established a habitat in order to study the blind, intelligent aliens who resemble giant, lobsterlike, bald otters and whose home is this lightless, frigid, forbidding environment. The explorers have come to an agreement with a six-legged alien race, the Sholen, humanity's first extraterrestrial contact, not to disturb the Ilmatarans or their habitat. But when media blowhard Henri Kerlerec persuades scientist Rob Freeman to venture out in secret so that Henri can use his new stealth diving suit to film the Ilmatarans up close, the Ilmatarans eventually detect him and, being scientists themselves and not recognizing him as intelligent or alien, dissect him. According to the Sholen, this constitutes interference; having repeatedly ruined their own planet, the Sholen's misguided and self-appointed mission is to make sure nobody else ruins their planet either, so they order the humans to withdraw. Wary of the older, more advanced Sholen technology, the humans decide on passive resistance. Inevitably, matters slowly escalate into overt violence. More impressive than the worldbuilding, which is based on logical extrapolation, is Cambias' diligent consideration of the technology required to survive in such an extreme environment. Best of all are the aliens. Ilmataran civilization is based on farming the products of deep-sea hot-water vents, while their perceptions and communications employ sound and pressure waves--although, since oxygen is poisonous to them, it's difficult to envisage what gives them metabolic power enough to support intelligence. The Sholen behave according to consensus reached through political and sexual bonding. An exceptionally thoughtful, searching and intriguing debut.

Product Details

Tom Doherty Associates
Publication date:
Sold by:
Sales rank:
File size:
658 KB

Read an Excerpt

A Darkling Sea

By James L. Cambias

Tom Doherty Associates

Copyright © 2014 James L. Cambias
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-2756-1


BY the end of his second month at Hitode Station, Rob Freeman had already come up with 85 ways to murder Henri Kerlerec. That put him third in the station's rankings — Josef Palashnik was first with 143, followed by Nadia Kyle with 97. In general, the number and sheer viciousness of the suggested methods was in proportion to the amount of time each one spent with Henri.

Josef, as the primary submarine pilot, had to spend hours and hours each week in close quarters with Henri, so his list concentrated on swift and brutal techniques suitable for a small cockpit. Nadia shared lab space with Henri — which in practice meant she did her dissections in the kitchen or on the floor of her bedroom — and her techniques were mostly obscure poisons and subtle death traps.

Rob's specialty was underwater photography and drone operation. All through training he had been led to expect he would be filming the exotic life forms of Ilmatar, exploring the unique environment of the remote icy world, and helping the science team understand the alien biology and ecology. Within a week of arrival he found himself somehow locked into the role of Henri Kerlerec's personal cameraman, gofer, and captive audience. His list of murder methods began with "strangling HK with that stupid ankh necklace" and progressed through cutting the air hose on Henri's drysuit, jamming him into a thermal vent, abandoning him in mid-ocean with no inertial compass, and feeding him to an Aenocampus. Some of the others on the station who routinely read the hidden "Death to HK" feed had protested that last one as being too cruel to the Aenocampus.

Rob's first exposure to killing Henri came at a party given by Nadia and her husband, Pierre Adler, in their room, just after the expedition support vehicle left orbit for the six-month gimelspace voyage back to Earth. With four guests, there was barely enough room, and to avoid overloading the ventilators they had to leave the door open. For refreshment they had melons from the hydroponic garden filled with some of Palashnik's home-brewed potato vodka. One drank melon-flavored vodka until the hollow interior was empty, then cut vodka-flavored melon slices until one was too drunk to handle the knife.

"I've got a new one," said Nadia after her third melon slice. "Put a piece of paper next to Le Nuke for a few months until it's radioactive, then write him a fan letter and slip it under his door. He'd keep the letter for his collection and die of gradual exposure."

"Too long," said Josef. "Even if he kept it in his pocket it would take years to kill him."

"But you'd have the fun of watching him lose his hair," said Nadia.

"I would rather just lock him in reactor shed and leave him there," said Josef.

"Who are they talking about?" Rob asked.

"Henri Kerlerec," whispered Alicia Neogri, who was squeezed onto the bed next to him and half drunk on melon.

"Irradiate his hair gel," said Pierre. "That way he'd put more on every day and it would be right next to his brain."

"Ha! That part has been dead for years!"

"Replace the argon in his breathing unit with chlorine," said someone Rob couldn't see, and then the room went quiet.

Henri was standing in the doorway. As usual, he was grinning. "Planning to murder somebody? Our esteemed station director, I hope." He glanced behind him to make sure Dr. Sen wasn't in earshot. "I have thought of an infallible technique: I would strike him over the head with a large ham or gigot or something of that kind, and then when the police come, I would serve it to them to destroy the evidence. They would never suspect!"

"Roald Dahl," murmured Nadia. "And it was a frozen leg of lamb."

Henri didn't hear her. "You see the beauty of it? The police eat the murder weapon. Perhaps I shall write a detective novel about it when I get back to Earth. Well, good night everyone!" He gave a little wave and went off toward Hab Three.

This particular morning Rob was trying to think of an especially sadistic fate for Henri. Kerlerec had awakened him at 2100 — three hours early! — and summoned him to the dive room with a great show of secrecy.

The dive room occupied the bottom of Hab One. It was a big circular room with suits and breathing gear stowed on the walls, benches for getting into one's gear, and a moon pool in the center where the Terran explorers could pass into Ilmatar's dark ocean. It was the coldest room in the entire station, chilled by the subzero seawater so that condensation on the walls froze in elaborate geometrical patterns.

Henri was there, waiting at the base of the access ladder. As soon as Rob climbed down he slammed the hatch shut. "Now we can talk privately together. I have an important job for you."


"Tonight at 1900 we are going out on a dive. Tell nobody. Do not write anything in the dive log."

"What? Why tonight? And why did you have to get me up so goddamned early to have this conversation?"

"It must be kept absolutely secret."

"Henri, I'm not doing anything until you tell me exactly what is going on. Enough cloak- and-dagger stuff."

"Come and see." Henri led him to the hatch into Hab Three, opened it a crack to peek through, then gestured for Rob to follow as he led the way to the lab space he shared with Nadia Kyle. It was a little room about twice the size of a sleeping cabin, littered with native artifacts, unlabeled slides, and tanks holding live specimens. Standing in the middle was a large gray plastic container as tall as a man. It had stenciled markings in Cyrillic and a sky blue UNICA shipping label.

Henri touched his thumb to a lock pad and the door swung open to reveal a bulky diving suit. It was entirely black, even the faceplate, and had a sleek, seamless look.

"Nice suit. What's so secret about it?"

"This is not a common sort of diving suit," said Henri. "I arranged specially for it to be sent to me. Nobody else has anything like it. It is a Russian Navy stealth suit, for deactivating underwater smart mines or sonar pods. The surface is completely anechoic. Invisible to any kind of sonar imaging. Even the fins are low-noise."

"How does it work?" Rob's inner geek prompted him to ask.

Henri gave a shrug. "That is for technical people to worry about. All I care is that it does work. It must — it cost me six million euros to get it here."

"Okay, so you've got the coolest diving suit on Ilmatar. Why are you keeping it locked up? I'm sure the bio people would love to be able to get close to native life without being heard."

"Pah. When I am done they can watch all the shrimps and worms they wish to. But first, I am going to use this suit to observe the Ilmatarans up close. Imagine it, Robert! I can swim among their houses, perhaps even go right inside! Stand close enough to touch them! They will never notice I am there!"

"What about the contact rules?"

"Contact? What contact? Didn't you hear — the Ilmatarans will not notice me! I will stand among them, filming at close range, but with this suit I will be invisible to them!"

"Doctor Sen's going to shit a brick when he finds out."

"By the time he finds out it will be done. What can he do to me? Send me home? I will go back to Earth on the next ship in triumph!"

"The space agencies aren't going to like it either."

"Robert, before I left Earth I did some checking. Do you know how many people regularly access space agency sites or subscribe to their news feeds? About fifty million people, worldwide. Do you know how many people watched the video from my last expedition? Ninety-six million! I have twice as many viewers, and that makes me twice as important. The agencies all love me."

Rob suspected Henri's numbers were made up on the spur of the moment, the way most of his numbers were, but it was probably true enough that Henri Kerlerec, the famous scientist-explorer and shameless media whore, got more eyeballs than the rest of the entire interstellar program.

He could feel himself being sucked into the mighty whirlpool of Henri's ego, and tried to struggle against it. "I don't want to get in any trouble."

"You have nothing to worry about. Now, listen: here is what we will do. You come down here quietly at about 1830 and get everything ready. Bring the cameras, and a couple of the quiet impeller units. Also a drone or two. I will get this suit on myself in here, and then at 1900 we go out. With the impellers we can get as far as the Maury 3 vent. There is a little Ilmataran settlement there."

"That's a long way to go by impeller. Maury 3's what, sixty kilometers from here?"

"Three hours out, three hours back, and perhaps two hours at the site. We will get back at about 0300, just after breakfast. They may not even notice we have gone."

"And if they do?"

"Then we just say we have been doing some filming around the habitat outside." Henri began locking up the stealth suit's container. "I tell you, they will never suspect a thing. Leave all the talking to me. Now: not another word! We have too much to do! I am going to sleep this afternoon to be fresh for our dive tonight. You must do the same. And do not speak of this to anyone!"

* * *

BROADTAIL is nervous. He cannot pay attention to the speaker, and constantly checks the reel holding his text. He is to speak next, his first address to the Bitterwater Company of Scholars. It is an audition of sorts: Broadtail hopes the members find his work interesting enough to invite him to join them.

Smoothshell 24 Midden finishes her address on high-altitude creatures and takes a few questions from the audience. They aren't easy questions, either, and Broadtail worries about making a fool of himself before all these respected scholars. When she finishes, Longpincer 16 Bitterwater clacks his pincers for quiet.

"Welcome now to Broadtail 38 Sandyslope, who comes to us from a great distance to speak about ancient languages. Broadtail?"

Broadtail nearly drops his reel, but catches it in time and scuttles to the end of the room. It is a wonderful chamber for speaking, with a sloped floor so that everyone can hear directly, and walls of quiet pumice-stone. He finds the end of his reel and begins, running it carefully between his feeding-tendrils as he speaks aloud. His tendrils feel the knots in the string as it passes by them. The patterns of knots indicate numbers, and the numbers match words. He remembers being careful to space his knots and tie them tightly, as this copy is for Longpincer's library here at Bitterwater. The reel is a single unbroken cord, expensive to buy and horribly complicated to work with — very different from the original draft, a tangle of short notes tied together all anyhow.

Once he begins, Broadtail's fear dissipates. His own fascination with his topic asserts itself, and he feels himself speeding up as his excitement grows. When he pauses, he can hear his audience rustling and scrabbling, and he supposes that is a good sign. At least they aren't all going torpid.

The anchor of his speech is the description of the echo-carvings from the ruined city near his home vent of Continuous Abundance. By correlating the images of the echo-carvings with the number markings below them, Broadtail believes he can create a lexicon for the ancient city builders. He reads the Company some of his translations of other markings in the ruins.

Upon finishing, he faces a torrent of questions. Huge old Roundhead 19 Downcurrent has several tough ones — he is generally recognized as the expert on ancient cities and their builders, and he means to make sure some provincial upstart doesn't encroach on his territory.

Roundhead and some others quickly home in on some of the weak parts of Broadtail's argument. A couple of them make reference to the writings of the dead scholar Thickfeelers 19 Swiftcurrent, and Broadtail feels a pang of jealousy because he can't afford to buy copies of such rare works. As the questions continue, Broadtail feels himself getting angry in defense of his work, and struggles to retain his temper. The presentation may be a disaster, but he must remain polite.

At last it is over, and he rolls up his reel and heads for a seat at the rear of the room. He'd like to just keep going, slink outside and swim for home, but it would be rude.

A scholar Broadtail doesn't recognize scuttles to the lectern and begins struggling with a tangled reel. Longpincer sits next to Broadtail and speaks privately by means of shell-taps. "That was very well done. I think you describe some extremely important discoveries."

"You do? I was just thinking of using the reel to mend nets."

"Because of all the questions? Don't worry. That's a good sign. If the hearers ask questions it means they're thinking, and that's the whole purpose of this Company. I don't hear any reason not to make you a member. I'm sure the others agree."

All kinds of emotions flood through Broadtail — relief, excitement, and sheer happiness. He can barely keep from speaking aloud. His shell-taps are rapid. "I'm very grateful. I plan to revise the reel to address some of Roundhead's questions."

"Of course. I imagine some of the others want copies, too. Ah, he's starting."

The scholar at the lectern begins to read a reel about a new system for measuring the heat of springs, but Broadtail is too happy to really pay attention.

* * *

AT 1800 that night, Rob was lying on his bunk trying to come up with some excuse not to go with Henri. Say he was sick, maybe? The trouble was that he was a rotten liar. He tried to make himself feel sick — maybe an upset stomach from ingesting seawater? His body unhelpfully continued to feel okay.

Maybe he just wouldn't go. Stay in bed and lock the door. Henri could hardly complain to Dr. Sen about him not going on an unauthorized dive. But Henri could and undoubtedly would make his life miserable with nagging and blustering until he finally gave in.

And of course the truth was that Rob did want to go. What he really wanted was to be the one in the stealth suit, instead of Henri. It would be amazing to get within arm's reach of the Ilmatarans and film them close up, instead of getting a few murky long-distance drone pictures. Probably everyone else at Hitode Station felt the same way. Putting them here, actually on the sea bottom of Ilmatar, yet forbidding them to get close to the natives, was like telling a pack of horny teenagers they could get naked in bed together, but not touch.

He checked his watch. It was 1820. He got up and slung his camera bag over his shoulder. Damn Henri anyway.

Rob made it to the dive room without encountering anyone. The station wasn't like a space vehicle with round-the-clock shifts. Everyone slept from about 1600 to 2400, and only one poor soul had to stay in the control room in case of emergency. Tonight it was Dickie Graves on duty, and Rob suspected that Henri had managed to square him somehow so that the exterior hydrophones wouldn't pick up their little jaunt.

He took one of the drones off the rack and ran a quick check. It was a flexible robot fish about a meter long; more Navy surplus — American, this time. It wasn't especially stealthy, but instead was designed to sound just like a swimming mackerel. Presumably the Ilmatarans would figure it was some native organism and ignore it. His computer linked up with the drone brain by laser. All powered up and ready to go. He told it to hold position and await further instructions, then dropped it into the water. Just to be on the safe side, Rob fired up a second drone and tossed it into the moon pool.

Next the impellers. They were simple enough — a motor, a battery, and a pair of counter-rotating propellers. You held on to a handle on the top and controlled your speed with a thumb switch. They were supposedly quiet, though in Rob's experience they weren't any more stealthy than the ones you could rent at any dive shop back on Earth. Some contractor in Japan had made a bundle on them. Rob found two with full batteries and hooked them on the edge of the pool for easy access.


Excerpted from A Darkling Sea by James L. Cambias. Copyright © 2014 James L. Cambias. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

James Cambias has been nominated for the Nebula Award, the James Tiptree Jr. Award, and the 2001 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. He lives in Western Massachusetts. A Darkling Sea is his first novel.

James L. Cambias, the author of A Darkling Sea, has been nominated for the Nebula Award, the James Tiptree Jr. Award, and the 2001 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. He lives in Western Massachusetts.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Post to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews

A Darkling Sea 4.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 10 reviews.
JimboMI More than 1 year ago
This book is 100% pure, unadulterated win. Cambias has managed to not only create two new complete, real feeling alien cultures, he has also successfully extrapolated a future human society that is both believable and interesting without being distopian. No, not everything is perfect, but it's not all bad either. He manages to create different ways of speaking and of thinking to separate the three species in his book so that the reader is always aware of who is speaking. That's a rare gift. I will be getting more of his books in the near future.
Anonymous 26 days ago
I thought it was fantastic. The cultures and alien anatomy was unique and believable. I liked the interactions between all of them. It was great. But I may be a little dense. Can anyone tell me the signifigance of what was found in the stone box on the last page?
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
An interesting read capturing science fiction and fantasy.
Repeat_BandN_Customer More than 1 year ago
Wonderfully remote and strange. Don't consider it on the basis of being a "good first novel." Consider it instead as a good scifi novel of an amazingly distant and foreign world. I look forward with enthusiasm to whatever this writer does next.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A quick, fun, little bit scary, fast paced sci-fi read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
An imaginative read that I want more of.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Complex with so many threads to the story
joeb1 More than 1 year ago
This is one of the best I've read in quite some time. You won't be disapointed with the charactors or the story line. I only hope that Cambias adds more books to go with 'A Darkling Sea'! Excellent Book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This should be made into an AMC show or something. It is the perfect blend of sci-fi and moral indescision.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago