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.



Yellow Blue Tibia, by Adam Roberts

Yellow Blue Tibia is the first novel by Adam Roberts I’ve read. I chose the novel, in great part, because of Kim Stanley Robinson’s claim, reproduced on the novel’s cover, that it “Should have won the 2009 Booker Prize.” Robinson feels that science fiction novels are marginalized; he may have a point, but to make a claim that a certain novel should win a prize is fatuous: it would have been enough to state that he thinks it should have been considered for a Booker Prize, but to state that it should have won is provocative and no-doubt invites undue criticism.0575083573.02.LZZZZZZZ

I began the novel with a certain prejudice because of Robinson’s statement on the cover; at first, I was won-over by Robert’s prose (such an excellent set-up!), but I don’t think it should have been considered for a major literary prize. The main character, Konstantin Andreiovich Skvorecky, is an enjoyable invention; sarcastic, and teeming with wry wit. And the story is quite engaging. But there simply wasn’t enough depth to fully immerse me as a reader, and Roberts has an annoying tendency to overdo things. A few examples of the overdone:

The dialog is purportedly in Russian (it appears in English to the reader), with some English, which is differentiated by [placing it inside square brackets], but Roberts felt the need to remind the reader for far too long that certain words were said in English, or that someone had switched to Russian, far past the point that I understood without being told. I don’t like authors who assume I’m thick; readers should be required to pay attention, and the careful reader should be rewarded, not punished.

There is a comical interrogation in which a tape recorder is used: the interrogator turns the recorder on and off in order to separate the ‘official’ recorded version from the interrogation sections filled with threats. The interrogator becomes muddled and begins to turn the recorder on and off at inappropriate times, recording his threats, and stopping the recording during the ‘official’ sections. Roberts tells the reader for far too long that the switching on and off are recording the incorrect sections; the interrogator’s reactions when he realizes his mistake are also overplayed. I would have appreciated  a little subtlety throughout this scene.

An interesting character, Saltykov, has a ‘syndrome,’  which is mentioned ad nauseam.

I enjoyed the novel (and, although you cannot tell a book by its cover, the art is remarkable), but it didn’t strike me as a particularly brilliant work of literature. As I mentioned, Kim Stanley Robinson believes (stated, in an article for the New Scientist) that Yellow Blue Tibia should have won the Booker Prize in 2009 (won by Hilary Mantel, for Wolf Hall). In the article, he maintains that the novels that win tend to be ‘historical’ novels, which “…are not about now in the way science fiction is.” Robinson lists a few other science fiction novels that he believes could have won in previous years; I have only read one of the other books he mentioned (Air, by Geoff Ryman), and it is a novel that I think should have received more attention as a work of literature, but that is only my opinion, and — oddly — I’ve never been asked to participate in a Booker Prize panel.

I’m glad I read Yellow Blue Tibia; for the most part it was well written and I’ll probably try another of the author’s books.




Thought Bubbles; a generational exchange…

FYI: this post has little to do with speculative fiction per se; nonetheless, this is where I’ve decided to post it…

Several years ago I doodled a ‘thought-bubble’ image; I was trying to write, but I was having difficulty, so I started doodling and the image flowed out of my pencil unbidden. Looking at it never fails to remind me that ideas are constantly burbling up from the subconscious; it requires little effort to grasp onto a thought as it meanders toward the surface.

The thought-bubble doodle should be visible on the top, left-hand corner of this blog screen; in case it doesn’t show on your screen (please let me know), I’ve included it below:


dbj2005; thought_bubbles








My youngest daughter, Brynne, is just finishing her third year at the Emily Carr University of Art + Design, and the students in one of her classes are having a gallery showing starting today (for more information on the showing, see my post at almostfalling.com).

Brynne created many pieces, and the one below (not part of the show; just a random creation) reminded me of my thought-bubble dude. I consider it an answering salvo: I’m pretty sure my dude is yelling at her dude, telling it to not go too deep; of course, her dude is mostly ignoring my dude…

ThoughtBubbleBrynne 001

baj2014; untitled