An Interview with James L. Cambias, Author of A DARKLING SEA

James L. Cambias is a writer, a game designer, a New Orleanian, a cook, a parent, and a cat-slapper. He just recently released his debut novel, A Darkling Sea.

We had the opportunity to chat with him about his book, writing, Star Trek, zeppelins, and space exploration.


SF Signal: Hi James, thanks for taking the time to speak with us about your first book. First off, what can you tell us about yourself? When did you first discover science fiction, and why did you stick with it?

James L. Cambias: Like so many other people, I discovered science fiction through Heinlein. My older sister was getting books like Podkayne of Mars and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress out of the library when she was in her teens and I was about ten. I’d sneak into her room to borrow them, and that hooked me. I became a stereotypical omnivorous SF reader, devouring classics and drek with equal enthusiasm.

I first thought about writing science fiction when I was fourteen. I’d been reading Isaac Asimov’s autobiography and was quite taken with the idea that he’d made his first professional sale at age 15. I thought maybe I could beat that. And in every issue of my monthly copies of Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine there was a little blurb about submission policies. Why not?

So I wrote some stories, more or less just to be writing them, and naturally got rejections. I tried again a few years later when I was in college, and still got rejected. In 1995 or so I sent a story to Gordon Van Gelder at F&SF, and got an encouraging personal rejection instead of a form letter. A few years after that, I sold him my first story. I still haven’t managed to sell anything to Asimov’s.

As to why I stuck with it…I’ve never really wanted to do anything else.

SFS: A Darkling Sea is your first novel. What inspired this particular storyline?

JLC: I blame Zeppelins and Star Trek.

Allow me to explain. Back in the 1990s, for a time I was doing some nonfiction writing, chiefly for aviation magazines. I wrote a long article for Airpower magazine about a World War I German airship mission to take supplies to their colonial garrison in East Africa. It’s a fantastic real-life adventure, by the way. As part of my background research I wound up reading several books about World War I in Africa. That was a very strange theater of operations. You had tiny forces, often no more than a few hundred men, fighting each other over tremendous distances in a fairly harsh and unfamiliar landscape. The soldiers were a mix of Africans, European colonist volunteers, and a handful of professionals. Relatively trivial resources, like a single steamboat or a telegraph station, became vital strategic objectives. I thought it would be neat to tell a story like that in a science-fictional context.

During that same period I also was doing some writing for Last Unicorn Games, which at the time had the license to publish the Star Trek roleplaying game. (Their game was excellent, by the way; especially the Original Series sourcebook.) Naturally I had to steep myself in all things Trekish, including the famous “Prime Directive” — you know, the stupid rule that forbids Captain Picard from helping a civilization that’s about to get wiped out by an asteroid impact because it would “interfere with their natural development.”

I don’t like the idea of the Prime Directive, especially not the mix of patronizing condescension and postwar Western guilt which spawned it. Only a culture which doesn’t need the Prime Directive could think of it. So I wanted to tell the story of a civilization living in the ocean under a mile of ice. If nobody from outside ever makes contact with them, they’ll never know there is an outside universe.

Those two notions came together, and I wrote A Darkling Sea.

SFS: A number of blurbs on the back herald this as a great Hard Science Fiction read: is there any particular stories or authors that inspired you?

JLC: It might be easier to list the ones that didn’t. Poul Anderson is one of my favorites, and he was an absolute master of creating believable alien societies. Larry Niven is another favorite. Jack Vance is an under-appreciated genius at creating aliens. I’ve already mentioned Asimov and Heinlein, of course. I’m also a tremendous fan of Arthur C. Clarke. I suspect all of them influenced me to one degree or another.

But I should also mention some of the non-SF authors which have influenced me. I read James Thurber from an early age, and I think I got my appreciation of deadpan humor from him. I also read everything Tom Wolfe writes, and I tried to imitate his wide-ranging journalistic style in my accounts of the Ilmatarans.

SFS: What are your thoughts on some of the exploration efforts within our solar system, particularly Europa?

JLC: Whatever it is, I’m for it. Any space exploration is better than none at all. Will we find complex life under the ice of Europa? Probably not. But we’ll never know until we look.

I expect Europa will have to wait longer than most people realize. Certainly it’ll have to wait until after humans have landed on Mars. The space around Jupiter is a hell of radiation trapped by the big planet’s magnetic field, and getting in and out of Jupiter’s gravity well is very difficult indeed.

The good news is that robots are getting so capable that it’s likely we’ll be able to send unmanned probes to Europa which would be almost as effective as human astronauts.

Space travel is difficult and expensive, but it’s not hugely difficult and expensive. Americans spend ten times as much money in a year on sports merchandise than we do on space exploration. We could have a much bigger space effort than we do; it’s mostly a question of political priorities and public interest.

SFS: When we think of ‘First Contact’ stories, we think of spaceships bumping into one another in the empty regions of space. Here, however, you set it deep under the ice of Llmatar. Why the shift?

JLC: As I mentioned earlier, it was necessary for the theme of the story. The Ilmatarans are walled off from the rest of the Universe. If the humans didn’t go to them, they’d never have contact at all.

SFS: The Sholen have a particular philosophy guiding them: one of non-interference with other races, due to their own violent past. Do you think this is hypocritical on the part of the Sholen, given that they’re willing to resort to violence?

JLC: Oh, naturally it’s hypocritical. All ideologies have a huge amount of hypocrisy. In the case of the Sholen, the beliefs they’ve adopted to keep from killing themselves have the unhappy side effect of making them slightly crazy.

SFS: Your characters take on a revolutionary stance when they’re confronted by the Sholen, and particularly, they invoke the imagery of Lawrence of Arabia. It’s mentioned in the text, but there were long-range consequences. Is this some foreshadowing for a future story?

JLC: Definitely. The conflict ignited in A Darkling Sea isn’t going to end quickly or easily. I’ve got plans for another novel looking at a very different “front” in that war.

The Terran-Sholen war in some ways resembles the “proxy wars” of the Cold War era on Earth. Neither side wants to escalate to attacks on each other’s home planets because of the risk of devastating retaliation. Which means it’s the sort of fight that can drag on for a very long time as victory and defeat are entirely matters of perception.

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