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WesternSFA
A Darkling Sea
by James L. Cambias
Tor/Tom Doherty, $25.99, 352pp
Publication Date: January 28, 2014
James Cambias really puts the science in science fiction in this debut novel!  From the first paragraph, I was totally immersed in this story of an interplanetary deep-sea scientific expedition. 

This novel is about three species of scientists from three different planets.  It takes place on Ilmatar, a moon with a surface of kilometer-thick ice.  The cold-blooded, crustacean-like people of Ilmatar live on the ocean floor, farming bacteria, plants, and animal life cultured by heat vents issuing from the planet’s core.  Wealthy landowners build their farms around the vents and which are, in turn, worked by their tenants.  It’s an ancient culture, with the landowners at the head of this hierarchical society.    

Deep-sea-diving scientists from Earth have set up a human life-support laboratory station to collect data and observe this fully-realized non-human alien species.  The scientists are there under the permission of a non-interference agreement with the Sholens, a more scientifically advanced and older race, who have assumed the role of wise mentor to the Earth’s fledgling intergalactic explorations.  The Sholens have allowed this scientific mission as long as the human scientists do not disturb the environment nor make contact with the Ilmatarans.

Rob is a tech expert on board the lab.  He’s been secretly recruited to film one of the human scientists -- Jacques Cousteau-like internet celebrity who has purchased a stealth scuba suit at great personal expense -- with a personal agenda to be the first human to swim among the blind Ilmatarans.  Unfortunately, the cocky scientist has the misfortune to swim too close to a group of Ilmataran scientists who are out on a research field trip.  They “see” him by sonar ping, capture him as a scientific specimen and dissect him to learn more about this new species.   

Meanwhile, the Sholen spies intercept the Earth-bound message about the scientist’s death and send two diplomat scientists to investigate aboard the station.  Supporting them are Sholen military who want to eradicate the contamination of the Ilmataran culture by any means necessary.   They revoke their approval of the Terran research and forcefully begin removing the Earth scientists.  Rob is among six of the Earth scientists who escape the Sholens in small life-support pod subs.  The rogue scientists enlist the help of the Ilmatarans to evade capture.  

As the lines of communication open up between the Ilmataran and Earth scientists, James Cambias provides a very satisfying tale of the frustration of first contact and the dilemma of these three very different species when they interact socially and politically. ~~ Marie Davis

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