With his pulpy sci-fi novel The Godel Operation (paperback, Kindle), writer James L. Cambias is expanding his Billion Worlds universe, one that’s already home to a couple short stories and, if all goes well, will soon have many more. In the following email interview, Cambias explains what inspired and influenced this first Billion Worlds novel, as well as his plans moving forward.
To start, what is The Godel Operation about?
It’s about a conceited Artificial Intelligence named Daslakh and his favorite human, a young man named Zee, who live in a space habitat in the outer Solar System at the end of the Tenth Millennium. The two leave home in search of Zee’s imaginary girlfriend and get caught up in a race to find the Solar System’s ultimate weapon. Along the way they encounter a paranoid super-intelligence with a giant laser, a criminal mastermind cat, a killer whale spaceship, and the greatest thief in history.
Where did you get the idea for The Godel Operation, and how, if at all, did that initial idea change as you wrote this novel?
The idea started with the setting. I started out by thinking of what the Solar System would be like in the Tenth Millennium, when most of humanity has been off of Earth for more than half of recorded history, and the Sun is surrounded by a vast swarm of power collectors and artificial habitats. That was Freeman Dyson’s original “Dyson Sphere” concept, but nowadays you often see the term “Dyson Swarm” used to describe it, as a Dyson Sphere now refers to a single rigid ball built around a star. I did some calculating and realized there would be something like a billion space habitats orbiting the Sun, home to something like a quadrillion people. So the sheer scale of a purely hard sci-fi future set entirely in the Solar System would dwarf most Galactic empires in science fiction.
Once I figured that out, I realized that in such a vast and diverse future, pretty much all of the tropes of classic science fiction become not just possible but practically inevitable. You can have all kinds of weird little cultures, a variety of intelligent life forms which can interact conveniently (thanks to genetic engineering), easy travel between worlds — and all of it can be done without any “rubber science” or handwavium. That sense of infinite possibilities got me very excited.
Sounds cool. Now, as you said, The Godel Operation is a pulpy sci-fi space opera story. But are there any other genres at work in this story as well? Because it sounds kind of weird.
You could also call it a “Picaresque” novel, as it follows a group of roguish characters in their encounters with others. It’s got a lot of comedy in it — somehow that creeps into everything I write, even the dark stories.
The Godel Operation is your fifth novel. Are there any writers, or specific stories, that had a big influence on The Godel Operation but not on anything else you’ve written?
You could easily ask that question about everything I’ve written. Each of my novels has a different influence: Poul Anderson and Hal Clement on A Darkling Sea, Carl Hiassen and Tom Clancy on Corsair, Rudyard Kipling on Arkad’s World, and Geoffrey Household on The Initiate. I think the biggest influence on The Godel Operation was Jack Vance, as it has odd cultures, eccentric characters, and a strong undercurrent of cynicism. I’ve always loved Vance’s work.
What about non-literary influences; was The Godel Operation influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games?
Not that I can think of. The far-future Dyson Swarm Solar System is an environment which other media haven’t really touched on very much. I don’t know why. In my acknowledgements I did recognize three online resources which were either inspirational or provided practical help: Winchell Chung’s “Atomic Rockets” Web site (projectrho.com), the collaborative “Orion’s Arm” Web site (orionsarm.com), and Isaac Arthur’s Science And Futurism With Isaac Arthur YouTube series.
Speaking of which, along with writing novels, you’ve also written such tabletop games as Bone Wars: The Game Of Ruthless Paleontology and Weird War I, and are the Game Architect of Zygote Games. Did you ever consider writing The Godel Operation as a game?
There’s an amusing story about that. A couple of years ago, while I was starting work on The Godel Operation, I was also putting together a prospectus of role-playing game campaigns I wanted to run for my friends. I sent out a list of games I wanted to run and let them vote on which one to play. Most were easy campaigns using a lot of published resources so I wouldn’t have to do much world-building work. But on a whim I included a campaign set in the Billion Worlds future, and of course that was the one they picked. So while I was writing The Godel Operation I was also creating locations and adventures for that role-playing campaign. Scheduling conflicts did in the game after a dozen sessions or so, but some concepts I developed for the game did turn up in The Godel Operation. An offhand reference to the “war-ravaged Fourth Millennium” became a major story element in the novel.
If there’s enough interest, I do plan to organize those old game notes and my setting information files, and put out a Billion Worlds role-playing game eBook. That will probably happen some time in the next few years.
Now, Billion Worlds is the fictional universe that The Godel Operation takes place in. Do you have plans to write other books in this series?
My goal is to tell a whole range of stories set in the Billion Worlds universe. The Godel Operation is a classic picaresque sci-fi pulp adventure. I’ve also done one short story which is a “lost world” adventure (“Out Of The Dark” in the forthcoming anthology Lost Worlds, edited by John Joseph Adams), and another which was based on Greek myth (“Calando” in the anthology Retellings Of The Inland Seas, edited by Athena Andreadis). I’m also currently working on a prequel novel to The Godel Operation which is a horror thriller, and a short story which is a mystery. I’ve also got notes for a Shakespearean screwball comedy, a military sci-fi adventure, and a spy story, all set among the Billion Worlds. It’s a huge canvas and I can keep filling in different bits for quite a long time.
Speaking of books that are part of a series, you previously said you were planning to write sequels to both 2014’s A Darkling Sea and 2015’s Corsair. Where do things stand with those books?
Sequels to A Darkling Sea and Corsair are on hold for now, as they were published by Tor and at present Baen Books is my primary publisher. They would like to be able to reprint the originals at the same time as they publish a sequel, and until the original contract ends, that’s not feasible. When the rights to those books revert to me I may try to interest Baen in sequels.
Gotcha. As for your other novels, Baen recently issued the paperback version of your novel The Initiate. What is that book about, and when and where does it take place?
The Initiate was a big departure for me: a present-day fantasy novel. It’s a “noir urban fantasy” which I’ve described as “What if Harry Potter was John Wick?” A man discovers the existence of a secret order of wizards called the Apkallu, who rule the world by magic. He vows to destroy them. The book takes place in 2014-2016 in New York City.
And aside from being smaller and thus easier to carry, is there anything about the paperback version of The Initiate that’s different from the original hardcover?
We didn’t change anything, as far as I’m aware.
Unlike The Godel Operation, and your other novels, The Initiate is a fantasy novel. How do think your foray into a different genre influenced The Godel Operation?
I wrote The Initiate because of my longstanding love for Lovecraftian horror. I wanted to do that sort of story but with supernatural elements more solidly grounded in real-world mythology and occult beliefs. My college degree is in the History of Science, from the University Of Chicago. So in the late 1980s I spent a lot of time reading works from the Renaissance and Early Modern era, when the distinction between science and magic hadn’t yet been defined. I wanted to put that knowledge to use.
There was no direct influence on The Godel Operation (they definitely do not take place in the same universe), but if you peer below the surface you can see a strain of Lovecraftian horror manifesting itself in The Godel Operation, particularly in how I depict the vastly superhuman artificial intelligences which control most of the Sun’s matter and energy. Like Lovecraft’s Great Old Ones, they don’t really notice humanity much — my vast system-spanning Billion Worlds civilization is unimportant to the minds of the Inner Ring. They literally stopped trying to exterminate organic life in the Solar System because it wasn’t worth the bother.
Earlier I asked if The Godel Operation had been influenced by any movies or TV shows. But I want to flip the script, as the kids used to say, and ask you if you think The Godel Operation could work as a movie or TV show?
Naturally, I’m biased, but I think The Godel Operation would make a wonderful film, or a multi-part television serial. It’s got plenty of action, a love story, humor, and amazing scenery. I think it would be hard to squeeze it into a feature film length, but spread over a dozen or so one-hour episodes there would be time to really explore the setting.
If someone wanted to make that, who would you want them to cast in the main roles?
Zee is a good-natured, athletic young fellow. Andrew Rotilio, who played a character called Diogo on The Expanse, would be a good fit. Daslakh is a digital intelligence in a small spider-shaped mechanical body. He’s old and cunning, and more than a little bit conceited. Alan Tudyk [Resident Alien] would be a great voice actor for Daslakh. Kusti, Zee’s “imaginary girlfriend” is a hard one to cast, as it needs an actress who can convey the fact that she’s always pretending to be someone she’s not. Florence Pugh [the upcoming Black Widow] would be a good choice, as I’m convinced she can play anything. Adya is Kusti’s rival, both for Zee and the superweapon known as the Godel Trigger. She’s very smart, a bit shy, but quite determined. Anya Taylor-Joy, who’s starring in The Queen’s Gambit, would be good in the part — with some kind of animated effect to let her skin change color to reflect her mood. And Pelagia is a spaceship with the brain of an enhanced killer whale. She’s tough and protective of Adya. A good voice for her would be Scarlett Johansen [also Black Widow].
Finally, if someone enjoys The Godel Operation, which of your other novels would you suggest they read next and why that one?
If you liked The Godel Operation, you probably will like Arkad’s World, which has its own exotic setting full of strange beings. You might also like Corsair, a near-future space “caper” story with an amusingly amoral main character.
To read the first chapter of James L. Cambias’ The Godel Operation, please click here.