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.
The 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.