Two Recent Novels by James L. Cambias

Cambias is a video game designer, which really shows in these novels. The situation, plot, and characters are interesting but shallow. These books are easy to read and enjoyable, if maybe a bit unsatisfying.

Good but not great.

Corsair by James L. Cambias

This is a fun story of the near future (the 2030s), with lots of believable technology. Actually, the tech is pretty tame, considering what we will really see.

The action centers around mining the moon for Helium 3, which is shipped in bulk back to Earth as fuel for fusion power plants. Each shipment lobbed back to Earth is work billions.

Enter David Schwartz a talented hacker with the moniker Captain Black the Space Pirate, who hijacks a couple of shipments, directing them from the intended landing site to fast moving pirates on the ocean. These lumbering apace galleons are undefended and easy prey.

Pursuant to International law, space is still demilitarized. In any case, budget constraints limit what can be done. Air Force Lieutenant Elizabeth Santiago is sure she knows the identity of this pirate, and is determined to stop him, even at the cost of her career.

Pirate Jack gets involved with another heist, though his partners are very dangerous and deceptive. Things fall apart and Jack must run for his life, at the same time that the Air Force and private contractors race to stop the plot unrolling in space.

Cambias’ background in video game design shows in both the tense plotting and detailed tech porn. The characters are a little deeper than video games, though the situations and motives are as shallow as you would expect.

Cambias has a solid knowledge of computers, networks, and apparently space systems. He doesn’t seem to care much about nanotech, or cryptocurrency, or any number of other tech innovations that could well be commonplace by 2030.

A Darkling Sea by James L. Cambias

Set on a planet with an interior ocean under kilometers of ice (a la Europa), a human research station is observing the native life (called Illmatarans by Earthlings). The pitch dark ocean is filled with life, including intelligent life, which exploits undersea vents and communicates via sonar.

The humans are constrained by interstellar politics, as the alien Sholen demand that humans keep distance from the natives. The Sholen fear human colonization and cultural hegemony, and when contact is accidentally made, they intervene forcefully.

The situation deteriorates into a multi sided conflict, with confused motives and miscommunications on all sides.

This story also reflects Cambias’ video gaming experience. The story is complex in a shallow way, featuring tense situations that develop rapidly and then  are worked out by collaboration and fighting.

The plot is very “game like”. The challenges and rewards are exaggerated, creating tension. The action is constant, no one seems to rest or take stock. And the difficulties are overcome surprisingly easily, once the right combination of tools and actions is discovered. For example, the humans are able to learn a little the (extremely) alien language in days, sufficient to organize a political alliance. This is something that happens in a video game, not in real life.

The alien planet and the technology is described nicely, though shallowly. We get the idea that there may be a carefully worked out back story, explaining the ecology of Illmatar, Sholen, and Earth’s current technology. For that matter, there seems to be quite a bit of history between the humans and Sholen. But these matters are implied but not explained. It is more than a little difficult to grok what is going on and why.

The psychology of the two alien species is charming and fun to read. This is one of the strongest features of the book. Each race has strengths and weaknesses, and different individuals have their own, conflicting, motives. There are “nice people” on all sides, and we can see how cool it would be for everyone to work together. But misunderstandings, cultural differences, and military paranoia lead to tragic conflict.


1. James L. Cambias, A Darkling Sea, New York, Tor, 2014.
2. James L. Cambias, Corsair, New York, Tor, 2015.

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