But when Henri Kerlerec, media personality and reckless adventurer, ends up sliced open by curious Ilmatarans, tensions between Terran and Sholen erupt, leading to a diplomatic disaster that threatens to escalate to war.
Against the backdrop of deep-sea guerilla conflict, three alien cultures collide. Both Terrans and Sholen seek the aid of the newly enlightened Ilmatarans. But what this struggle means for the natives—and the future of human exploration—is anything but certain.
Ilmatar is home to a newly-discovered alien species, that lives in total darkness under thick ice, at extremely high pressures and deadly cold, building a civilisation around the energy available from hot vents. Humans have a scientific base nearby, observing the aliens. But they are forbidden from interacting with them by the Sholen, another alien species that so nearly destroyed itself that it now insists on consensus in everything, and minimising any interference with new contacts. But then the meddling humans accidentally make contact with the Ilmatarans, which might lead to war with the not-so-unified Sholen.
This is an interesting view of three very different species: the relatively primitive Ilmatarans, the superior but reclusive Sholen, and the humans. None of these is a homogeneous culture: the plot is driven as much by conflicts within as between species. Not all the Sholens are that convinced of consensus and there are different political sub-groups to be considered; not all the Ilmatarans are civilised; not all the humans are very scientific. There's a semi-amusing thread running through, as the humans and Sholens keep incorrectly predicting how the others will react, based on completely incorrect stereotypes they have of each other.
The majority of the plot takes place in the dark cold ocean beneath a kilometer of ice, giving an extra claustrophobic edge to the tensions between the three species. The background is well drawn: the Ilmataran life-cycle, language and living arrangements are gradually revealed; how the humans can live below the ice is engagingly info-dumped. There are a couple of distressing deaths: these are not described in gory detail, leaving it to the imagination to fill in the blanks. Some of the humans seem to get much too worked up about events, while others seem surprisingly unemotional about everything. But on the whole, this is an interesting story about conflicts between species who have completely different philosophies that are partly a result of their completely different physiologies.