Beyond the Boundary: A Conversation with James L. Cambias
Above them is ice and around them, the darkling sea. Three cultures—the lobster-like and territorial Ilmatarans, the hyper-sexual and barely constrained Sholen, and the adventurous and somewhat erratic humans—teeter on the brink of conflict.
But this isn’t just the story of worlds and cultures, but of individual characters: Rob Freeman, Broadtail, and Tizhos—and, sure, even the unsavory Irona, too.
A Darkling Sea is James L. Cambias’ debut novel, but it reads like a thriller penned by a veteran novelist. Indeed, Cambias has been around for a while. He’s written extensively for role-playing games and his short stories have been nominated for the Campbell, Nebula, and Tiptree since they started appearing in magazines around 2000.
Regardless of what he’s writing, Cambias seems to be enjoying himself thoroughly and that joy pays off for readers. A Darkling Sea is a beautifully written, highly suspenseful novel with compelling characters and layers of meaning. It’s also a raucous, good-time read.
Below, Cambias and I talk about world-building, characters, and how when you’re from Louisiana like he is everything you write is about Louisiana whether you realize it or not.
How much of Louisiana would you say there is in your writing?
I’ve only written two stories actually set in Louisiana: “The Vampire Brief,” in which the comic book hero Hellboy kicks the damned vampire poseurs out of New Orleans, and “See My King All Dressed In Red,” in which I flattened my home city with a hurricane.
At this point I probably should say something like “ . . . but really, all my stories are about Louisiana.” Except that I don’t think that’s true. The part of me that writes science fiction lives in outer space and the far future, and is just as out of place on contemporary Earth as the part of me that lives in New Orleans is out of place in Massachusetts.
If I had to trace any elements of my native state in my work, I think I’d say that growing up in Louisiana taught me very early that institutions are only as good as the people in them, and that self-interested corruption can be less destructive than sincere ideological conviction.
Can you talk about how you built the world of A Darkling Sea—the planet of Ilmatar, the Ilmatarans, the cultures that slam into each other?
Worldbuilding is one of my strengths. In the course of writing two or three different roleplaying game sourcebooks on “how to build a science fiction universe” I’ve researched the subject pretty exhaustively. All the practical details, like surface gravity, biochemistry, interstellar distances, etc., I can look up or figure out pretty easily. I breathe that stuff now.
So when creating Ilmatar, I could make up a very realistic world that still suited the demands of the story. For thematic reasons, Ilmatar had to be a world like Europa, with a shell of ice forever sealing off its inhabitants from the larger universe. Once I made that decision, the rest was more or less paint-by-numbers planetary science.
Creating the inhabitants was a question of fitting the beings to the story and to the planet. The Ilmatarans are suited to their environment: they sense the world via sonar, they don’t use oxygen (which means they wear out easily). I wanted them to have a technological civilization, so that meant they had to have manipulating limbs. That in turn ruled out a fish-like being, and I felt that tentacles are a bit overdone in science fiction right now. So I built them on a crustacean model. That was partly just personal preference: the times I’ve been diving, the crustaceans are always the most interesting creatures to watch.
The culture of the Ilmatarans stems largely from their biology. They spawn, so sex is a trivial part of their lives. For Ilmatarans, the real emotional center of one’s life is territory. Having a piece of property is what makes them “complete.” Their culture reflects these elements: children are essentially wild animals, but the ones which survive to adulthood get educated and brought into the social system as “apprentices.” An apprentice can aspire to inherit property or learn a trade.
Their laws are all about property, and about protecting the property owners (because over a very long history, the societies which didn’t do that eventually collapsed into destructive all-against-all conflict). Ilmataran property owners are sovereign on their own territory—my hero Broadtail is convicted of murder when it is proved that his victim was killed beyond the boundary of Broadtail’s property. Had it been within the boundary, the law would not touch him. I don’t think this is an ideal system, particularly for humans, but it’s one which works for at least one population of Ilmatarans.
Ilmataran technology was the result of a lot of thinking about what they could and could not build. They can grind and chip stone, they can weave and knit fibers, they can make rope, they can shape bone and material similar to wood. But they can’t work metals, they can’t make glass or pottery, their knowledge of chemistry will be minimal, and they are physically unable to study optics or astronomy. Since their world is lightless, they have little conception of measured time.
How about the Sholen?
For the Sholen, I had to design a society which would be very distinct from those of both the Ilmatarans and my human characters. I also needed to give them a strong reason for trying to interfere in the activities of other species across interstellar distances.
I decided that the Sholen are very passionate and sexual, with a society that sexualizes every relationship. What we would call sexual harassment they consider good leadership. Unfortunately, the result of their psychology has been a dreadful and tragic history. It seems logical that hypersexual beings would tend to overpopulate their world, leading to conflicts over scarce resources, environmental catastrophes, and so on. The poor Sholen have managed to suffer through every civilization-ending catastrophe humans have worried about. They’ve had nuclear wars, they’ve had a planetary environment collapse, they’ve seen it all.
The only way they can survive is to create a society based on consensus, where everybody has to agree about everything, and which limits their population to just a few hundred million. Unfortunately, this is quietly making the Sholen crazy. When they encounter humans, they project all their frustrations onto us. Because their own history is one of conquest and genocide and self-inflicted disasters on a scale that dwarfs anything we’ve managed, they assume the worst about us, and impose strict rules to protect the rest of the universe from humans. Things go downhill from there.
Did I stack the deck? Of course I did. I wanted conflict, after all, so I designed the Sholen to come into conflict with humans.
How different, if at all, was your approach to this novel than your approach to short fiction?
I had to learn a lot about writing longer works. A short story or even a novella is still small enough for me to hold in my mind. I can remember all the characters, the order of events, the world background and all the rest. For a novel that’s impossible. A Darkling Sea has a relatively small cast compared to some books, but fourteen speaking parts and another dozen spear-carriers is simply too much for me to write off the top of my head. I had to keep careful notes, and I’m sure a few inconsistencies crept in despite that.
And in what ways was your work in tabletop games a help or hindrance?
It helped in a practical sense: I knew I could write 100,000-word projects (though I discovered writing fiction takes longer than game writing). It gave me the chance to hone my craft, as they say, and get paid for it. And as I mentioned, I got to do all my science research in the course of writing science fiction roleplaying games.
Running games for my friends also taught me how to narrate physical action. For most of my gamemastering career I never made much use of miniatures or a mapboard (because I’m too cheap to invest in a lot of lead figures and too klutzy to paint them). So I have become at least competent at describing a situation so that people can understand what’s going on and what options they have. That turns out to be a useful skill when writing fiction.
However, I must confess roleplaying games have given me some bad storytelling habits as well. In most fiction, the protagonist struggles against adversity, his problems pile up, and we worry about how he’s going to overcome his antagonists until the final struggle. Sometimes the worry is whether the protagonist can actually defeat his enemies, other times it’s whether he will make the right moral choices and take the right actions. Either way, though, the bulk of most stories involve things getting steadily worse for the heroes.
Roleplaying games have a very different structure. In a typical game, the heroes encounter and overcome minor challenges, then greater ones, and each obstacle lets them gain the resources or knowledge to tackle the next ones, until they’re finally ready to battle the main enemy. In other words, roleplaying games are about characters steadily improving. That’s very different from fiction, and tends to drain away tension rather than ramping it up.
I had to keep reminding myself to make things worse for the heroes rather than better. If A Darkling Sea seems episodic, I think one can blame my roleplaying background.
What’s at the heart of the book for you?
Those are two different questions. For me it’s about whether it’s a good thing for humans to gain knowledge. Knowledge means power, and power corrupts. But if we don’t go out to learn about the Universe, then species like the Ilmatarans will live and ultimately go extinct without ever getting beyond their circumscribed world. (Yes, as I admitted above, I stacked the deck in order to make the issue as plain and starkly-defined as I could.) So for me, the heart of the book is the moment when Alicia shows Rob and Tizhos a colony of phosphorescent organisms in Ilmatar’s ocean: something that nothing had ever seen before that moment.
How about for the characters?
For my characters, the heart of the story is quite different. Rob gains maturity, going from being a feckless overgrown adolescent to a hero capable of making tough choices. Broadtail loses his territory and status on Ilmatar but ultimately gains the entire Universe. And Tizhos has to break out of her consensus-based society to do the right thing.
Is there a character that you connect with differently than the others? One that’s special? One that repulses you?
I poured a lot of my own worst qualities into Irona, the Sholen commander who leads them into disaster. Irona thinks he’s a lot smarter and more virtuous than he really is. He’s arrogant and vindictive and assumes the worst about others. And yet I kind of enjoyed writing his scenes, just because it’s always fun to depict a really horrible person.
I think it’s obvious that my favorite character in the book is Broadtail. He has a lot of qualities I wish I had. He can thrive and prosper within his society, and get along outside it. He’s a scientist, an engineer, a farmer, an explorer, and a warrior.
What do you enjoy about writing fiction?
I suppose I could talk about the practical advantages—I work when and where I choose, I’m flexible and independent, I get to meet interesting people. But all those things are equally true of being a bank robber, and bank robbery pays better.
The part of writing I enjoy the most is when I get to feel clever: the times when the work really flows, and I know that what I’m writing is good. I expect that’s what the ancients were thinking of when they invoked the Muse. Bank robbers probably never get that feeling. It doesn’t happen very often, just often enough to keep me hooked and coming back for more.