Review: A Darkling Sea

While most life on Earth is powered by chemical energy captured from solar radiation, deep in our seas there are entire ecologies powered by volcanism – specifically the hot water issuing from hydrothermal vents. Hot mineral-rich water supports a food chain based on chemosynthetic bacteria and archaea; it extends upwards in complexity through giant tube worms, clams, limpets and shrimp. These animals live miles further down than sunlight ever reaches, in an extreme of pressure and frigid temperatures that would kill any surface life in short order.

In recent years planetary astronomers have come to believe that beneath the icy surfaces of some of our gas-giant moons there are dark oceans of liquid water. Tidal forces acting on the moons power volcanism; Europa, in particular (the smallest of the four “Galilean” moons of Jupiter) is suspected of having its own hydrothermal vents. Exobiologists think it is relatively likely that life has evolved around them.

James Cambias’s A Darkling Sea (Tor) transplants the Europa scenario to Iluvatar, a moon in a solar system roughly half way between future Earth and the homeworld of aliens called the Sholen who are attempting to limit human interstellar expansion. A peace treaty with the Sholen constrains human scientists living in a seafloor habitat beneath the ice. They chafe to make contact with the intelligent arthropods at the top of Iluvatar’s foor chain, but are forbidden from contaminating their culture.

After a human scientist attempting to spy on the Ilmatar is captured and dissected by Iluvatarans who do not realize he is a sophont like themselves, a Sholen mission shuts down the base and orders the humans to evacuate. Some humans, refusing, flee into the lightless ocean and must make allies of the Iluvatarans to survive. When the Sholen’s clumsy attempts at forcing the issue kill some of the mission crew, the survivors vow to strike back.

Cambias imagines a detailed and convincing ecology for Iluvatar. The natives have plausible psychologies given their evolutionary history (the way Cambias develops the operation and limits of the sonar that is the only distant sense of these eyeless beings is impressive). The gritty details of life in a cramped, smelly human dive habitat are also well handled. Even the villains of the piece are not mere cardboard; the Sholen have their own internal factional problems, and become dangerous not because the are strong but because they are divided, afraid, and dwindling.

Overall, this is a tense, well-constructed SF novel of first contact, done in the classic Campbellian style and lit up with the sense of discovery that such works ought to have. It could have been written by Hal Clement or Arthur C. Clarke if either were still alive. It works excellently on that level, even if you don’t notice that the author has embedded in it a sly parable.

I won’t spoil the fun by laying it all out for you. But the viewpoint character’s last name is “Freeman”, and the repressive eco-pietism of the Sholen echoes the attitudes of some humans in our present day. The second half of the book, without ever tub-thumping about it, delivers a satire of various human political delusions. Even the Sholen social pattern of achieving consensus by bonobo-like sexual bonding carries mordantly funny symbolic freight once you realize what it’s a comment on.

All in all, highly recommended. This is much the best first SF novel I’ve read in the last few years, and leads me to expect good craftsmanship from Cambias in the future.

55 thoughts on “Review: A Darkling Sea

  1. It may also be interesting to read Mr Cambias’s guest posts on various blogs:
    • “Building Ilmatar” on his publisher’s blog talks a little about world-building; and yes, Hal Clement is explicitly mentioned as inspiration.
    • “The Big Idea: James L. Cambias” on John Scalzi’s Whatever: “I’ve always hated the Prime Directive. The Prime Directive idea stems from a mix of outrageous arrogance and equally overblown self-loathing, a toxic brew masked by pure and noble rhetoric.”
    • “A Radical Notion” on Sarah Hoyt’s According to Hoyt: “Here’s the secret political message at the heart of A Darkling Sea: Humans aren’t evil.

    Here’s my take on the book:

    It’s well-written, and the pace is right. Down to the last pages I kept wondering how he would tie up the plot—the answer being, “quite nicely”.

    He’s satisfied John Campbell’s requirement to “Write me a creature that thinks as well as a man, or better than a man, but not like a man”. The psychology of deep-sea dwelling creatures is worked out, down to little details like the raising of children when parentage is irrelevant. (Shades of the Sqid race [Sam Starfall] from Mark Stanley’s Freefall webcomic.)

    Better yet, the author recognizes when the story has been told and stops the book there. He may have a sequel in his mind, or other stories in that same universe—or not. The universe he’s created is real and satisfying even if he never visits it again; I just want more stories from this mind.?

  2. >“Here’s the secret political message at the heart of A Darkling Sea: Humans aren’t evil.”

    Right. He actually gets a bit more specific than that, but I’m not going to spoilerize.

  3. Jim Cambias has been working in my field (game design) for at least 20 years. You’ve probably played some of the games he’s written.

  4. >Jim Cambias has been working in my field (game design) for at least 20 years. You’ve probably played some of the games he’s written.

    Don’t tease us like that, list some games!

  5. ESR: I worry, whenever someone posts a review like this, that as much as I agree with the message in question, I’m going to find the end result preachy and annoying. Does it get bad in that regard?

    Ken: Which games?

  6. >ESR: I worry, whenever someone posts a review like this, that as much as I agree with the message in question, I’m going to find the end result preachy and annoying. Does it get bad in that regard?

    I didn’t think so. Cambias did it right; you’re never hit over the head with the subtext.

  7. I’ve met Cambias. He’s a good guy.

    As for games, look at “Bone Wars”, a card game about the competition between two early paleontologists that wound up with a dinosaur that never actually existed becoming one of the ones everybody learned about. (It was a incorrect identification of fossil evidence not caught till long after.)

    See http://www.zygotegames.com/bw.html

  8. Eric: Thanks for the very flattering remarks. I’m glad you enjoyed Darkling Sea. You and I met years ago at the “King’s Musketeers” LARP weekend in DC (I was William of Orange for the occasion).

  9. >You and I met years ago at the “King’s Musketeers” LARP weekend in DC (I was William of Orange for the occasion).

    Ah, was that the second running in which I was Cyrano de Bergerac? Great game. One of the best ever, in retrospect.

  10. I read this book a while back, and I loved it. I hope this author continues writing – he does science fiction right. It’s been too long since I’ve read sci-fi that was actually on the exploration/discovery/contact end of the genre.

    And, like Mr. Cambias, I’ve always hated the Prime Directive!

  11. The natives have plausible psychologies given their evolutionary history …

    He’s satisfied John Campbell’s requirement to “Write me a creature that thinks as well as a man, or better than a man, but not like a man”. The psychology of deep-sea dwelling creatures is worked out, down to little details like the raising of children when parentage is irrelevant. –JCSalomon

    That’s quite intriguing; does the book actually introspect on the aliens’ psychology and character with any real depth, or is the reader just told about these features in a matter-of-fact way? Does Cambias go to any significant length in trying to make us gradually sympathize with these seafloor-dwelling creatures?

  12. >That’s quite intriguing; does the book actually introspect on the aliens’ psychology and character with any real depth, or is the reader just told about these features in a matter-of-fact way? Does Cambias go to any significant length in trying to make us gradually sympathize with these seafloor-dwelling creatures?

    Much of the book is told from the Ilmatarans’ point of view. You get their psychology from their behavior, and they do become sympathetic.

  13. Thanks for the recommendation Eric, this is a great book.

    It reminded me of A Deepness in the Sky; our first good look at the Ilmatarans is through the viewpoint of an Ilmataran character. You can pick up on some of the broader differences right away (if you’re paying attention), but it’s not until a human character comes along and can share the same space and experiences as the Ilmatarans that we can figure out the more subtle differences. It’s the “unreliable narrator” effect used for good, rather than just to mess with the reader’s head.

  14. >It’s the “unreliable narrator” effect used for good, rather than just to mess with the reader’s head.

    Yes. A subtle but significant point which I regret not foregrounding in the review.

  15. Gene Wolfe uses the unreliable narrator superbly in The Book of the Long Sun; I’ve been thinking about two scenes in particular for the last couple of hours. Now I’m going to have to reread it; I may not be super productive tomorrow…

  16. >Thanks for the recommendation Eric, this is a great book.

    Calling it a great book goes too far, I think. Great SF books need to push on the conceptual frontier more than this one does. The last SF novel I read that I’d call “great” was Stephenson’s Anathem, and before that Greg Egan’s Diaspora – I think we get one a decade, maybe, if we’re lucky.

    But though not “great”, it is very good. I’d call it top-quality genre SF, nearly the best that can be done shy of conceptual-breakthrough greatness. It speaks to me of someone who has absorbed the best of what the Campbellian tradition of SF has to offer and wanted to give back to it by creating excellent work within the form. I can understand that desire, I feel it myself.

    It wouldn’t be a crazy bet that the author might write truly great SF (as I think of it) someday.

  17. > Calling it a great book goes too far, I think

    Fair enough; it’s certainly not as good as Diaspora. On the other hand, I accidentally read it in one go, rather than trying to savor it, so it’s better than merely good. Shamefully, I can’t think of anything to go in the gripping hand. It annoyed me that none of the characters in A Darkling Sea remembered that the sub kept am automatic record of it’s position, but that goes in the first hand…

  18. Speaking of Diaspora, I’d be interested to know what you thought of the “mind seed” method of creating a mind (aside from it necessarily being somewhat vague), and your thoughts on the psychology of sentience/theory of mind demonstrated at the end of that first chapter.

    Personally, I was impressed by the simplicity of the description of Yatima’s progress towards sentience, and I choked at the line “Poor little Yatima.”. I cried a bit at Hashim’s painting/sculpture/art thing too, come to think of it. And now I’m thinking of The Diamond Age.

    Bah, you’ve sniped me; there goes my week.

  19. >Speaking of Diaspora, I’d be interested to know what you thought of the “mind seed” method of creating a mind (aside from it necessarily being somewhat vague), and your thoughts on the psychology of sentience/theory of mind demonstrated at the end of that first chapter.

    I was very impressed with it. I thought it was both novel and as plausible-sounding as any such description could be at the present state of human knowledge.

  20. @ESR: “Calling it a great book goes too far, I think. Great SF books need to push on the conceptual frontier more than this one does. The last SF novel I read that I’d call “great” was Stephenson’s Anathem, and before that Greg Egan’s Diaspora – I think we get one a decade, maybe, if we’re lucky.”

    Sounds about right.

    Part of the problem is that as a literary genre develops, it acquires tropes and becomes increasingly formalized, reaching a state where the tropes become the point. The nadir is likely the Harlequin Romance, with a deliberately cookie cutter approach, and an “If you like one, you’ll like another” marketing thrust. Pick any one at random and you are likely to get what you are looking for.

    DAW Books under Don Wollheim tried to recapitulate that in SF (though these days it’s more fantasy bricks), and Baen Books, with it’s concentration on mid-level action/adventure SF/Fantasy is DAW’s spiritual successor.

    Mysteries are the same way, with a variety of subsets like “hard-boiled”, police procedural, and “cozies” Westerns were the same before the genre imploded.

    It becomes very difficult to transcend the form and do something outstanding. The best you can normally hope for is a very good example of the form.

    The most recent books that really impressed me were Peter Hamilton’s “Night’s Dawn” trilogy. Prior to that, David Brin’s Uplift series, Dan Simmon’s Hyperion Cantos, and Vernor Vinge’s Zones of Thought books. All had in common big ideas and a sprawling canvas. (I’m just starting to go through Iain Bank’s Culture series, but it bids fair to become another on that list.)

    Another part of the problem for SF is that it has developed to the point where it’s a challenge for new writers because they simply haven’t read enough of the field to have an idea of what has been done, and don’t know enough to craft something that isn’t a retread of a retread. There have been a variety of Top 100 lists. I get tempted to point new folks at one or another and say “Read these before you sit down to write your own. I may not agree they are the best books, but they will give you some idea of the nature of the field, what has already been done, and what areas you might be able to address without embarrassing yourself.”

  21. >It becomes very difficult to transcend the form and do something outstanding. The best you can normally hope for is a very good example of the form.

    Agreed, but I think you’re implicitly being a little unfair to SF by comparing the range within its forms to the range within other genre forms. SF has more room in it than Westerns or romance or mysteries; genre conventions constrain what you can do less, if only because you’re not restricted to premises and settings that are familiar to the reader.

    A Darkling Sea is a near perfect example of this. It challenges the reader’s assumptions about what could be in a way that a Western or a romance or a mystery cannot. Because that’s the point readers expect what Darko Suvin called “cognitive estrangement”.

  22. @ESR: “Agreed, but I think you’re implicitly being a little unfair to SF by comparing the range within its forms to the range within other genre forms. SF has more room in it than Westerns or romance or mysteries; genre conventions constrain what you can do less, if only because you’re not restricted to premises and settings that are familiar to the reader.”

    SF may have more room. Readers may *not*. As the genre develops to a point where there are recognizable sub-genres, you get readers whose preference is that sub-genre, and read little outside it. They read specifically for the tropes. Alternate history has become something of a genre of its own, with entrants that arguably *aren’t* SF, like Robert Harris’s Fatherland, a mystery set in the present day, but in an alternate history in which the Axis won WWII. The protagonist is a Berlin police officer investigating a murder with implications that have the Gestapo involved and attempting a coverup.

    Military SF is a popular sub-genre. Media tie-ins, like Star Trek and Star Wars books are another.
    Fantasy (which I subsume with SF under the general label of fantastic fiction) has spawned a variety, with paranormal romance* a leading contender.

    The market for the sort of book you are talking is a small fraction of the overall market for SF. Years back, I attended a talk by Beth Meachum, Tor’s Editor-in-Chief, given at an SF club meeting. She mentioned stats like a typical SF book getting a press run of 50,000 paperback copies, but a new Piers Anthony Xanth title would get 250,000. The response of groans produced a “That stuff *sells*, people!” response. She was quite frank that if Tor published only what that club liked, they’d be belly-up in short order, and was quite right.

    It’s part of the reason why it’s difficult to do something that transcends the form, and I don’t think it’s easier in SF than elsewhere.

    The majority of readers aren’t in it for cognitive estrangement. (And incidentally, Darko Suvin is arguably a classic fugghead. See http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/chq/summary/v005/5.4.nodelman.html for a review that hints at why.)

    * Incidentally, paranormal romance is not inherently bad. I recommend Laura Anne Gilman’s “Retrievers” series, with a novel magic premise and an engaging heroine, written for Harlequin’s Luna imprint. (Disclaimer: Laura Anne is an old friend, and I’ve met and respect the editor she wrote the books for.)

  23. > Another part of the problem for SF is that it has developed to the point where it’s a challenge for new writers because they simply haven’t read enough of the field to have an idea of what has been done, and don’t know enough to craft something that isn’t a retread of a retread. There have been a variety of Top 100 lists. I get tempted to point new folks at one or another and say “Read these before you sit down to write your own. I may not agree they are the best books, but they will give you some idea of the nature of the field, what has already been done, and what areas you might be able to address without embarrassing yourself.”

    @DMcCunney:

    There is “The Road to Science Fiction” series of science fiction anthologies edited by James Gunn, last 6th volume from 1998 (I have up till 4th volume, in paperback format, translated into Polish), which includes maybe not best, but certainly characteristic, influential and important works.

  24. @Jakub Narebski: “There is “The Road to Science Fiction” series of science fiction anthologies edited by James Gunn,”

    Yep, I’m aware of them, and have met Gunn. They are another good choice along that line.

    There have been endless lists of best SF for readers. It would be interesting to try compiling one for people who wanted to *write* it, as “These are books you should read to have a basic grounding in SF, and it’s probably not a good idea to try to write it for publication until you have that grounding. You’ll fail out of simple ignorance.”

    I expect such a list would be very similar to best SF lists for readers, but it might have interesting differences.

  25. Sarah Hoyt has a post on The Problem Of Originality:

    The truth about originality is that the more original the idea, the more you need to put it in a setting that goes down more easily and without the readers feeling like they must take notes. OTOH if your idea is “standard” you can afford to throw in more tweaks, bells and whistles around it, to make it memorable. … And this, ladies, gentlemen, dragons and sentient dinosaurs, is why you should read in the field.

    (Of course if you do suggest any list of stories every SF/F writer should be familiar with, some twit will accuse you of worshiping Heinlein [some of his stories are on that list, right?] and of wanting to write people out of fandom.)

  26. As much as I see where Hoyt is coming from, Stephenson’s Anathem stands out all the more for being a counterexample. (Unless perhaps he got around this by setting up the story in the tone of a fantasy alternate universe such as Game of Thrones.)

    This notion of an SF list for SF writers intrigues me. Sounds like a fascinating armchair endeavor, especially for this crowd. On a meta level, it would probably have to branch out – this is what you have to know for military SF, this for alternate history, this for alien biologies, etc.

    Someone here posted a link to Project Rho a few weeks ago, and that’s been on and off reading for me ever since. The SF references within it strike me as a viable superset of everything someone should read before trying hard SF, for starters.

  27. @Paul Brinkley : “This notion of an SF list for SF writers intrigues me. Sounds like a fascinating armchair endeavor, especially for this crowd. On a meta level, it would probably have to branch out – this is what you have to know for military SF, this for alternate history, this for alien biologies, etc.”

    Oh, it would certainly expand. There would be a top level “This is where you start”, with branches off that for particular sub-genres. And it would by necessity expand beyond SF. If you’re writing *science* fiction, you better have at least some grasp of the science underpinning your story. If your science is wrong, you fail out of the box, no matter how good the tale may be in other respects. If you’re writing military SF, some notion of military history and development and current practice is required. It’s all about expertise, and far too many aspiring writers don’t know what they don’t know.

  28. @Joel C. Salomon: “(Of course if you do suggest any list of stories every SF/F writer should be familiar with, some twit will accuse you of worshiping Heinlein [some of his stories are on that list, right?] and of wanting to write people out of fandom.)”

    And I’ll point at them and laugh. It makes the same sort of lack of sense as claiming that you shouldn’t read Joseph Conrad because he was a racist.

    I met Heinlein, knew people who knew him, and have read almost everything he’s written. You can’t claim any sort of meaningful knowledge of the field with having at least a basic familiarity with his work. You don’t have to like it, but you do need to be aware of it.

  29. If you’re writing *science* fiction, you better have at least some grasp of the science underpinning your story. If your science is wrong, you fail out of the box, no matter how good the tale may be in other respects.

    Charles Sheffield and Nancy Kress used to do a debate about this statement at cons (I saw them do it twice, and I assume those weren’t the only two times they did it). Sheffield took the position you just laid down, Kress took the opposite. The example Sheffield gave of a book that he couldn’t finish because of this was Mary Doria Russel’s The Sparrow. The entire plot hinges on a very basic physics boo-boo. Not only did she get the numbers wrong, but there was no way that they could be made right; there was no set of numbers that would work. And his point was that a real SF writer would at least bother to do the calculation (or get someeone else to do it for her), and if it didn’t work she’d either change the story or come up with some McGuffin to explain the anomaly. The problem with Russell was that she didn’t bother, that it seems never to have even occurred to her to figure out whether the numbers she gave were possible, or that any readers would bother doing it themselves (and it’s actually a very simple calculation). And to Sheffield (and me) this makes the book non-SF. Outside SF there’s no expectation that the plot must be physically possible. Readers are expected to just take the premises for granted and not worry about them. And that’s the sort of reader Russell was writing for.

    Kress took the opposite view, that so long as the story works it doesn’t matter if it’s not physically possible, it’s about science so it’s science fiction. Or something like that. I can’t really do her argument justice because I didn’t understand it.

  30. > If you’re writing *science* fiction, you better have at least some grasp of the science underpinning your story. If your science is wrong, you fail out of the box, no matter how good the tale may be in other respects.

    Though I’m sympathetic to it, I think this is actually a bit too crude a criterion.

    Greg Egan has written an SF trilogy set in a universe with a positive-definite Riemannian metric (no minus sign on the square of the time component as in our universe). This is “wrong science”, but it remains SF because he works out the consequences in detail.

    The central property of SF is that it affirms that the universe (in the broadest sense we might imagine that term) has a rationally knowable order. It seeks above all to induce in its readers the feeling of conceptual breakthrough to new understanding. It is allowed for an author to be wrong about the science, but not allowed to be indifferent to the consequences of being wrong.

  31. @ESR: “Though I’m sympathetic to it, I think this is actually a bit too crude a criterion.”

    I don’t see a disconnect between that criterion and what Egan did. It’s a case of “You have to know the rules before you can break them.” Egan *knew* what he was doing didn’t accord with current conceptions, but said “What if it *was* true?”, and worked out the logical consequences.

    On a different line, consider Randall Garrett’s “Lard Darcy” stories, set in an alternate history where Richard the Lionhearted settled down after being wounded in the Crusades to be a very good king indeed, and founded a Plantagenet dynasty that still exists. Magic was developed instead of science, and theoretical thaumaturgists use sophisticated math to work out the structure of spells that will be cast by working sorcerers. (Actually *casting* spells requires the Talent, which is genetically based and possessed by a small minority.) The whole thing was worked up in best hard SF style, and originally published by John W. Campbell on Analog Magazine.

    Contrast that with the Mary Doria Russell story mentioned elsewhere, where Russell apparently wasn’t even aware her physics were nonsense, or see any need to try to paper over the gaping holes.

    Egan and Garrett pass. Russell fails. Know the rules…

  32. Knowing the rules before you can break them also begs a important caveat: you must know the rules at the time you are writing the story. Case in point: per the best information at the time, it was possible for relatively rich concentrations of material such as carbon to waft through space, wash over stars, and cause them to go nova. Asimov proceeded to write The Currents of Space to use this as a major plot device (not to mention the title). And then science went on to find there was no such thing. And then Asimov wrote a preface to go with later prints of his novel to explain that situation. So here is not only writing “wrong science”; here is is writing “right-at-the-time science”, finding out it is wrong, and having the dedication to maintain that adherence to science decades after the fact!

    Other authors may no doubt find similar scientific claims in their works later refuted as the state of the art progresses. (I am only aware of TCoS and I think one other future history novel of Asimov’s.) In Asimov’s case, he was lucky enough to find out during his lifetime.

    Now I’m led to inquire how many older stories qualify as right-at-the-time science fiction, or more generally, right-at-the-time rational fiction given what was thought to be true. Say, around the Enlightenment period or even earlier. Not just fiction, but fiction that posits the existence of, say, supernatural creatures or gods or alchemical marvels, and attempts to work out the consequences.

    What is the earliest known rational fiction story?

  33. >Other authors may no doubt find similar scientific claims in their works later refuted as the state of the art progresses.

    My favorite example is E.E. “Doc” Smith’s Skylark Novels. Though later volumes somewhat papered it over, the one of the major premises of the series is that electromagnetic waves propagate as vibrations in a luminiferous ether. Though the Michaelson-Morley experiment had been performed in 1887, ether mechanics was not yet entirely a discarded concept at the time Skylark of Space was begun in 1915; Albert Einstein would attempt to salvage something from it as late as 1924.

  34. >What is the earliest known rational fiction story?

    That one is tough, but I can supply a datum that is almost as interesting: the earliest hard-SF story. It was Rudyard Kipling’s With The Night Mail, 1912. What distinguished this from earlier proto-SF by the likes of Verne and Wells was twofold:

    (1) A heightened concern with consistent logical inference from an explicit counterfactual – the “show your work” position that would become characteristic of hard SF in the Campbellian era.

    (2) The technique of indirect exposition that would later become (in the hands of Robert Heinlein) the defining device of all modern SF (not just hard SF). Kipling himself had invented the technique in his 1901 novel Kim.

    In both respects Kipling broke what was at the time new ground.

  35. @Paul Brinkley” “Now I’m led to inquire how many older stories qualify as right-at-the-time science fiction, or more generally, right-at-the-time rational fiction given what was thought to be true.”

    Good question. A view I’ve pushed elsewhere is that Science Fiction turns into Science Fantasy as our knowledge increases. Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Mars books are a case in point: at the time they were written, they could be called Science Fiction because they *might* have been possible. Subsequently, we’ve *been* to Mars and know Burroughs’ Barsoom *isn’t* possible, so we call it Science Fantasy and enjoy the ride.

    Asimov played it straight, and admitted error. He was writing based on the best knowledge available at the time. When that knowledge was subsequently disproven, he stated that fact in an introduction to a new edition. Shit happens. (For that matter, I recall glee decades back when someone did the math and demonstrated Larry Niven’s Ringworld likely couldn’t exist, with t-shirts blazoned with “The Ringworld is unstable!” popping up at SF cons. IIRC, Niven took it with good grace.)

    “What is the earliest known rational fiction story?”

    I think it will be the same as the answer to “What is the earliest known work of fiction?” There are lots of myths, legends and tales we consider fiction now that were assumed to be true and real by those who told them, and form the underpinning for a variety of sacred texts.

    The first early one that pops into my head it “The Tale of Genji” by the Lady Murasaki, written by a member of the Japanese Imperial Court in the 11th Century. It’s arguably the first novel, and is the first major work written *in* Japanese. (At the time it was written educated Japanese men all spoke, read and write Chinese. It was left to the women to preserve and develop the Japanese language.” An early example might be the epic of Gilgamesh, and a Chinese translation of the Diamond Surta dating from 863 is the earliest known fully preserved book. You can argue about whether the epic of Gilgamesh and the Diamond Sutra were perceived as fiction by those who heard/read them back then.

  36. >I think it will be the same as the answer to “What is the earliest known work of fiction?”

    No, it won’t be (barring quibbles about the definition of rational fiction).

    Rational fiction presupposes a rationally knowable universe to set it in. You plain couldn’t have that before 1687 when Isaac Newton essentially invented the concept of universal scientific law. The conceptual breakthrough was finding a unification (through the law of gravity) of observed physics on Earth with planetary and celestial motion.

    I expect the earliest “rational fiction” might have been written before 1700, but other features of the cultural history of the period lead me to suspect that it didn’t actually happen until around 1750.

  37. @esr: “No, it won’t be (barring quibbles about the definition of rational fiction).”

    Then we’ll just have to quibble.

    “Rational fiction presupposes a rationally knowable universe to set it in. You plain couldn’t have that before 1687 when Isaac Newton essentially invented the concept of universal scientific law.”

    Sure you could. People before then certainly *thought* the lived in a rationally knowable universe. Newton simply provided a conceptual framework in which it could be proven.

    The key is the perceptions of those at the time. It’s not like the universe suddenly acquired structure and operated according to law ipso facto when Newton propounded his framework, and previously had been irrational, unknowable, and operating largely according to chance. (Though there’s a fun story lurking in that idea.)

    For that matter, folks ascribing various things to the actions of gods lived in what they thought was a rationally knowable universe. When you don’t know better, ascribing things to deities is a perfectly rational explanation for events. Rational simply means arrived at by reason. There is no requirement for what you arrived at by reason be true.

  38. >People before then certainly *thought* the lived in a rationally knowable universe.

    No, they didn’t. You’re back-projecting modern attitudes where they don’t belong. Google “sublunary sphere” to begin to find out how mistaken this is. Some people thought they lived in a knowable universe, but the mode of knowledge about anything much above the level of greasing a cart axle was not rational; it was faith, or gnosis, or shamanic possession. This is not reason, it’s getting inside the mind of whatever personification you think is running things.

    There were occasional, very isolated exceptions. Democritus by way of Epicurus may have been “rational” in the modern sense required for SF. Later sources hint of a rationalist tradition in middle-period Vedanta in India. But in general premoderns considered reasoning to have only limited and contingent applicability, surrounded by and embedded in an essentially unknowable universe.

    In fact, much of the world still thinks this way. Recall, for example, what I’ve previously written about occasionalism in Islam.

  39. Greek antiquity is precisely the culture I was thinking of if I had to think of “rational fiction” being written before the Enlightenment. Other possibilities included contemporaries of Thomas Aquinas, Ibn Rushd, or scholars of ancient India or China (of which I lack familiarity to name any). Trouble is, I know of no actual fiction from those times and places that tried to say “if this were true, then the following would logically have to obtain, whether or not my sense of justice says it should be otherwise”.

    So while I recognize certain parts of ancient philosophy as a framework for what I’m thinking of as “rational fiction”, I’m also not counting the narrative reasoning used to construct various myths and parables, and am ready to accept that no one of import back then thought to fuse reason and storytelling, and thus Eric’s claim of 1750 might be closer to truth.

  40. >no one of import back then thought to fuse reason and storytelling, and thus Eric’s claim of 1750 might be closer to truth.

    The magnitude of the intellectual earthquake that Newton triggered has been half-forgotten in the shadow of the Darwinian one of two centuries later. When his physics abolished the distinction between sublunary and superlunary spheres, the idea of a wholly mechanistic cosmos and what we now call “(universal) natural law” became thinkable. The Enlightenment followed naturally over the following century – then the Industrial Revolution.

  41. There is “Roads of Heaven” trilogy by Melissa Scott, where space is governed by the well-though laws of alchemy, “instead” of science.

  42. >There is “Roads of Heaven” trilogy by Melissa Scott, where space is governed by the well-though laws of alchemy, “instead” of science.

    Yes. I almost used that as my example of SF about “wrong” science, until I recalled Egan’s Orthogonal trilogy.

  43. “Greg Egan has written an SF trilogy set in a universe with a positive-definite Riemannian metric (no minus sign on the square of the time component as in our universe). This is “wrong science”, but it remains SF because he works out the consequences in detail.”

    What, elliptical time dependence for the physics? (No real difference between space and time? Ubiquitous time travel and a simultaneous understanding required to navigate a world where there is no future or past, things just *are* ?)

  44. Greg Egan has written an SF trilogy set in a universe with a positive-definite Riemannian metric (no minus sign on the square of the time component as in our universe). This is “wrong science”, but it remains SF because he works out the consequences in detail.

    That’s not “wrong science”. It’s right science applied to different data. It’s explicitly set in a universe in which things played out differently. Which makes it no different from any SF, which is always playing “what if”. “What if the Reimannian metric were different” isn’t in principle different from “what if Mohammed had become a Christian”, or “what if AGW turned out to be real”. The key is that the author shows that he’s aware of the difference between his universe and ours, and is exploring the consequences of that difference.

    “Wrong science” is science that’s wrong given the story’s premises, or where the author not only is unaware of the anomaly but doesn’t care about the possibility of one.

  45. Other authors may no doubt find similar scientific claims in their works later refuted as the state of the art progresses.

    Think of all the stories set on a Mercury that’s tide-locked to the sun. Now we know that it isn’t. Those are still good SF, because they apply the right methods to a universe in which it was.

    Or stories based on a Mars with canals. Or on a Pluto with a size which we now know it doesn’t have (I’m thinking of Have Space Suit, Will Travel, in which the protagonist figures out where she is from the apparent gravity).

  46. >That’s not “wrong science”. It’s right science applied to different data.

    I don’t think we disagree about anything but the label here. I would still say “wrong science, but right scientific method”.

  47. I passed on Orthogonal because it sounded too unlikely to be proper SF, but I guess now I’ll have to read it.

  48. I just finished this book.

    Quite good, apart from a thinko near the beginning, where the author seems to have originally had the ill-fated secret expedition at one time, and then changed it and forgotten to go back and change it completely. Bad editing, not to have picked it up. But once I decided it was a mistake, and not some mystery to be solved, it was not a problem.

    There was one thing, though, that kept puzzling me throughout the book, and that I was expecting to be explained somehow by the end, but if there was an explanation it went right past me: what’s with the Ilmatarans and memory? Instead of “I did this” or “I heard this”, they keep saying “I remember doing this” or “I remember hearing this”. I was waiting for something to be said or discovered that would shed light on this, but the closest I found was a cryptic line about their view of linear time. I would have appreciated something more on that, too. Is this something that the author is keeping for the sequel? (The last line of the book is a clear setup for a sequel, since it doesn’t shed light on anything in this book, but merely raises a new mystery.)

    Also, are the Ilmatarans actually incapable of lying, or just very bad at it?

    And is there a nod to Chomsky in the fact that they are born with a natural language that they don’t need to learn?

  49. PS: OK, the explanation is at one of the links provided above. The idea is that their language has no past tense, so they can only talk about the past in terms of their current memories. I don’t understand how that works, but OK.

  50. I mean, they clearly have a sense of time, since they make plans, and they say what they intend to do. A species with no sense of past and future would surely never invest energy or resources on such things as agriculture, or even on fishing expeditions!

  51. >The idea is that their language has no past tense, so they can only talk about the past in terms of their current memories. I don’t understand how that works, but OK.

    There are many human languages with no past tense. In Thai, for example, the literal translation of “I ate eggs yesterday” would be would be equivalent to “I eat eggs yesterday”. There are other languages with epistemic inflections in which a memory would be grammatically distinguished from a report from another person, or tribal legendry (I’ve read of some Amerind languages like this). I don’t know if any human language combines these traits, but it’s certainly not outside the bounds of possibility.

  52. The World Atlas of Language Structures is the go-to site for this sort of thing. Languages with evidentials are common across all continents except Africa, and tend to cluster: they are an areal feature, not an inherited one. Languages that make evidential distinctions often make them only in the past tense: the best-known language that has evidential distinctions but no tense marking is probably Cantonese.

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