James Cambias looks upward
Recorder illustration/Adam Orth
Recorder photographer Paul Franz took this picture of Deerfield author James Cambias. Behind him is the image from his book cover.
This NASA image shows a portion of the Milky Way, the galaxy that contains our solar system. Given the number of other planets that could support life, Cambias believes it’s almost impossible for Earth to be the only inhabited planet in the universe.
On a faraway planet, in an ocean under a kilometer of thick ice, an intelligent underwater species has formed an agrarian society and has prospered for millions of years.
If you’re expecting humans to come in and ruin this peaceful story, then you’d be right. But that’s where the sci-fi cliches end in South Deerfield novelist James Cambias’ “A Darkling Sea.” A fatal encounter between Earth scientists and the native Ilmataran species (think “beluga whales in armor”) kicks off a political standoff that puts three planets on the brink of interglobal war.
For Cambias, 47, the recent release of “A Darkling Sea” marks more than the publication of his first novel. It’s also the end of a journey that took more than 15 years to complete.
The book was finished in the late 1990s and an interested editor from Tor Books picked it up in 2005. It was put on the back burner when the publishing industry took a downturn, but the editor took it back up again in 2012 and published it this year.
“This is what I’ve been working towards since I was 14 years old,” said Cambias. “I’ll happily keep doing this until I drop.”
The story takes place in 2061, nearly 50 years after humans invent a means to easily and quickly transport vessels and space travelers across entire star systems. A renewed interest in space travel soon leads to an encounter with a species called the Sholen — six-limbed mammal-like creatures who are intelligent beyond human imagination but who have essentially destroyed their own planet multiple times through war and pollution.
By the time the book’s action begins, the first extraterrestrial meetings are decades in the past. Humans have an established base on Ilmatar’s ocean floor and meetings with the Sholen aren’t shocking, they’re annoying — especially if they derail the scientists’ ability to explore the underwater planet.
But the Ilmatarans, meanwhile, are literally in the dark. Their blindness (they rely instead on sonar) means they have no way to measure time, are oblivious to the fact that there’s anything above the ocean surface and are unaware that two species from distant planets are dangerously close to waging war in their backyard.
Other science fiction writers might advise against including two very different types of alien creatures in the same book, said Cambias. But he felt that the three-way conflict was just what this story needed.
Still, he made sure to have it take place in the near future so that the human characters would be indistinguishable from modern day people.
“Having weird humans meeting weird aliens in a weird place would be one weird too many,” he said.
A lifelong lover of science, Cambias began his college career as a physics major at the University of Chicago, but switched to the history of science program in his second year. He minored in astronomy.
Cambias spent years professionally writing books for role-playing games. The books usually included an explanation of the game’s rules and provided background scientific information — all which essentially served as research for his own novels.
And while Cambias is pleased with how “A Darkling Sea” came out, he’s learned some lessons from it, too. He used a loose outline to write and jumped around chronologically — something he said he’ll never do again because it initially led to a weak section in the middle of the story that needed more action.
He’s also come to appreciate that book promotion, while enjoyable, can be extremely time consuming. After a tour across the Northeast with two other sci-fi authors, he wrote on his website, www.jamescambias.com, that “book tours are pretty much full-time work.”
The long delay between his novel’s completion and publication means that readers won’t have to wait too long for Cambias’ next novel: “Corsair” is tentatively scheduled for release in May 2015.
That book, set even closer to the present than “A Darkling Sea,” will depict “realistic space piracy” with computer hackers on the ground gaining remote access to space payloads. Cambias, who writes during the day in short spurts at various locations across the county, intentionally tried to make “Corsair” a lighter, faster read than his first novel.
After growing up in places with starless skylines, he takes some time at night to look upward. An amateur stargazer, he writes a weekly “In The Night Sky” column for The Recorder that outlines the best times to see certain stars and planets.
He’s never second guessed or thought too much about why he’s so drawn to outer space.
“99.999 percent of everything there is, is not on Earth,” he said. “The thing that always baffles me is why people are not interested in that. It’s where everything is.”
Cambias said he believes it’s almost impossible for Earth to be the only planet in the universe supporting life. Astronomers believe that many planets are orbiting stars at a distance similar to that between the Earth and the Sun. And biologists believe that if there are life-favorable conditions, life will exist.
But humans may not be using the right technology to communicate with other alien species, said Cambias. Instead of using radio telescopes and listening for radio transmissions, other species may use a form of communication not yet invented on Earth.
Even if contact is made, it’s hard to believe that interstellar travel like what readers will find in “A Darkling Sea” will come anytime soon, he said.
“These people get there traveling faster than light and that’s not very different from Glinda waving her magic wand,” said Cambias. “I know enough real science to know that it’s pretty much wishful thinking.”
In fact, he said, future space travel may belong to robots, not humans. By the time humans are capable of sending an object to a star system, they’ll have likely already developed machines smart enough to get it there for them, he said.
Still, even if life exists, there’s no guarantee that humans will find species as smart as the Sholen or the Ilmatarans.
“We have not detected any sign of intelligence,” said Cambias. “It may well be that life is common but intelligence is rare, but I hope that’s not true.”