Monday, May 3, 2021

James L. Cambias

James Cambias has been nominated for the James Tiptree Jr. Award and the 2001 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer.

Cambias's new novel is The Godel Operation.

My Q&A with the author:

How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

I picked The Godel Operation very specifically because it sounds like one of a series of adventures. I plan to write other adventures in the Billion Worlds setting, involving some of the same characters, so I wanted a name with an obvious structure for future variations. So at present I'm writing another novel in the same setting called The Scarab Mission, and I just finished a short story for an upcoming Baen anthology called "The Paoshi Puzzle."

Now for short fiction I don't plan to be quite as locked into the structure of "The Name Thing" forever but since that particular short story is sort of a prequel to The Godel Operation it seemed appropriate. I have two other Billion Worlds stories which don't follow that pattern: "Calando" in Athena Andreadis's anthology Retellings From the Inland Seas, and "Out of the Dark" in John Joseph Adams's collection Lost Worlds and Mythological Kingdoms.

The title does have significance within the story. The "Godel Trigger" is the legendary MacGuffin my characters are pursuing in the novel. So one of the characters could well refer to these events as the "Godel Operation." Though they'd probably call it the "Godel Fiasco" instead.

What's in a name?

I put a lot of effort into coming up with character names. I make heavy use of translation software to find words in other languages with a nice sound and appropriate meaning. My narrator, Daslakh, is an artificial intelligence in a small spider-shaped body. Its name is deliberately chosen to sound anonymous: it's derived from the Hindi word for a million. So it's kind of as though this machine is calling itself "John Smith."

My second protagonist, Zee, is a young man who starts the novel feeling a bit depressed because he is anonymous — one of a quadrillion humans living in the Solar System at the end of the Tenth Millennium. So his name is just literally the letter Z. I knew it had to be a short name for contrast with Daslakh. The two names together make a nice team: Daslakh and Zee.

The two main female characters have names taken from different languages. Adya's name is derived from the Indian language Malayalam (not to be confused with the Malay language spoken in southeast Asia). Her rival Kusti's name comes from Kazakh. In a story taking place 8,000 years from now the last thing I want is to have people named Bob and Sue and Tiffany.

Other characters have names with more obvious derivations. Pelagia, a spaceship with an orca brain, has a name derived from a word meaning deep ocean. The space habitat Summanus is permanently in Jupiter's shadow and is named for the somewhat obscure Roman god of nighttime thunder.

How surprised would your teenage reader self be by your new novel?

I think Teenaged Me would be pleased and delighted with The Godel Operation, but not very surprised. One of the early wellsprings of my Billion Worlds setting was a nonfiction book by the British science writer Adrian Berry, called The Next Ten Thousand Years. I read it way back in the late 1970s so a lot of the concepts have been bouncing around my skull since I was a teenager.

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

In the case of The Godel Operation I wrote the first chapter as a kind of "proof of concept" for the characters Daslakh and Zee and the Billion Worlds setting. When I saw it was something I thought I'd like to write, I then had to sit down and plan out the rest of the story. I have learned the hard way that I really do need to know how it's going to end before I start, so I plotted it all the way out. Only then did I pitch the novel to my publisher.

In general beginnings are easier than endings.

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

I definitely see a connection between myself and my characters. Each one has some little bit of my own personality. Of course, I do draw on other people, both people I know and historical figures. But when I'm coming up with behavior and dialog for the characters in the story I need to be able to "play" them like an actor, at least inside my own head. As a result each one has a viewpoint I can adopt. Yes, that includes villains.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Since I was a skinny 13-year-old science fiction fan when Star Wars came out, I'd be lying if I said that hasn't been a tremendous influence on me. The grungy, "lived-in" look of the spaceships and other worlds in George Lucas's movies definitely affected how I imagine the future.

But in general I try not to let current events affect what I write. When I'm doing science fiction, I want to immerse the reader in a future or alien world, and the quickest way to pop that bubble of belief is to throw in some gratuitous reference to some damned thing on Twitter or CNN in 2020 which nobody will remember by the time the novel gets printed.

I also don't let my personal grudges and quarrels into what I write. I don't think I have ever modeled a villain on someone I personally dislike. You won't find the kid I feuded with in middle school or the girl I broke up with in college hiding under a false name in my fiction.
Visit James L. Cambias's website.

My Book, The Movie: A Darkling Sea.

My Book, The Movie: Arkad's World.

The Page 69 Test: Arkad's World.

My Book, The Movie: The Godel Operation.

--Marshal Zeringue