a darkling sea

James L. Cambias’ A Darkling Sea is hard science fiction/planetary colonization, with an almost golden-age sense of science fiction adventure. It involves two alien perspectives (as well as the human perspective), communication between the differing species, and political intrigue. There were some aspects that didn’t quite work me, but it was an enjoyable read.

Darkling Sea - James CambiasThe story is set on Ilmatar, a moon orbiting a gas giant. Similar to Europa, Ilmatar is an ocean moon with an outer crust of ice a thousand kilometres thick. There is life within the ocean, and a native intelligent species — the Ilmatarans — who build small cities around hydrothermal vents that discharge nutrients into the ocean waters. Ilmataran technology is not advanced, but it’s intriguing. The novel is at its best in sections that delve into their technology and culture; they are fascinating, blind beings who perceive the world using sonar. Their world-view is revealed mainly through the third-person viewpoint of Broadtail 38 Sandyslope, an Ilmataran Scientist (his name is shortened to Broadtail due to an unfortunate event that precipitates his further adventures).

The humans in the story are studying the ocean depths in a research facility: an elevator connects the facility to the surface station. The human point-of-view is mainly revealed through the third-person viewpoint of Rob Freeman, who struck me as a rather immature individual to be chosen for the research team, though he was likeable enough as a protagonist and the events in the novel appear to eventually lead him to greater maturity.

The third species of sentient beings in the tale, the Sholen, are larger than humans, possess a bonobo-like sexuality and an insectoid-like pheromonal physiology. Cooperation (rather, consensus) is of utmost importance to the Sholen, and their society is quite rigidly authoritarian. The Sholen are strongly opposed to making contact with low-tech alien intelligence (e.g.: the Ilmatarans). The Sholen, as a more advanced species, have forced humans to accept terms: humans can study the ocean world, but they may not make contact with the Ilmaterans.  Unfortunately, the Sholen are not nearly as well conceived as the Ilmaterans.

Among other things, the story is an argument against the concept of non-contact with alien intelligence; an argument against the Star-Trek-style philosophy of non-interference. I won’t argue the thesis here, but I found the substance, and the political intrigue, to be too rudimentary.

I also found the characterization a little lacking: Broadtail was the most interesting, by far. The protagonists, in general, received better development than the antagonists, who were generally one-dimensional. The story was definitely plot-driven, rather than character-driven.

There is an odd twist thrown in at the end that may be a set up for a sequel. The twist involves an enigmatic artifact that an Ilmateran discovered. If there is a sequel, I’ll probably read it for completeness. If a sequel is not planned, I don’t understand why the author weaved the artifact into the tale: the possible origin of the artifact invites speculation, but the novel gives no palpable clues to direct the speculation.

The narrative is imbued with the mood of a science fiction novel I might have encountered forty years ago, but it is built on a foundation of modern science and technology. The plot moves along swiftly and the novel is an easy, enjoyable reading experience.


The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August

Harry August is reborn, ad nauseam, as the same person, in the same life, at the same point in time. As per the book’s title, the novel relates the salient details from his first fifteen lifecycles, but the narration is not Harry_Augustchronological (the novel’s first sentence is from his eleventh life). Harry meets others like him (although their kind is rare) who have established a secret organization called the Cronus Club. They refer to themselves as orobourans (the circular snake, eating its tail) and/or kalichakras (a Vajrayana Buddhist term for the wheel of time). Kalichakras are rare, but Harry is even rare among his kind: he is a mnemonic, retaining all memories from previous lives. A ‘regular’ kalichakra retains quite a bit of their previous-life memories, but these memories fade during additional lifecycles.

The knowledge that is gained in each kalichakra’s lifetime gives them an inequitable advantage, which they use to advantage. It is unknown whether the kalichakras are reborn in the same universe, or whether they are born into an alternate reality each lifetime, but their timelines generate the same major events (e.g.: WWII)  each time they live through them, and they do not attempt to interfere with any major event. Kalichakra have, in the past, attempted to change history for the better, but the effects were devastating and the Cronus Club deals severely with kalichakras who attempt to meddle.

harry_august_hardbackThe plot unfolds in a manner quite similar to a time-travel story: a kalichakra is changing the future and, with each successive life-cycle, the end of the world is occurring earlier (kalichakras from the future deliver this message back in time through a chain of re-births). Harry must find and defeat this event-changing kalichakra, a campaign that lasts multiple lifetimes.

The novel delves into the ennui of the kalichakra, and Harry frequently ponders the purpose of existence. The themes include memory, companionship, love, friendship, intrigue and torture, but there is no grand romance tangled into the tale, which I think is better without it.

The plotting and world-building is very good; the pace of the story kept me involved enough that I was able to suspend disbelief regarding elements that didn’t quite work for me.

Harry was definitely the protagonist; but, after I’d finished the novel, I wondered if there really was a villain. There was an antagonist who performed villainous acts, and the ends do not, in my opinion, justify the means, but the antagonist’s ultimate goal could be interpreted as divine.



Note: there two other novels that have used this particular ‘rebirth’ set up (Ken Grimwood’s Replay (1986) and Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life  (2013)), but all three works use the plot device differently.