It's only when you open a new SF novel and discover that it's an unabashedly old-school story of scientific exploration and alien first contact that you realize just how rare stories like these, that the field was once simply crawling with, have become. The principal appeal of the debut effort of James L. Cambias is its evocation of the hard SF of yesteryear, its fond embrace of the Analog storytelling ethos, and ideas about alien culture and civilization echoing those of writers like Pohl, Niven and Clement. As with most first novels, its execution isn't even close to watertight. But it presents Cambias as a writer of wit, imagination, and some real promise.
Sometime in the future, the human race has been given the technological secrets of interstellar travel by an alien race called the Sholen. But the Sholen aren't idealized as so many alien races have been by earnest SF writers too eager to make statements about the evils that men do. They have a past marked by horrific, nearly civilization-destroying warfare that they are trying to put behind them. But they are still marked by factions, one of which is deeply xenophobic and sufficiently politically powerful that their paranoia holds real sway over policy making. As a result, humanity's deep space exploration efforts are shackled by highly restrictive noninterference rules, like Star Trek's Prime Directive leveled past 9000.
A human scientific team is currently stationed on the distant moon Ilmatar, romantically named for a Finnish goddess and circling a planet in the Gliese 745 system. (There's a whole microsite Tor has put together giving the backstory of Cambias's future.) Like Europa, Ilmatar is an iceball, beneath the frozen crust of which lies a vast ocean in which live a intelligent, civilized race of lobster-like aboriginals who have developed — among other things — science, politics, and aquaculture. The humans studying them chafe under the Sholen restrictions, as their limited ability to study the aliens up close necessarily limits the obtainable knowledge. But when one member of the team decides, on his own, to flout the rules and don a spiffy high-tech stealth diving suit in order to study the Ilmatarans up close and personal, well, let's just say the exercise ends badly for him.
When word of the incident gets off planet, the Sholen waste no time in sending a ship full of envoys (in fact, it arrives so fast the humans suspect it of being a military vessel), who barge into the station and demand the human crew pack everything in and clear out. The humans impolitely decline (leading to some funny moments of civil disobedience, shall we say), tempers fray, prejudices intensify. And before you can say "Well, that escalated quickly!", violence and the fearful prospect of war rears its ugly head.
The deep political irony of the situation — that through their zealous enforcement of their laws, the Sholen are merely making the situation they hoped to avoid incalculably worse — is forefronted in the unfolding drama. Cambias also invests us in the drama through some sympathetic viewpoint characters from each species. Among the humans, scientists Rob Freeman and Alicia Neogri must weigh their need to resist the Sholen for the sake of science against their fear of further bloodshed. The Sholen envoy Tizhos is sympathetic to the humans, and finds her loyalty tested when she realizes the anti-human factions among her people have no worry of "destroying the village in order to save it," so to speak. And the Ilmataran scholar and landowner Broadtail, exiled for an accidental killing, finds a means to satisfy both his own thirst for knowledge and his need to re-establish his honor and stature among his people, when the strange beings from beyond the ice come to call.
Still, A Darkling Sea isn't free of first-novel hiccups. Though protagonists are adequately fleshed out, antagonists — the cocky human Dickie Graves, the Napoleonic Sholen leader Irona, the ruthless outcast Ilmataran bandit Strongpincer — are almost uniformly one-dimensional. They are there solely to do stupid things to make everything turn for the worse when the plot requires it.
There is some erratic pacing as well, leading to moments when the story starts to grind just as suspense should begin peaking. And in the final chapters of the book, you get the impression that, rather than events unfolding in a way that naturally and organically leads the narrative to a climax and resolution, certain events are instead being forced to fit the needs of the plot. For example, late in the story, certain allegiances are made, which would perhaps have done better service to the story had they been made earlier. As it is, there's no sense the characters have any true loyalty or emotional investment to one another, and are acting only out of short-term self-interest. That may have been the intent, but if so, it hampers the reader's own motivation to be emotionally invested in outcomes.
Still, I am settling on three stars for Cambias's debut, as its merits are considerable, and its fidelity to SF storytelling ideas and themes that have been absent from the genre for too long is heartwarming. We have a budding career here worth keeping an eye on.