The Big Idea: James L. Cambias

The Godel Operation by James Cambias

Sometimes a writer’s big idea is something that a single novel cannot hope to contain — even if that novel can give that idea a hell of a good start. Acclaimed author James L. Cambias came across one of those really, really big ideas, and he’s here to explain how The Godel Operation is just the beginning for it.


May 4 marks the publication of my fifth novel, called The Godel Operation. It’s a hard science fiction space opera, set in the waning years of the Tenth Millennium.

The setting is called the Billion Worlds, because in that era the Solar System is home to more than a billion artificial habitats, hollowed-out asteroids, and colonies on just about every planet and moon — except Mercury, which doesn’t exist any more. The quadrillion inhabitants of those billion worlds range from ordinary humans, to uplifted animals, to exotic genetically-engineered creatures, to digital minds — some of which are thousands or millions of times smarter than “baseline” humans.

That’s all just the background. The story is about a machine called Daslakh and a young man named Zee, who leave their remote backwater habitat to search for Zee’s imaginary true love. Along the way they encounter a criminal cat, a cyborg killer whale spaceship, a paranoid supermind hiding behind Jupiter, the greatest thief in history . . . and a young woman who might really be Zee’s true love after all. All these characters are trying to get their hands or paws on the Godel Trigger, a conceptual superweapon that may save human civilization, or maybe destroy it.

It’s a book packed with the biggest ideas I could think of. Terraformed planets! Giant megastructures! Mining the Sun! A devastating war between humans and artificial intelligences! A giant laser inside Pluto controlled by clockwork computers and diamond-skulled monks, powered by microscopic black holes!

But the biggest idea of all is the Billion Worlds setting itself. How did I come up with that? I did the math. 

Back in 2012 I was thinking about the future. I wanted to write a story set in a rigorous hard-science far-future setting. I began with a note to myself:

“Let’s start playing around with a very-far-future world. A mature Dyson sphere Solar System.”

(I actually think by typing like that, and yes, I say “Let’s” and “We” to myself because there are two of us — the me who’s typing and the me who’s reading what I type.)

I went back to the original concept of a Dyson Sphere, the one proposed by Freeman Dyson back in 1960: a swarm of orbiting objects which soak up all (or nearly all) of a star’s output. Not a single sphere, just a whole bunch of things in orbit at various inclinations. Such a civilization, with the entire output of a good-sized star to play with, is also known as a Kardashev Type II civilization, in honor of the late Russia astronomer Nikolai Kardashev, who was classifying potential alien civilizations by the distance at which we could observe them.

So I looked up some numbers and did some simple math. How big a population can the Sun’s entire energy support? If they live like modern Americans, the number is about ten quadrillion humans. How long would it take for our population to reach that level? Straight extrapolation of population trends on Earth suggested we could have that many humans in less than 2000 years, although personally I suspect the growth curves will tend to flatten out so it might take longer.

How long would it take to build enough space habitats to house that many people? Again, I did the math, assuming the work would be done by self-replicating Von Neumann Machine robots. If each robot could build one square kilometer of solar collectors plus one daughter machine in a year — and that’s a pretty modest rate — then it would take less than two centuries to build a sphere of collectors around the Sun with a radius about equal to Mars’s orbit. Elon Musk, take note.

I checked to make sure there would be enough building material for all this. If you wanted to build a sphere of solar panels that big it would take about 1 percent of the mass of the Earth. Scrapping some moons and asteroids (and perhaps extracting mass from the Sun) gives you plenty of raw materials.

Wow! I could start writing stories set in a Dysonized Solar System taking place in the year 4000 if I wanted to. But I didn’t. I wanted an old, “mature” setting. I wanted my Dyson Sphere civilization to be the default, with more than half of all recorded history coming after the sphere was completed. All our time on Earth up to now is forgotten prehistory. That gave me a rough date of AD 11,000. Ultimately I dropped a thousand years because the Tenth Millennium sounds cooler.

So just three or four bits of mathematical fiddling gave me the bones of the setting: quadrillions of people in the Tenth Millennium, living on a billion space habitats circling the Sun. That number gave me a title for the setting: The Billion Worlds.

What wonders could I have in that future? What couldn’t I have? My future humans have pretty much complete mastery of matter and energy within the limits of known science. The only question was how much “magic” to include? What laws of nature would I break? I decided not to break any. No faster-than-light travel, no antigravity, no force fields, no “unobtanium” or “handwavium.”

I realized that there would still be limits on the technology available to my characters, but those limits would come from economics, not knowledge. Here’s how it works: characters who live on a small habitat, with only the population of a middle-sized modern city, are limited in what they can have and do, even if the overall technology of the Solar System is virtually unlimited.

For example, a community of a million people could sustain a solar powered space habitat — but they probably couldn’t support a computer chip factory, at least not the modern kind. The degree of specialization is too great and the return-on-investment is too small if there’s only a million customers for computer chips. And a self-sufficient space hab won’t have a whole lot of things to trade. So they won’t be able to make everything “smart.” They’ll have to save the expensive smart matter and supertech for important purposes, while much of daily life will remain unchanged.

This means that the people in the poorer parts of the Billion Worlds have lives that my early Third Millennium readers can understand and relate to. That was actually great news: I can tell a story about humans eight thousand years in the future but they won’t be incomprehensible godlike superbeings.

To be sure, there are incomprehensible godlike superbeings in the Billion Worlds, but most of them live in the Inner Ring, a band of super-dense data processing circuitry surrounding the Sun, made out of what used to be the planet Mercury. In numbers, intellect, and sheer power, the digital minds of the Inner Ring are the real civilization of the Solar System. The biological beings and baseline-equivalent mechs living on planets and habitats are utterly unimportant, but the poor things don’t realize that.

If there are a billion worlds, then a city-sized space habitat with millions of inhabitants is about as important in the grand scheme of things as a single human on contemporary Earth. If there’s a huge war among the Trojan asteroid communities in Jupiter’s orbit, the humans living in the Main Swarm of space habitats between Earth and Mars may never even notice — any more than people in modern Thailand would pay attention to a bank heist in Brazil. Societies on different habs can be vastly strange to one another. This means that even with super-advanced information technology, characters can still suffer from culture shock and conflicts with unfamiliar societies.

So . . . We’ve got a vast number of worlds with wildly different conditions. We’ve got thousands of types of intelligent beings. We’ve got literally millions of societies, and tremendous variation among them. Travel time from world to world is a matter of days or months. There are vast ancient powers lying dormant. There’s no central authority. Is this starting to sound familiar?

It’s a Space Opera setting! Except that it’s all packed neatly into the Solar System rather than sprawling across the Galaxy.

Once I realized that, and realized the sheer scope of the canvas the Billion Worlds represented, I got very excited. One can tell almost any story in that setting, and I’ve set out to prove it. In addition to The Godel Operation I’ve written three short stories about the Billion Worlds. One (“Calando” in Athena Andreadis’s anthology Retellings From the Inner Seas) is a story of contact between a human and the extremely alien “bioships” living around Neptune. Another (“Out of the Dark” in John Joseph Adams’s forthcoming anthology Lost Worlds and Mythological Kingdoms) concerns a quarrelsome pair of adventurers exploring a derelict space habitat. The third (“The Paoshi Problem” in a forthcoming Baen anthology) features a couple of characters from The Godel Operation solving a mystery on a city floating in Saturn’s atmosphere.

I’m currently writing another Billion Worlds novel, with the working title The Scarab Mission. In contrast to The Godel Operation‘s lighthearted picaresque romp across the Solar System, this one will be a gritty thriller about salvage operators trapped in an abandoned space hab with a gang of murderous pirates — and a lurking threat far more deadly. I’ve also got plans for a romantic comedy, a heist story, and a spy story.

While I’ll probably write other stories and novels outside the Billion Worlds setting, that future offers so much elbow room I’m likely to be playing in it for a long time to come. It’s the biggest idea I’ve had yet.

The Godel Operation: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site.

11 Comments on “The Big Idea: James L. Cambias”

  1. I’m excited about this one — Cambias’ other novels that I’ve read (which is not all of them yet) and his RPG material are all good.

  2. First, I’m impressed enough by your real math approach to timelining your universe that I bought the Kindle copy before commenting here. I love well founded sci-fi. Second, the idea of typing and codifying civilizations is completely new to me but sounds fascinating. Any recommendations on where to dig into that and learn more? Who decided this was a “Kardashev Type II?” What’s a “Kardashev Type I?” Is there a type III? What other Types are there. So many questions…

  3. @Lord John: Here’s Wikipedia on the Kardashev scale. That seems like a fairly obvious starting point.

    For myself, as a certified (some would say certifiable) nitpicker, I find that the title of this book is fingernails on a blackboard. The name of the mathematician who proved the famous Incompleteness Theorem is not Godel. It is Gödel or Goedel. I’ll admit, there’s nothing in this post to say that the book is necessarily named after him; it could be named after someone else (perhaps a fictional character in this future setting). That’s not the way I’d want to bet, however.

  4. I’m reading it now, and it’s a fun read!

    As for umlauts, in the book they are clearly said to have been exterminated in the Umlaut War of the Seventh Millennium.

  5. ‘No faster-than-light travel, no antigravity, no force fields, no “unobtanium” or “handwavium.”’
    Well, there’s always Impossibilium. Or a talking cat…
    But seriously, this is about the biggest Big Idea I can remember. And the excerpt is great. I’m sold!

  6. Tony Daniel, my editor at Baen, actually discussed the umlaut issue. My argument against them was twofold:
    First, in the future of the story the characters probably aren’t using them. They’re probably not even writing in the Roman alphabet any more. So the “diegetic” use in-story is umlautless.
    Second, I didn’t want the book cover to look like a metal album.
    Evidently one of those reasons was convincing.

  7. Update, I’m about 20% in and completely hooked. It’s wonderful!

  8. In our world the canonical thing to do if you are unable or unwilling to use the diacritic is to put an e in, which is why I gave “Goedel” as an alternative.