James L. Cambias Takes a Nuanced Look at Clash of Cultures and Species in A Darkling Sea


History is shaped by cultures interacting either peacefully (through trade or art, for example) or violently, through war or colonialism. There doesn’t seem to be any way to avoid cultural intermixing–on Earth, at least.

Science fiction is another story. The crew of Star Trek was bound by the Prime Directive, the United Federation of Planets’ regulation that prohibited Starfleet personnel from interfering in the development of alien societies. James L. Cambias explores a similar idea in A Darkling Sea (Tor, 2014)but rather than accept the Prime Directive as an unexamined good, the narrative tackles the issue from a number of fresh perspectives–three perspectives, to be specific.

On one side is a team of human scientists who are trying to study a sentient species under six kilometers of a freezing, alien ocean. On the other side are the Sholen, technologically superior creatures who believe it’s their job to police inter-species interactions. And in the middle are the Ilmatarans, the giant crustaceans (think whale-sized lobsters) who the humans are trying to study. Is it OK for the humans and the Ilmatarans to interact? The Sholen say no, and prohibit direct contact. This means the humans can only observe the Ilmatarans from afar. Since the Ilmatarans “see” via sonar, the humans coat their vessels and diving suits in radar-proof material in the hopes of remaining virtually invisible.

However, when one of the humans makes contact, all hell breaks loose. The Sholen order the humans to leave the planet; the humans refuse; and the Ilmatarans choose sides.

A Darkling Sea asks important questions amidst a page-turning undersea battle: Is it inherently destructive for a technologically advanced culture (or species) to interact with a less advanced culture? When different societies mix, must some groups necessarily win and others lose? Who defines what’s “advanced” and what’s “less advanced”?

The greatest danger of superior technology just might be the superiority complex that comes with it. In their hubris desire to prevent inter-cultural contamination, the Sholen are unaware that they’re breaking their own rules. As Cambias points out in the New Books interview:

There is a logical contradiction buried in [the Sholen] attitude because they’re trying to prevent advanced species from meddling with less advanced ones; that means that they, as an advanced species, have to go around meddling with less advanced species.

Also in the interview, Cambrias discusses the challenge (and fun) of inventing the Ilmatarans’ complex society from scratch, how his job as a game designer has both helped and hindered his storytelling, and space piracy, a topic he plans to explore at length in his next novel, Corsair.

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