My new book A Darkling Sea (Tor Books) [LINK: http://www.amazon.com/A-Darkling-Sea-James-Cambias/dp/0765336278] is not a “political novel.” It takes place on a distant planet, not inside the Beltway. Reading it won’t give you any insights into what I think of the Smoot-Hawley Tariff or the Omnibus Appropriations Act of 1995. I think one could read it and come away without any idea of who I vote for. But there is political content, and it’s actually pretty radical.
What’s the book about? If you read the flap copy or the Amazon summary, you’ll learn that A Darkling Sea is about a conflict between human scientists studying the planet Ilmatar, the intelligent and curious natives of Ilmatar, and another group of spacefaring aliens called the Sholen. All this takes place at the bottom of an eternally dark ocean under miles of ice, in a distant star system.
In the course of the story, characters pull practical jokes, lead an expedition, try to seduce a human, get dissected, make an omelet, steal an elevator, attend a banquet, try out new weapons, get swallowed by a deep-sea creature, discuss numerology, contemplate murder, teach the young, rob a caravan, see something nothing has ever seen before, speculate about life underground, acquire some dry laundry, fight off invaders, and stand up for what is right. Among other things.
If you want more detail, go buy a copy. Better yet, buy two.
The political content is there, but it’s not obvious. At least, I hope it’s not. I hate books that preach. But my political theme was an integral part of the story from the very beginning. It’s why I wrote this book.
Here’s the secret political message at the heart of A Darkling Sea:
Humans aren’t evil.
I don’t mean that humans can’t do evil — one of my characters talks himself into murder and terrorism, and even the heroes end up waging war with all that entails in the way of bloodshed and sorrow. What I mean is that the book assumes that humans are not inherently evil, and our presence in the Universe is not a blight or a cancer.
Lately this seems like a radical notion in SF. Science fiction doesn’t like humans much right now. When James Cameron made a film about humans making contact with beings on a distant planet, he made the humans conquerors, polluters, and destroyers. At conventions and in ‘blog comment threads I’ve even seen SF fans put forth the idea that any colonization beyond Earth would be wrong, even if humans are just settling lifeless rocks.
Even one of the taproots of modern science fiction is infected with this idea. Star Trek is famous for its “Prime Directive” of non-interference. It’s notable how over the various iterations of the series, the Prime Directive went from a straightforward respect for planetary sovereignty to a notion that the very existence of human space travellers must be kept secret from cultures which haven’t built their own starships yet.
In other words, back in the unenlightened Captain Kirk era, the heroes of Star Trek treated less technologically advanced species with the respect due to equals. Kirk et al could have contact and friendships with various planet-dwellers, they just couldn’t barge in and start telling them how to run things.
But by the Captain Picard era, the crew treat low-tech beings more like chimps in a nature preserve, hiding from them and watching from camouflaged duck blinds — and all out of the conviction that contact with humans would be, must be harmful to their “natural development.” Patrick Stewart got to give a couple of barn-burner speeches about how wonderful and moral the idea was.
I’ve never really liked the Prime Directive. I think it’s patronizing at best, and fundamentally useless. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, only a culture which doesn’t need the restraint of the Prime Directive could ever think of it. It’s easy to see how real-world events between 1966 and 1987 brought about that shift in attitudes from Kirk to Picard, but I honestly don’t see how going from excessive optimism and self-confidence to excessive pessimism and self-loathing is really an improvement. There’s a happy medium somewhere, but sadly a pendulum tends to be moving fastest right when it passes through the middle of its arc.
So when I wrote A Darkling Sea, I set out to deconstruct the Prime Directive. One of the driving motivations in the story is the curiosity of the Ilmatarans themselves. The Ilmataran protagonist, Broadtail, isn’t just some random giant blind lobster, he’s a giant blind lobster scientist. His discovery of alien visitors is the greatest accomplishment of his life. And when he learns that there are other aliens who want to take that away, to wall off his world from the Universe again, he is outraged.
Humans are neither gods nor monsters. Writers — especially writers of science fiction — should be able to show that. A society of people who think they are gods will make terrible mistakes, but a society of people who think they are monsters will likely make worse ones. So A Darkling Sea puts forth the radical position that humans are human, and that being human is something worth doing.