A Darkling Sea
James L. Cambias
Locus Award for Best Debut Novel nominee1

Humans are going to fuck up first contact. We just are.

We’re going to do all the stupid things with extra stupid sauce, ignore the no contact rule for our own selfish, self-aggrandizing reasons, arrogantly assume we’re invisible to the blind, sonar-using aliens, and we’re going to be mistaken as an undiscovered life form and get our stupid asses dissected.

Count on it.

Cambias does. That’s pretty much where A Darkling Sea starts. There’s a team of deep space researchers who are collecting data about the native life on a distant icy, deep sea moon. The crew feels sort of familiar if you’ve watching any of these kinds of SF movies, like John Carpenter’s The Thing. Everybody’s in everybody’s business, a little under-washed, and united in their hatred of the future version of a TV-personality, a Jacques Cousteau/Steve Irwin analog.

Yeah, that doesn’t go so well. You smell doom from the moment Cousteau/Irwin says to Rob, his cameraman and our hero: “I’m going to go in just a little closer.”

But the predictability ends after the first chapter.

For one, we get the point of view of a native life form, a scientist named Broadtail. I really enjoyed how alien Broadtail was, the things he taught us about his culture, and the fact that he’s the one who has to wake up humans and let them know that these lobster/shark/whale-like creatures are as intelligent as they are.

The last bit really resonated with me because I have long suspected that when/if human beings actually do start exploring alien worlds we’re going to totally miss all the intelligent life out there. We’re going to mope around through the galaxies and think, “Nope, nope, no one like us!” because we’re looking for all the wrong things2 and thus have this bias against the idea that ‘human-like’ intelligences can come from things that don’t look or behave exactly like we do. Otherwise, IMHO, we’d recognize the intelligent life on our own planet, like crows, dolphins, gorillas, and ants. Which we don’t. We call them animals. Which is why it’s really kind of awesome that the Jacques Cousteau character is dissected by the aliens who can’t tell he’s intelligent.

There’s another alien race in this book – one that Earth did figure out was intelligent because they kind of look like us, only with a few extra limbs and a lot of the behaviors usually associated with the super-sexualized bonobo. The bonobo-aliens get involved because they’re the first space-faring aliens we encounter and Earth is desperately trying to figure out how not to go to war with them. The whole ‘non interference’ thing that Jacques Cousteau violated was negotiated with them, so they show up to evacuate the researchers.

Conflict ensues.

If you’re at all allergic to colonialism and imperialism, you might snuffle your way through the end. None of that much bothered me, because this is a space opera and space operas, by their very nature, have that problem: if we’re going into space, we’re likely already imperialists, even if we claim we’re non-interfering researchers.

We fuck these things up. We just do.


  1. Interesting note about the Locus Awards:“The Locus Awards are presented to winners of Locus Magazine’s annual readers’ poll, which was established in the early ’70s specifically to provide recommendations and suggestions to Hugo Awards voters. Over the decades the Locus Awards have often drawn more voters than the Hugos and Nebulas combined.” So, really, the Locus awards are a good indication of what SF/F people are reading and what their current favorites are.

  2. this stupid insistence on “tool use,” which we ignore when we see crows and apes using them, and brain-to-body size ratio, nevermind that crows have tiny brains and huge intelligence

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