[Book Review] A Darkling Sea

A Darkling Sea / James L. Cambias (Powell's Books)

A Darkling Sea is a book that rose to my attention repeatedly with compelling reviews on the strength of the plot and storytelling.  A novel about conflict on the edges of civilization and exploration, in a universe where distance and wealth of planets invalidates the standard cause of wars over land and resources.

Ilmartar is a cold planet, its surfaced covered by ice kilometers thick, surrounding dark oceans kept thawed by the heat of the planet's core.  A human crew lives in a submerged station, studying the native environment and life, but is charged with non-interference with the dominant intelligent species.  When attempts at closer observation lead to the loss of one of the crew and discovery by the Ilmartaran's, the Sholen investigate the human presence on the alien planet.

Other reviews:
This was the April pick for Virtual Speculation.  Having made the pick solely based on reviews, I'm quite happy with this selection.  A hard science fiction novel of first contact and ideology.  I didn't generate a sizable list of discussion questions, but that wasn't due to any lack of interesting ideas.  I thoroughly enjoyed the read.

Discussion Fodder
  • Did the Ilmartarans' treatment of Henri Kerlerec surprise you?  Did it seem alien or strangely familiar?  Should Rob Freeman done more?  Whether to prevent the expedition or to save Henri?  Was Henri foolish or just idealistic in how he thought first contact interaction would go?
  • Tizhos reflects that "Everything the humans did seemed to be the result of competition or rigid logic."  What do you think of this assessment, and for exceptions that we can see as humans could an alien interpret them within Tizhos' framework?
  • Gishora is attempting to play a balancing game of politics, one where his motives and intentions are entirely unknown to the humans whom his actions effect.  If Gishora had been transparent in his intentions (had he been able to), do you think things would have played out the same?  How did he handle the situation properly, how did he mishandle it?
  • What do you think of the Sholen social and political structure?  Isolation verses exploration, consensus, sexual bonding to reinforce hierarchy?  What about the Ilmataran divisions?  Landowners, apprentices, outlaws, and children?  What about their cannibalism or concepts of murder?
  • Does the organization of words have meaning?  What is the power of the written word over speech?  What do you think of the interpretation of spoken word as "writing with sound"?
  • The humans are identified as intelligent by the Ilmartaran's by the fact they build, communicate, eat.  What do you consider the hallmarks of intelligence?
  • Irona's approach may be extreme, but is he wrong?  Is the only way to prevent "contamination" as he sees it to destroy the lives of those who have had alien interaction?  Or is it a fruitless endeavor?  Is it wrong for an alien race to introduce higher technology to a more "primitive" culture?


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