Today we’re joined by James Cambias, science fiction and fantasy writer and tabletop game designer. He’ll be talking about his early love of fandom, how he got his start in the industry, and what he’s up to now.
References and Links:
[00:00:00] Halfling: Thanks for tuning into the Halfling and the Spaceman Journey's, in active fandom. We're having great conversations with people that have turned their love of fandom into something creative. We're fans talking to fans, and today joining us is Jim Cambias, who'll be talking with us about his writing game, support, and whatever else he wants to cover.
[00:00:29] Halfling: Welcome to the show, Jim.
[00:00:31] James Cambias: Thank you. Glad to be here.
[00:00:33] Halfling: Well, we're glad to have you, and thank you for taking the time to join us today. Let's go ahead and get the ball rolling. Tell us a little bit about yourself and your background.
[00:00:43] James Cambias: Well, I was born and grew up in New Orleans and I mentioned that because it's still basically how I think of myself. I've lived in Massachusetts for longer than I lived in Louisiana, but I'm still from New Orleans and I got my degree at the University of Chicago, which is also where I met my lovely wife. In Chicago after graduation, I worked for a time at a textbook publisher. But I always wanted to be a writer. And when I followed my soon-to-be wife to Durham, North Carolina, where she went to graduate school, , there weren't as any publishing jobs open when I, when we got. So I decided, okay, I will try my hand at freelance writing, which at the time meant freelance role playing game writing because, back in the early 1990s, all of the game publishers and there were several of them, had a house magazine.
[00:01:41] James Cambias: And there were also, as I'm sure you're keenly aware, independent game magazines,
[00:01:49] Halfling: I think we've heard of some of
[00:01:51] James Cambias: example,
[00:01:52] Spaceman: Rep
[00:01:53] Halfling: heard of some of those.
[00:01:54] Spaceman: represent
[00:01:55] James Cambias: That meant that there was a number of markets for role playing game material and so I could turn out a 3000 word, Space:1889 article, or let's see, what else did I do? Traveller? I did some stuff for Space Gamer, dangerous Journeys Magazine, which was, you know, Gary Gygax's attempt to return to roleplaying with game designers' workshop.
[00:02:21] James Cambias: All kinds of them, you know, and I could do something every week, I could keep turning 'em out and there were markets for them. And when I wasn't doing that, I was also trying to get my foot in the door for full-length projects. My first, role playing game book was, Role Master Arabian Knights, which I wrote at some point in the early nineties.
[00:02:43] James Cambias: Which was, using the Role master system and adapting it for, middle Eastern adventures. And what I secretly wrote was a , Historical Islam, role-playing, game setting with some name checks to the Arabian Knights Tales. I looked up how much did trade goods cost and what currencies were in use and so on.
[00:03:08] Spaceman: Yeah, people pay good money for that. Yeah.
[00:03:11] James Cambias: if you wanted to run a non-magical, Castles and Crusaders, middle Eastern Adventure. I had it all in there but I always was still interested in fiction writing. Every couple of years I would try to write a short story and it would get bounced by the publisher, but I'd submit it to around, to various magazines and it would get bounced usually with just a form letter and that began to change in the late nineties when I started getting a better class of rejection. And that matters, you know, the form letter is what the first reader, the intern or the assistant editor or editor's girlfriend or somebody who wandered in off the street that day who is reading through the unsolicited submissions.
[00:03:58] James Cambias: You know, they look at it, say, no, this isn't good. And they'll check off some appropriate boxes on the form and stick it in the author's self-addressed envelope but when your story gets to the editor, when the first reader says, well, this isn't bad, and they put it in the pile for the editor to look at, and then the editor looks at it and says, well, uh, not this time.
[00:04:19] James Cambias: You know, that's when you get the good rejection. That's when you get a, like a handwritten note saying, you know, fun story can't use, and that's when I knew that I was gonna get. In the door.
[00:04:30] Halfling: Mm.
[00:04:31] James Cambias: And I got one of those for a story called, Return to Skull Island, which was a little, short story I wrote in 1999 or thereabouts, or 98.
[00:04:43] James Cambias: Basically riffing off of the idea that what if Howard Phillips Lovecraft had written King Kong instead of it being credited to, the author who didn't write it, Marion Cooper. Well, Marion Cooper wrote it, the guy who produced it. But for some reason he used the name of a better known adventure writer to have the credit for having written, King Kong, a well-known writer who is no longer remembered today.
[00:05:10] James Cambias: Who I am now trying to remember the name of but anyway, um, so I did it as if Lovecraft had written King Kong. And, you know, I got a rejection back from, Gordon Van Gelder at the magazine of Fantasy and Science fiction saying I could have used this for an anthology I was putting together a few years back, but I don't know if it'll fit in F N S F.
[00:05:30] James Cambias: Thank you and keep me in mind. And it was like, okay, I'm this close.
[00:05:35] Halfling: Yeah.
[00:05:36] James Cambias: So when I've had my next story completed, A Diagram of Rapture, he was the one I sent it to and he bought it. And so after that, You know, uh, F N S F has ever since been the one I send something to first they get first look.
[00:05:54] Halfling: Mm-hmm. It's amazing that we hear time and time again from various writers that you just have to keep plugging and you can't be afraid of the rejections. That you're never gonna get anywhere if you don't send your stuff in and if you're fearing rejection, then maybe writing's not for you because you will get rejected
[00:06:17] James Cambias: Yes. Rejection and editorial comments and suggestions. You know, of course I'm hugely egotistical like everybody else, and so my first reaction is always to say, well, I don't need that. But I have learned that these people know what they're talking about most of the time, and so you should listen.
[00:06:39] James Cambias: Wouldn't you rather have the advice of a skilled expert at what you're doing when you're doing it? That's pretty useful. Really.
[00:06:47] Halfling: Yeah. That is very useful. Absolutely.
[00:06:52] Spaceman: So Jim, we normally talk about how people got started in their journey. We've given us a little bit about your background as writing, but a lot of people's creative development comes from their fandom of something. So what is your earliest memory of being a fan of something and how did that influence your development as a creator?
[00:07:15] James Cambias: Well, I have had a very odd relationship with fandom when I was a kid, when I was in my early teens or whatever, I went to the Star Trek convention. And back then it was a Star Trek convention, not a science fiction convention, in, New Orleans. There was one called Volcan. And you know, I didn't have a car or anything, and it was about in the suburbs.
[00:07:41] James Cambias: So, you know, I had to get a parent to drive me. So we're not gonna be spending all day there going to panels and stuff. We're gonna do a quick walk around and maybe hit the dealer room and then somebody's gonna say, well, it's time to go now, . So, I was enchanted with the idea of fandom. I really liked the idea of, oh, it's a place you can go around wearing your Star Trek shirt and nobody's gonna give you crap about it.
[00:08:03] James Cambias: Um, but you know, I unfortunately, by the time I was old enough to have a set of wheels on my own and could have gone, you know, suit myself, that there was no longer much of an active convention scene in New Orleans. So when I was in high school, fandom was, again, something that happened elsewhere.
[00:08:23] James Cambias: I didn't go to any, I went to um, it was a convention on the Gulf Coast, coast Con in Biloxi. I got to that a couple of times, had fun, went to the Atlanta Fantasy Fest once or twice, which was the precursor to Dragon Con and that was a lot of fun. But that was about the extent of it. I wasn't deeply involved in fandom and I didn't know anyone else who was, , I was the biggest nerd in my circle,
[00:08:54] James Cambias: And so, fandom was always something that I liked the idea of, but did not really participate in very much. And that continued through college. It was really only after, ironically, after I'd gotten married and settled down that, my wife and I, before we had our daughter, we could go to conventions, , do weekend long LARP events and so on.
[00:09:19] James Cambias: That was more in the late 1990s by that point, or mid 1990s. And I was never a big participant in fandom as a fan. I never was part of a con committee. I was in the wrong demographic cohort to publish a fan zine. Right. By the time I was in a position to have done so, people were already doing webpages instead.
[00:09:44] James Cambias: My real involvement with fandom began basically parachuting in as a guest, as a pro, in the early two thousands. It like that has remained a great promotional tool, I think I even attended Arisia once or twice as a game designer pushing my role playing game stuff.
[00:10:03] James Cambias: And a few times, I attended things like the the game manufacturer association's trade show, because, my wife and I also have a little game company. But it was always as one of the people with a exhibitor badge or a program participant badge or something. I've never done fandom from the fan side.
[00:10:26] Spaceman: So to quote the Disney movie, Hercules, you went from zero to Hero, just like that.
[00:10:33] James Cambias: Well, in a way, yes, by the time I could get seriously involved in fandom, I was a pro
[00:10:43] Halfling: Well, do you feel like that's sort of been a missed opportunity or that you regret not getting to really participate on the fan side of things that much?
[00:10:53] James Cambias: This may sound a little harsh, but I suspect it's good for me and probably everyone else that I didn't, you know,
[00:11:00] Spaceman: Oh, okay.
[00:11:03] James Cambias: um, well, by which I mean, you know, I don't wanna sound harsh here, but I am afraid that I might have been satisfied with that.
[00:11:12] Spaceman: Ah.
[00:11:13] Halfling: Ah, okay. Okay.
[00:11:16] Spaceman: Well, Jim, don't worry. We are never satisfied over here,
[00:11:20] James Cambias: Well that
[00:11:25] Halfling: That's fair. I think I can understand you would've been comfortable with that and you would've enjoyed that, and that would've been the extent of it and as opposed to what you've gone on to do. So totally get that.
[00:11:39] Spaceman: And honestly, I can say that if we had a fun gaming group to be part of that was playing a flexible system like fate, we probably wouldn't be doing this podcast right now. So we understand how you feel.
[00:11:50] James Cambias: yes. But as I said, beginning in the late 1990s, I began to have more success with fiction writing, and then in the early two thousands I decided, After selling enough short stories to get myself into the science fiction writers of America, I had a long conversation with, David Hartwell in a hotel lobby in Chicago, I think, about ideas I had for novels, and he seemed receptive.
[00:12:17] James Cambias: So I began working on my first novel and about the time I finished it, the 2007, 2008 financial crisis hit. And all of a sudden publishers weren't interested in taking a chance on new writers. They were interested in staying in business summit. So that one stayed on the shelf basically for a few more years.
[00:12:37] James Cambias: And, I finally managed to sell it in, I think it was 2011.
[00:12:40] Spaceman: Jim, you've built up an extensive corpus of writing over the years from your RPG supplements, your game books, , your own game design company, and now novels and short stories. Do you have a favorite novel or game supplement that you've written? Something that stands out to you saying, this is my definitive work, this is my magnum opus.
[00:13:03] James Cambias: That's like asking me to decide which of my children I like better. I'm not one of these people who goes back and winces at their old stuff. I can read my older fiction and even my earlier game stuff with enjoyment. It's like, no, I thought it was good when I wrote it and I haven't changed.
[00:13:20] James Cambias: Every now and then you'll spot a typo or think of, you know, I should have included something else here, but I've never winced at any of my earlier writing.
[00:13:28] Spaceman: Let me phrase the question another way then. If someone wanted to become familiar with James Cambias, what would you recommend for them to read if they could only read one thing?
[00:13:42] James Cambias: You could only read one thing by me. That's, that, that's a hard, you're being a hard question or not 60 minutes territory. I would say the novel then that I would recommend would be, my third book. The first one I published with Baen books called Arkad's World. Because I'm gonna say that because one of the reasons I wrote it was to show off some of the things I do well,
[00:14:11] James Cambias: So it's like, it's a book in which I'm sort of, trying to show off my particular talents, playing to my strengths. In terms of game products, I would maybe steer them towards something like, GURPS Mars, which is a personal favorite, I guess
[00:14:31] Spaceman: I think I actually have a copy of that on the bookshelf.
[00:14:34] Halfling: Mm-hmm.
[00:14:35] Spaceman: I
[00:14:35] James Cambias: that was a project which I pitched to them.
[00:14:37] James Cambias: Several of the other group's books were, Steve bought the license to this fictional project, would you mind to this fictional, work? Would you like to write the game for it? Whereas Mars was my own idea and I had a lot of fun with that.
[00:14:52] James Cambias: And again, I think it shows off the things I do well.
[00:14:55] Spaceman: right? Everybody loves the red planet and anybody who's old enough loves the planet barsom as well.
[00:15:02] James Cambias: basically
[00:15:04] Halfling: You've worked with a lot of different game systems over the years. Have you had a favorite system that you've done work for?
[00:15:14] James Cambias: My tastes in game systems have evolved over the years, so I worked for a role master because they were willing to hire me. And I can't say I ever really had much love for the role master system. I had to learn it to write the game book. And I found myself thinking there's levels of complication here, which are totally unnecessary
[00:15:33] James Cambias: I did a fair amount of work for, the GURPS system, both in first, second, no second edition. And then I helped write the GURPS Space for third edition. I think I'm on the right edition numbers and I like GURPS's breadth. But over time I have decided personally that it is unnecessary to come up with one game system that can do everything
[00:16:02] James Cambias: And that by trying to do everything, a system sort of can often hobble itself. The hero game system, is another one I've worked on and I like a lot of its features too. And I certainly like a lot of GURPS's features, don't get me wrong. But again, it's like there's, you can see with both game systems, there's like a core area that they do really well and then there's this sort of penumbra around them of things where you really kind of have to stretch and force it to make it fit, , a good example, GURPS, you know, is good for realistic type modern day adventures.
[00:16:38] James Cambias: Try to put superheroes into it. You kind of have to make it fit, you know, hit it with a hammer and stuff. Whereas hero system was made originally for superhero adventures, and it does superhero adventures very well, but trying to write a horror game using hero system would be harder.
[00:17:00] James Cambias: You know? I mean, you could make it work, and I've also worked on stuff for Savage Worlds, which again, its origin was as a weird west game. And so, you can do that sort of six guns and whatnot. Pulp action, pulp style, action very easily.
[00:17:17] James Cambias: But, again, it gets kind of weird at the edges. But I've also come to realize that the rules are not as important. Ultimately, as, a good game master can to resolve everything just by flipping a coin or something.
[00:17:30] Halfling: Yes. I would definitely agree. When I run a game, The rules are just kind of out the window. And in fact, I don't, I, I don't he's laughing because he's played under me but, you know, and I do very little planning, if at all for my games. It's all player driven.
[00:17:50] Halfling: So, really when it comes down to the rules are just almost, negligible.
[00:17:56] Spaceman: Yeah, she lets the players create their own red herrings.
[00:17:59] Halfling: Yeah.
[00:18:02] James Cambias: I went through a period of trying to write stories in role playing games, and I realized that was not fun for the players and that they have more fun if you let the, you know, plus, you know, they can come up with things that you can't. So, increasingly, I try much more, nowadays, much more of a sandboxy style.
[00:18:24] Halfling: Since you've mentioned this, are you familiar with, LIT RPG
[00:18:32] James Cambias: I've heard the term, but I don't actually know what it means.
[00:18:36] Spaceman: We were completely ignorant, until a couple of weeks ago. Halfling, why don't you do your best to explain it?
[00:18:44] Halfling: Uh, well, essentially it is a story where the characters are going through their various adventures and areas of what have you, and they are in fact what we would call as gamers leveling. The story that we're reading right now, actually, there's a big Mecha, that one of the characters is piloting, and there's a scene.
[00:19:11] Halfling: It's a wonderful scene where he gets to look through a book of upgrades, . So it really is a situation where he's getting to level the mech up, and and that's essentially what it is. It's just like you're writing out a roleplay game.
[00:19:25] Halfling: You're writing out
[00:19:26] Spaceman: or writing out a session of a
[00:19:28] Halfling: Yeah. A session of a role-playing game or sessions, multiple sessions depending on, what the writer's doing. But, we were totally ignorant about it till a guest mentioned it, and, we're like what in the world? And
[00:19:40] Spaceman: in the heck is this?
[00:19:42] Halfling: even started Googling, you know?
[00:19:44] Halfling: And that didn't help, that didn't . So,
[00:19:47] Spaceman: you know, we've been playing RPGs, the tabletop version since, well, you know, the halfling since around 1980 and the spaceman a couple years before that . So we've been around the block a few times and this was new to us.
[00:20:03] Halfling: yeah.
[00:20:05] James Cambias: So, that's something. Mostly avoided in actual fiction writing because I had to learn that, in good writing, generally characters don't level up or rather they level up perhaps in understanding, but not necessarily in capabilities. If you look at, there's a book by Robin D. Laws is called Hamlet's Hit Points, which is basically looking at applying role playing game tropes and mechanisms to understanding fiction. And one of the thing he points out is that if you graph like, is a character going up or down in a given scene in most dramatic works, they're usually going down.
[00:20:44] James Cambias: And so like the arc of a novel, like of a play like Hamlet is a steady decline, right? Hamlet starts off as a prince, and he winds up fighting for his life. With, everyone plotting against him. So, things get worse and then things get worse, and then things get worse.
[00:21:00] James Cambias: And if at the end the hero triumphs by virtue of his wit and courage, then it's, an adventure story or possibly even a comedy. But if he dies, then it's a tragedy, you know? But, and Lester Dent, the creator of Doc Savage, basically, exactly replicated that in his pulpit venture novels, right?
[00:21:22] James Cambias: Where, you know, his advice was hit the hero with a heap of trouble in the beginning, and then you keep piling on more trouble as the story goes on. And by the end of the story, it's just down to, Doc left to his own resources and courage. And that's very different from role playing, game character progression, where you tackle difficult foes and you get more capable so you can tackle, bigger foes and get more capable so that you can tackle bigger still. I did do that in one novel, and it was sort of deliberate. It's the Initiate, which is my sole fantasy novel. It's a modern day fantasy. My elevator pitch description of it is if John Wick was Harry Potter.
[00:22:05] Halfling: Oh,
[00:22:06] James Cambias: so it's, you know, a man learns about a secret order of wizards that rules the world from behind the scenes and starts murdering them all.
[00:22:15] James Cambias: And so part of the whole sort of structure of that novel is that my protagonist gets better and better at being a wizard. He's learning more, he's gaining magical resources, et cetera, but he is being corrupted in the process, by the temptations of power and the compromises he has to make.
[00:22:36] James Cambias: Within the wizarding world, plus the fact that he is also, well I mentioned murdering people, so that, his moral progression is downhill and so the resolution of that story is basically finally comes down to which of those is he gonna choose?
[00:22:56] Halfling: Okay, I need to read that now. That sounds totally awesome.
[00:22:59] Spaceman: wait, is it available as an audiobook?
[00:23:03] James Cambias: I think it is, yes.
[00:23:06] Spaceman: Alright, we will definitely put it on the list.
[00:23:08] Halfling: Absolutely. Absolutely. That sounds like an awesome book.
[00:23:11] Spaceman: Going back though to the leveling up topic and tabletop RPGs, you can tell the influence of a writer of RPGs who have people who lay the foundation work for the setting. If you look at their work and then you look at the corpus of fiction, that's part of the Greater geek, cannon, you can see their influences.
[00:23:34] Spaceman: Like everybody knows that D&D is really just a thinly veiled copy of Tolkien with a good chunk of Jack Vance thrown in,
[00:23:42] James Cambias: And the gray mouser. Don't forget.
[00:23:43] Spaceman: Oh yeah, yeah. Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. But Traveller, the game where you don't level up is inspired by something called the Dumarest saga. And it's about a single character who is essentially a vagabond.
[00:23:59] Spaceman: He travels from StarPort to StarPort, getting into trouble. The stakes never raise. He's trying to make his way back to Earth. It's a great read. I wish it was all available as audiobooks, and Mark Miller, the creator of Traveller, said that the Dumarest Saga is one of his influences. And you can also see the golden Age SF and Traveller too.
[00:24:19] Spaceman: Sometimes you get these things by talking to the author of the book, not necessarily looking at the book's, bibliography. I've had a chance to meet both, Gary Gagas and Mark Miller, in my previous life. Um, so yeah, , sorry, that's, uh, too big of a digression.
[00:24:40] James Cambias: Gary Gygax famously did, appendix N where he listed his either sources or recommended reading or inspirational reading. Mark Miller didn't. But a number of other people have compiled sort of Traveller Appendix Ns. You mentioned, yes, there's a lot of influence from the Dumarest, series by, I believe, the author's EC Tubb. There's also a strong influence from Paul Anderson, his, Nicholas Von and trader team series, which are intertwined anyway, where it's a bunch of merchants scraping out a living, you know, exploring new planets and looking for markets and customers.
[00:25:23] James Cambias: and, a lot of them are puzzle stories, but the background is always about merchants in space, which is a big part of, you know, Traveller tends to split into, you're either doing merchants in space or mercenaries in space. And of course on the mercenary side, there's the David Drake's Hammers Slammers series, and Jerry Pournelle the mercenary series, and I guess even Gordon Dixon's Dorsi series.
[00:25:52] Spaceman: It's funny, the last Traveller game we played in was actually GURPS Traveller and the Game Master was the local hobby shop owner, I believe you might know him, Steve Nicewarner, who was the marketing manager for Steve Jackson games for like two weeks, , but that's how it goes in the gaming industry sometimes.
[00:26:11] Spaceman: Um, but his game was, you are the roadies for a space rock band.
[00:26:19] James Cambias: I know where it got that from. John M. Ford wrote that as a adventure hook. It's collected in his, in the New England SF Association. NEFA Press, brought out a collection of John M. Ford pieces called, from the end of the 20th century and one of them in it is a Traveller campaign. In which, yeah, you are the roadies and troubleshoots for a rock band Touring the Spinward Marches, I think,
[00:26:46] Halfling: And here I was thinking that Steve had an original idea.
[00:26:51] James Cambias: well, if you're gonna steal, you're gonna steal. There's no, I mean, stealing from John M. Ford is pretty damn close to doing it yourself.
[00:27:00] Halfling: Hello?
[00:27:01] James Cambias: you're gonna steal, steal from the best
[00:27:04] Spaceman: Yeah. I believe that was in the Journal of the Traveller's Aid Society too. There was a space rock band called Veeb Back.
[00:27:11] James Cambias: Veeb Back. Yes. That's Ford, that's John
[00:27:13] Spaceman: Yeah. Yeah, I remember that from back in the
[00:27:15] James Cambias: he was the great, he was the great gamer writer, he had a foot in both worlds and sadly, was taken from us far too soon.
[00:27:23] Spaceman: we should definitely get together again at some point and just discuss literature impacting gaming, impacting literature. One of the things we're gonna be doing later is we're gonna be doing panel discussions like you'd find at a convention and this sounds like a great topic.
[00:27:40] Halfling: I think it would be a great topic. I think there could be a lot of good discussion and lots of things to cover under that.
[00:27:47] Spaceman: Yeah. But today is all about James Cambias.
[00:27:49] Halfling: It is. And so getting back to Jim , we want our listeners to hear about people's journeys into becoming creative forces in fandom.
[00:28:02] Halfling: And with that in mind, what would you say was your real starting point? Because you mentioned several false starts with trying to get short stories published or what have you. But what would you really consider as your starting point?
[00:28:19] James Cambias: Either it was stealing my sister's Heinlein paperbacks in like 1975. I was way too young to be reading them. Which set me on the path, or the point at which I decided that this was gonna be my full-time occupation. Which would've been around, well, it would've been around that, that when I failed to sell my first novel in the early two thousands, because basically, okay, novels are not, I can't find a publisher for the novel.
[00:28:55] James Cambias: What about that other idea that we'd had for doing a card game? Maybe we should focus on that. So for the next few years, my wife and I and our business partner focused on trying to get zygote games off the ground. Our partner, had two young sons. One of them was a classmate of our daughter.
[00:29:12] James Cambias: That's how we met him, in elementary school. And, he noticed that his kids knew the names of all the Pokemons, even though, he was one of these fairly kind of, you know, hippie granola families where they didn't wanna watch the TV show and they didn't buy him the game or whatever, but they knew the names of all the Pokemons anyway, just from childhood osmosis, right.
[00:29:35] James Cambias: Um, and so he was thinking if only there was a way to get kids to learn about real things as easily and as effectively, and maybe we could do this as a game. So, our first attempt would've been a collectible card game, basically, the product, we went through several different product names and eventually settled on Biota. And the idea is it would've been a deck building game where you build an ecosystem. and you're trying to get your trophic pyramids set up with, you know, you've got plants, you've got herbivores, you've got carnivores and so on. And they have point values depending on how rare the creature of the species is.
[00:30:16] James Cambias: And you can try to mess with your opponent by putting low value, invasive species into their ecosystems and I still think we could make a go of this, it's just a question of what we have time to do now. But the idea was, you'd have like a pack for each major environment in the world, north America, south America, you know, the
[00:30:36] Halfling: Mm.
[00:30:36] James Cambias: different ecological, realms.
[00:30:39] James Cambias: And, it would be a collectible card game type thing. And we thought this was really good until we started looking into how much it would cost to produce. And we realized, well, you'd have to have at least. Two or three entirely separate card decks and you need, it turns out, we didn't know when we went into it, but we realized later on you'd need a pretty extensive distribution infrastructure to start selling booster packs and things like that, that basically had we been Richard Garfield and been able to get Wizard to the Coast involved on the ground floor, maybe we could have made this fly.
[00:31:14] James Cambias: But as it is, this was way too much work and capital required
[00:31:19] James Cambias: for three people doing it as essentially a part-time project for at least two of them.
[00:31:24] Spaceman: or if you had started in 1998.
[00:31:27] James Cambias: yeah. And so we retrenched and came up with a different idea, which was the card game, bone wars, which fits in one box and it's not a collectible and you buy it and you play it.
[00:31:38] James Cambias: And, that got pretty good reviews. Sales have been steady, not huge, but steady. It's where you get to do the things that real paleontologists accused each other of doing during the golden age of fossil hunting in the Wild West in the period after the Civil War, when all the Robert Barron tycoons were endowing museums in eastern cities, and they all wanted to have the most impressive dinosaur fossils from the west to put in them.
[00:32:05] James Cambias: And that was a lot of fun to design. And that was how I got to do things like go to the Game Manufacturers Association conference in Las Vegas and discover that I really don't like Las Vegas Well, at the time, this was not long after we'd moved to New England. I'm from the South originally, and there's a lot of things about New England that, you know, particularly in the wintertime that I was not very happy about.
[00:32:29] James Cambias: So we go to Las Vegas and as I was saying, this is almost literally the exact opposite of New England in every way you can quantify, but I don't like this place either.
[00:32:41] Spaceman: Yeah, the cigarette smoke was what killed me.
[00:32:44] James Cambias: Cigarettes smoked the noise, there's no place in that entire city where you're out of earshot of a slot machine.
[00:32:50] Spaceman: Mm-hmm. and being, being solicited for the strip clubs isn't necessarily great. Yeah.
[00:32:58] James Cambias: Um, and so we did that for a few years and then my wife got back into an academic track job and Was able to sell my first novel finally. So that has been sort of the back burner ever since. We did bring out a second card game called Parasites Unleashed, which is, again, it's science-based.
[00:33:20] James Cambias: It's full of true gross facts about parasites and, but we claimed it for a younger audience. So you complete, you don't even have to know how to read the play really.
[00:33:28] Spaceman: Oh, it sounds like you've been very busy. Now we've heard a rumor that you have a new novel out.
[00:33:36] James Cambias: why. Yes, as a matter of fact, I do. Although, due to some screwups in shipping and distribution, apparently it's currently only available in electronic format. They're still trying to find what happened to the printed copies. I have a box full, but that may be the only ones that anyone ever sees.
[00:33:56] Halfling: Oh goodness.
[00:33:58] James Cambias: It's called the Scarab Mission, from Baen Books.
[00:34:02] James Cambias: And it's takes place in the same setting as my previous novel, the Godel operation. But it is not a sequel or a prequel in any meaningful sense. There's no connection between the plot of the two books. There's one character in common, but I'm not gonna spoil it by saying who that is. And, scarab mission is it, and go to operation, both take place in the same far future hard science fiction setting.
[00:34:31] James Cambias: I call the Billion Worlds, where basically I started thinking back in, I think it was 2014, about what would it be like to be in a Kishev two civilization. Whether the solar system is a true Dyson sphere, not a giant ball around the sun, but a solar system in which, there's so many habitats and other structures circling the sun that, they catch most of the sun's output. And I wanted to set it far enough in the future so that not only is that the world, but that has been the world for a long time. And I try to set it so that, about half have recorded history is after that point has been achieved.
[00:35:13] James Cambias: So, the people of the 10th millennium, they've been living in a K2 civilization for thousands of years. And that's the world that they know. And they know sort of intellectually that yes, humans once only lived on earth, but. The same way that we know intellectually that humans only once lived in East Africa, you know?
[00:35:35] James Cambias: But it, there's no continuity of culture between then and now. And similarly, these are one of the things which I've been very tough on myself about avoiding is no references to any recognizable contemporary culture
[00:35:52] Spaceman: That far in the future, you know, it's, yeah.
[00:35:57] James Cambias: exactly. Yes and, one of the things I realized when I started thinking about that setting, I mean, I came up with the title The Billion Worlds, after I started thinking about, well, with all this energy, how many people could you support? Like you could support, gosh, like quadrillions of people. And so if they're all living in space habitats and you figure maybe like a million people each or so. Then how many is this gonna give you? Oh, this will give you a billion worlds. Oh, there's a nice title. I like that. So, , the billion worlds became the title for the setting. And I realized that with that many people and that many worlds habitats, whatever, you can have almost infinite variety in societies and politics.
[00:36:45] James Cambias: And of course, with millennia of mature genetic engineering, you can have a wide variety of species. You're gonna have digital intelligences, artificial intelligences, and all of it will be within relatively easy travel range of each other. So basically you've got the golden age science fiction reborn, right?
[00:37:09] James Cambias: You've got lots of worlds. That you can travel to in a cheap beat up old spaceship and you can find exotic societies in them. And not only is it possible to have a band of rebels fighting against a tyrannical empire in that setting? You know, with a spunky space princess as the rebel leader, it's practically inevitable, right?
[00:37:30] James Cambias: With that many people and that much stuff going on. So, I realized, okay, and for anything that does not involve like specifically stories of alien contact or something, I can do basically everything I want in this setting.
[00:37:50] Halfling: And thinking about that, what inspired you to write this particular book? What was in your mind? What sparked these ideas?
[00:37:59] James Cambias: If you mean scarab mission in particular, um,
[00:38:02] Halfling: yeah, I mean, those.
[00:38:03] James Cambias: Scab mission has an interesting intellectual history cuz it started as an idea in my idea notebook a long time ago about, a giant alien derelict with societies of scavengers and salvages living on it and in it and exploring it. And that kind of split into two different things. Part of it became a short story I wrote called Object three, which is still one of my favorite short stories, which has the giant alien object. and people living on it. But the alien object is, it's literally impenetrable and it's a mystery. And it's, and that sort of drives the whole story is the mysterious nature of this thing.
[00:38:47] James Cambias: So that, that part of it split off in that direction. And then the exploring the giant derelict became the Scarra mission. It's about a group of salvagers. They're implo employed by a spaceship who is one of the characters, who's been hired to, to move this derelict space colony, push it into a new orbit, which will sling it into a close encounter with Jupiter, which will catapult it out into the outer solar system where there's customers who want, all of that nice metals and heavier elements to play with. And of course, if you're gonna be doing that, if you're gonna be moving a whole space habitat, and it's gonna be going off into the outer reaches of the solar system, , you might as well go inside and see if there's anything valuable that isn't nailed down. Right. Uh, you know,
[00:39:32] James Cambias: So that's what they're doing.
[00:39:34] James Cambias: They're exploring the space habitat, looking for valuables and they discover that they may not be alone. And they discovered that there are other salvagers or predators who have, joined them whether they want it or not and they have to deal with multiple hazards, ranging from death traps to pirates, to killer robots, all with a ticking clock, because basically if they don't get off the station in time to use Jupiter for aero breaking and slow down.
[00:40:11] James Cambias: They will be sling off into the outer solar system too, and spend the next 40 years, off drifting through space. So, they've got a, they've got a deadline, they've got dangers, and, they've got some secrets which are revealed. Trying to avoid spoilers here.
[00:40:28] Spaceman: Yeah, I was gonna say bum, bum, bum.
[00:40:33] Halfling: Well, is there one particular writer or person that has inspired you?
[00:40:42] James Cambias: There are several, and at different times in my life, the answer has been different.
[00:40:46] Halfling: Mm-hmm.
[00:40:47] James Cambias: when I was younger, for example, in my teens. I was very inspired by Isaac Azimov. I read his autobiography in high school and I thought, man, he sold his first story at 15. I wonder if I could do that.
[00:41:01] James Cambias: Short answer. No, I couldn't but by then I had moved on and was becoming a big fan of Paul Anderson, and I think he shaped a lot of the way that I think about how one is supposed to write science fiction. Because he combined really good scientific rigor, with, adventurous storytelling.
[00:41:19] James Cambias: And I try to do the same. But then as I've gotten older, there's other writers who I consider influences. The writer, Tim Powers, he mostly does modern or historical fantasies. Though he did do one science fiction novel, which was one of his first ones. And he's one of those writers who you study, who I read because I just admire his craft.
[00:41:43] James Cambias: You know, he has amazing, ability to combine research with story so that his fictions, he'll generally take some real world events or the life of a real world person or whatever and weave a fictional narrative through it, or find fictional connections between two different people or so on.
[00:42:06] James Cambias: And, I really respect his ability to do that without making up or while fitting it all within the known facts. So a lot of his stories wind up being secret history, but because, he'll be writing about. Byron and Shelly, or I'm rereading his World War II era spy novel declare, which focuses on Kim Philby.
[00:42:30] James Cambias: And everywhere that Kim Philby appears, it was a place that he was known to have been at that time historically, or else when his whereabouts were completely unknown. So you can't prove he wasn't. But you know, there's this whole secret occult war plot going on.
[00:42:46] Halfling: Mm-hmm. Well, I think that's a good example of people's taste changing as they get older, when you're young, you might get , into the comics of the fantasy stories or what have you. And then as you get a little older, your reading starts to mature.
[00:43:03] Halfling: As you mature, your reading starts to mature. So it's only natural, I think that your inspirations have changed over the years. Let me a ask two questions. Really have there been any particular challenges that you've had to face in your journey to becoming where you are now?
[00:43:22] Halfling: And is there any advice that you could offer somebody who might be listening now who's trying to write that first novel or wants to write a gaming supplement?
[00:43:33] James Cambias: Well, I think my biggest challenge, to be perfectly candid, was self-inflicted in that I didn't know the importance of networking, put it that way. That I, you know, I thought that, oh, I'll just write really good stuff and people will appreciate my genius and I'll never have to do anything about it.
[00:43:52] James Cambias: Well, no, you know, most of us are not world-changing geniuses, so, it's better if you can sort of prime the pump, talk to the editor, talk to the publisher, find out what they want, You know, network. It really does make a difference.
[00:44:12] Spaceman: Heck, talk to the halfling and the spaceman. We know people.
[00:44:15] Halfling: Yeah, we do!
[00:44:17] James Cambias: Yeah, exactly. And, you know, early on there was an element of ego, which I think did not help me in that unwillingness to do any of that. I've been pleased to see that neither of my kids have suffered that weakness, so that was probably my biggest single challenge. And the advice I would give, I guess, for people who want to, well, it would be different for people who want to do games versus people who want to write fiction. For games, right now we're in kind of a golden age for independent game publishing,. With the, rise of things like crowdfunding so that even a startup indie game product can be adequately capitalized and look good and, you know, of good production values.
[00:45:08] James Cambias: Um, my advice for anyone who wants to start publishing games now is go for it, do it yourself. For fiction writing on the other hand, I think it's gotten a lot harder. Yes, it's easier to do indie publishing, but it is very, very, very hard to do marketing.
[00:45:26] James Cambias: Even with a publisher helping, putting ads in library journal and Publishers Weekly and so on, it's still hard to get just because there's so much being published. It's so hard to get your head above the water line and all.
[00:45:39] Spaceman: And that's another thing that we need to get a group together to talk about. One of the things that a lot of creators have brought up, has how much more of a grind it is. That self-promotion, how you have to be out there. You have to, you know, organize your own book signings and even if you're working with a major publisher, you don't get the kind of support you used to.
[00:46:02] James Cambias: No, I've seen it change just in the past decade or two. It's not just that the publishers aren't doing stuff, it's that it's getting harder for them to do, and a lot of the traditional marketing methods don't work as well anymore. So yeah, it's, it's tough.
[00:46:22] James Cambias: Um, also the traditional path into writing was always, you know, you start with short fiction and work your way up. but increasingly, it seems like, I know a lot of people who, start off by writing an epic fantasy trilogy or something and then finding a publisher for it. So, you know, and again, it seems like there networking matters, right.
[00:46:41] James Cambias: So for writing fiction, I guess the two are completely opposed for publishing. I would say go for it. You know, start your company, do your Kickstarter or whatever. For fiction, I would say don't quit your day job,
[00:46:55] Halfling: Mm-hmm.
[00:46:56] James Cambias: Possibly not ever. David Hartwell, my late much missed editor at Tor books, uh, told me that throughout his entire career, and he had been working in science fiction decades and decades, that the number of people who actually made a living at it could all ride in a van together.
[00:47:18] Halfling: Yeah.
[00:47:19] Spaceman: Yeah, . That's why a lot of the people we talked to, Milton Davis, who was recently on, was talking about publishing and talking about writing, and he calls it his passionate profession because it doesn't always pay the bills. The thing that you know, has been stressed to us time and time again, is that if you're not passionate about this, do something else.
[00:47:47] Spaceman: But if you're passionate, dig in. And I think that's true unless you're, you know, the Stephen Kings of the world.
[00:47:54] James Cambias: Well, the day is when you know people were cynically, grinding out pulp stories just for the. Are long gone, a they don't pay as well. And so, if you wanna cynically do something to grind out money, there's much better praying we things to do. I always like to talk about, um, there's a famous quote from, I think it was Earl Stanley Gardner, the creator of Perry Mason.
[00:48:18] James Cambias: He also wrote westerns and somebody asked him why the gun fights, the climactic gun fights in his stories always went on so long, you know, it wasn't just, you know, a single shot, somebody's down, it would always be like shooting at each other, running around, shooting, bang, bang, bang, bang, you know? And he said, I get paid 5 cents a word, so I'm not gonna let my hero ride off into the sunset with 25 cents of unexpended ammunition in his gun.
[00:48:44] Spaceman: And that was when 25 cents was something
[00:48:46] Halfling: Yeah.
[00:48:47] James Cambias: Yeah, okay. That was right. He was writing in the twenties, right. And he got paid a nickle word in the 20 teens. If I sold a story to F N S F, I would get paid 6 cents a word,
[00:49:02] Spaceman: Ooh,
[00:49:03] Halfling: Ooh.
[00:49:04] James Cambias: So
[00:49:04] Halfling: We're we're talking
[00:49:05] James Cambias: nearly a century we had gone up by a penny
[00:49:10] Halfling: Like Spaceman was talking about, we hear time and time again. It has to be your passion and you can't have any delusions about why you're doing it because most people who write can't make a living doing it. I mean, you gotta have something that's gonna pay the bills, otherwise,
[00:49:28] Halfling: so.
[00:49:28] Spaceman: even, even if you are a writer who makes their living writing, you have to be steadfast,
[00:49:36] Halfling: Mm-hmm.
[00:49:36] Spaceman: you. You have to be dedicated to your craft.
[00:49:40] James Cambias: There is another path which your listeners probably ought to be aware of, and that's the academic path.
[00:49:46] Halfling: Mm-hmm.
[00:49:46] James Cambias: where you write chiefly for little, what are called little magazines, even though, you know, I'm, most of them are online now anyway. But you know, you write literary fiction, which is a genre, um, it's a genre which pretends that other genres don't exist.
[00:50:05] James Cambias: And you basically treat that as a loss leader. You don't get paid for them really, but that is then your equivalent of publishing scientific papers or scholarly papers and that, and then fuels your career teaching English or creative writing or English literature or whatever, as an academic.
[00:50:26] James Cambias: And that's a path which I know a number of people who, you know, follow as well. Because one of the nicer things about the geekification of culture in the 21st century is that, You can be a literature professor and write science fiction nowadays.
[00:50:50] Halfling: Sure
[00:50:50] Spaceman: Very, very true. Very true. And I hadn't even thought about the academic path.
[00:50:57] James Cambias: It's much more driven by awards rather than sales,
[00:51:03] James Cambias: And, it's much more like treating stories as papers for publication rather than products for sale.
[00:51:09] Halfling: Well, okay. You told us a little bit about the book that you have some physical copies of, but none of the others may see the light of day. What else is on the horizon for you?
[00:51:21] James Cambias: Well, I'm working on the next book. I always have this running joke with my family that, you know, there's the book, which is the one that's just out, and then there's the next book, , and then there's the book after that. Um, uh, so right now the next book is also taking place in the billion world setting.
[00:51:40] James Cambias: It is a direct story and character sequel to the Godal operation. After that, I'm not sure, I have not thought that far ahead yet. I have been putting a few small, self-published, game products up on drive through RPG.
[00:51:59] Halfling: Mm.
[00:51:59] James Cambias: Um, uh, you know, one was like a random event generator for planets in space games like Traveller, although it's not game system specific, but it's like, what's happened on Regina since the last time you were here?
[00:52:16] James Cambias: Roll on the book. Oh, they had a earthquake or a meteor impact or having economic boom or whatever.
[00:52:25] Halfling: So it's just sort of like rolling a dice to see . They have specific events on it. You just roll a dice,
[00:52:32] James Cambias: right and it's to give the players a sense that the universe is a dynamic and changing environment. I've been running a Traveller campaign of my own for a few years now, and it has been sort of a revelation to me what you can do with just a few die rolls
[00:52:47] Halfling: Mm-hmm.
[00:52:48] James Cambias: players arrive on this planet.
[00:52:49] James Cambias: Oh, look like they're having a civil war. My goodness. Well, and so
[00:52:54] Spaceman: reminds me of the old, merchant prince supplement. So, you know, the markets are up in, cobalt,
[00:53:02] Halfling: Well are you doing any, supplements for any of the major systems?
[00:53:08] James Cambias: the last one I did for a game publisher was a Savage Worlds project. Weird War I, which came out I think in 2017. They barely managed to fit it in the centennial of the First World War, I think. I think somebody in like 2015 said, Hey, the first World War was a hundred years ago. We better get something out in a hurry.
[00:53:32] James Cambias: And that was a lot of fun. Although, I mean, I say a lot of fun because I love doing research. So everything that involves doing a lot of research is a lot of fun. But it's also, incredibly depressing to research World War I, because, unlike World War ii, world War I doesn't have a whole lot of what we would really consider villains, right?
[00:53:54] James Cambias: All of the great powers in Europe went to war each other for pretty good reasons. You know, they were mostly like honoring their treaty obligations or standing up for little countries that were being pushed around or resisting aggression or whatever, so, It's really, really depressing to realize that, everybody went into this with the best of motives and led to casualties on a scale nobody could even conceive of.
[00:54:25] Spaceman: And on top of that, we just went through our equivalent of the Spanish flu
[00:54:30] James Cambias: Yeah. Plus, yes, plus an epidemic that, although I wrote it a little essay about, the coronavirus when it first started, about how interesting it is, how little is about the Spanish flu in the World War I era. Part of that was due to wartime censorship, of course, but also for all of human history. Up till that point, of course, you had epidemics and when there was a war on that just happened, you know, you know, civil war more soldiers died of disease than of gunfire.
[00:55:04] James Cambias: World War I was the first war in which it didn't happen. You actually shot more people than died of disease. So the fact that there's a major epidemic going on, it's just like, whoa, sure, why not? They didn't think of it as particularly unnatural, and you can tell because works at the time don't harp on it.
[00:55:24] James Cambias: Whereas if somebody's writing a novel set in like 1918, you can bet your boat boots that a character is gonna die of the Spanish flu.
[00:55:35] Spaceman: Right,
[00:55:35] James Cambias: But if somebody back then was writing, well, maybe they would die of the Spanish flu, maybe they would die of consumption, you know,
[00:55:44] Spaceman: right. My mom has been recently doing, genealogical research because apparently something happens to you when you turn 80 and you wanna know about your ancestors. But one of the things is she went to a cemetery in Durham, that was associated with the old Irwin Mill. And, they're just the same family names all with death dates within six months of each other.
[00:56:10] Spaceman: Uh, just, you know, whole families. And it's not something she'd ever thought about before the coronavirus hit. Um, but yeah, it's amazing that there wasn't that big of a record, but yeah, they explanation you've given, makes perfect sense.
[00:56:22] Halfling: Mm.
[00:56:24] James Cambias: Yeah. And you know when you compare, I mean, I don't mean to seem like I'm being disparaging of the people who have died of the coronavirus, but. It's a drop in the bucket compared to past epidemics. There were epidemics in single cities or regions, which killed more people.
[00:56:44] Spaceman: Let's all raise one up for science
[00:56:46] James Cambias: Yeah. You know, like a good Cholera epidemic could kill off tens of thousands of people.
[00:56:51] Halfling: Oh yeah. Yeah. I mean, I think that's something that people need to get a better perspective of.
[00:57:00] Spaceman: Right, right. But don't dismiss the suffering of others. But yeah. Science good.
[00:57:05] Halfling: Yeah. AB.
[00:57:07] Spaceman: bad science. Good. So, you know, as a writer of science fiction, , hopefully it makes you a good living.
[00:57:13] James Cambias: And I said, right.
[00:57:15] Spaceman: Yeah. So it's time for us to start wrapping things. Jim, where can people find out more about you and where are all your works available?
[00:57:24] James Cambias: Well, to find out more about me, I guess the best place to start would be my own website, www.jamescamas.com, which is the host for my blog called Just the Caffeine Talking. Also pages list all my published works, although I probably ought to go back and update it now that this new book is out. And some unpublished material.
[00:57:48] James Cambias: There's a link to, my Lost First Story, things like that. And the blog also I think gives you a tour of my mental attic. If you want to buy my books, they've all been published through major publishers. So, your local bookstores should be able to order them with the exception of Scarab mission because nobody seems to be able to find them.
[00:58:09] James Cambias: But keep trying, and, Amazon of course, I also have a couple of self-published, chat books, reprinting some of my older short stories on Amazon in Kindle format., I'd say don't bother with used bookstores. I've never seen anything by me in a used bookstore. I don't know whether this means that nobody buys my books or whether it means that nobody gets rid of them once they get 'em.
[00:58:32] Spaceman: Well, let's hope it's the latter.
[00:58:34] Halfling: Yeah. Yeah. We'll go with the latter explanation well that's great. We're gonna make sure that we get all that into the show notes cuz we want people to be able to get ahold of your stuff and find out a little bit more about you. Interesting character, you are an interesting character.
[00:58:53] Spaceman: Yes, with an interesting path.
[00:58:56] Halfling: And we really appreciate you taking the time to talk with us today, and we have had a great time, hearing about your journey in active fandom.
[00:59:05] James Cambias: Well, thank you very much for having me on..
[00:59:07] Spaceman: Yeah. And we want to thank all our listeners for tuning in today. We hope that you've enjoyed and perhaps become inspired by today's guest, James Cambias. We want to give James a huge thank you for joining us today, and a massive shout out, and this is the spaceman of the Halfling and the Spaceman signing off.