Friday, August 21, 2020

"The Lost Fleet: Dauntless," by Jack Campbell--Fiction Review

Happy Friday, my obscure space cadets—today, I thought we might jump into the first book of one of my all-time favorite military science fiction series, “The Lost Fleet: Dauntless,” by Jack Campbell. Inspired in equal measures by the Greek epic “The March of the Ten Thousand,” by Xenophon and the Chinese military treatise “The Art of War,” by Sun Tzu—I fell in love with this series around book two. Usually, I’m slow to complete a series, but “The Lost Fleet” became a bit of an obsession of mine in my mid-twenties, and each time Campbell released a new one, I’d stop everything I was reading and devour the latest book.   

Jack Campbell

***The Non-Spoiler part of this review***

What I love about this book:

The depth of Jack Campbell’s naval experience is clear and shows in his writing even though this a science fiction about a theoretical future navy about starships. How he describes how the ships move and operate are tuned down to the finest of details. As someone who has always admired the naval branch of our military the most, it’s nice to read a military science fiction novel about a navy written by someone who was in the navy.

Campbell has interesting things to say about how we mythologize great leaders, especially military leaders of the past. He critiques our human tendency to twist the perception of a flesh and blood person when we transform him or her into a legend. 

“The Lost Fleet: Dauntless” is one of those books that hits that sweet spot in my mind where Kevin the armchair admiral lives. So it immediately drew me into this world because Campbell’s massive starship battles play out like a detailed tactical simulation. These battles aren’t just one or two ships engaging, but sometimes hundreds, but he keeps the descriptions of the action supple and fast-paced. So it never feels like a long repeated list of things—to me at least—but I’m the kind of person who can watch two chess grandmasters play a game on youtube, despite being a mediocre chess player myself. Which means, if you can’t tell already, I’m hedging here because I recognize that tactical thought and discussion isn’t for everyone. But if like me, you’ve read “The Art of War” multiple times—oh boy—is this book so much fun. If you aren’t, like me, then you should be warned the whole series is like this and follows the same plot structure of: here’s an interesting tactical puzzle. How will Black Jack solve this one? And then he does. And it’s awesome.   

What I don’t love about this book:

Not really an issue in this novel, but the overall “Lost Fleet” series, since “Lost Fleet: Dauntless” is the first novel and everything is being described for the first time, but in later books, which there are a lot of, he re-describes the operation of how starships in this universe operate. A lot of it has to do with how they orient themselves. One of those details is modifying what the terms starboard and port mean, and in this universe, starboard isn’t always right when facing the fore of the ship, it’s whatever side is facing the local star. He also goes into great detail about the practical problems of relativistic effects as it pertains to ship combat moving at a significant fraction of C—the speed of light. 

For a science-fiction nerd, like me, it all sounds interesting, and it was—the first, second, and maybe the third time I heard it all. When we get to say—the ninth novel in this series, it becomes a bit tedious, since it’s pretty much the same verbatim break down every time. Each time I read it, I think, “Jack, buddy, nobody needs this, we all get it, no one is picking up the ninth novel of this series out of the blue, and if they are, they’re weird.”

Another thing that never totally goes away is there is always an element of the fleet, no matter how successful Captain Geary proves to be, who sounds like this to me: “But we think we should do the clearly fucking stupid thing to do.” In the most nasal, whiniest voice imaginable. Sometimes it’s genuinely baffling, and I hate them because they’re distracting me from the next big awesome space battle.

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***The Spoiler part of this review***
***Ye be warned to turn back now***

The quick and dirty synopsis:

Captain John Geary is in his stateroom at the beginning of this novel, and we find out that he’s been recently recovered from a stasis pod. Humanity has spread out across the stars and into countless solar systems and has fractured into several different groups. From John Geary’s perspective, his ship had just been destroyed, the first casualty of a war between the Alliance—the group he belongs to—and the Syndicate Worlds. From everyone else’s perspective, Captain John “Black Jack” Geary was a heroic martyr at the first battle of a war that has been going on for about a century.

Geary, still shellshocked, has been spending most of his time isolated in his stateroom, still coming to grips with the reality that everyone he ever knew lived a hundred years ago. Then there is the added revelation that for generations, young sailors have been revering him as some legendary captain. In reality, he had only been in command for a brief period right before his ship was shot out from under him.    

Rescued by the Alliance fleet who just happened by the system he had supposedly been martyred at, Geary had been scooped up as a chance good luck charm on the way to the Syndicate homeworld to end the war. It isn’t going well.

The attack on the Syndicate home system was all a trap to draw out the Alliance fleet, and crush them. However, the fleet is vast, so even at appalling casualty rates, they couldn’t all be swiftly destroyed, so the battle grinds to a stalemate, with the Syndicate fleet ahead. During the lull, the admiralty of the Alliance fleet is called to parlay and discuss terms with the Syndicate Fleet. The Admiral, assuming this is all a trap, informed by a lifetime of fighting the Syndicate worlds, leaves command of the fleet with the captain who has the most seniority on the rolls, which is Geary, who has technically been a captain for over a hundred years. 

After the Syndicate fleet seemingly executes the Admiral and his staff—because it was, of course, a trap—Geary orders that the Alliance fleet make a strategic withdrawal from the Syndicate home system. There is a lot of grumbling about his plan because they’re using an older method of FTL (Faster Than Light) travel called a jump drive. The jump drive allows their ships to enter a pseudo space that connects between star systems and causes travel time to be reduced from years by conventional means, to only days or weeks. The problem is unlike the new method that uses specialized gates, the jump drive technology, jumping from star-to-star, could take the Alliance fleet years to get back to Alliance space. That’s how big these empires are. The whole way home, they’ll be hounded by the much larger Syndicate Fleets who also have the advantage of being on home turf. 

To compound Geary’s task even more, because the war has been going on for so long, and has been an absolute meat grinder, the officers under his command have lost all the disciplined training handed down from one generation of professional sailor to the next. All the professionals died before they could pass on their skills, which means that everyone under Geary’s command is tactically and strategically stunted to the point of experienced amateurs. Geary turns this weakness into an advantage, though, because he recognizes that the Syndicate fleet is likewise depleted of truly trained naval professionals, making him the only classically “trained” sailor alive.    

This first novel ends with the Alliance fleet still nearly at the beginning of their desperate flight home. Geary has built up a lot of trust and confidence in his ability to lead them, convincing them tacitly that flying straight at their opponents as a lethal swarm, guns blazing, isn’t always the best tactic. There is still a long way to get home, and there are still numerous doubters within the Alliance fleet that feel Geary shouldn’t be in command.         


At its core, “The Lost Fleet: Dauntless” and “The Lost Fleet” series as a whole, is a story about an extraordinary figure in history taking command when he’s needed most. Who he is as a person, a leader, and a tactician are all equally essential elements juggled within the framework of the story at all times.

In the end, Captain Geary is just a man—a good man—but only a man with all the normal failings, wants, hopes, and dreams. So when John “Black Jack” Geary wakes up from a cryogenic survival pod, a hundred years later, to find out that the war that broke out and destroyed his ship is still going on—he’s understandably shocked. It’s as if Ulysses S. Grant came back today and found us still fighting the civil war. 

Worse than that, everyone knows him, but as a legend that he was never actually like and every innocuous statement he ever made has been turned into some propaganda slogan. Furthermore, as a legendary hero, he is thrust into command when he knows there is no way he’s going to live up to these people’s expectations. Interestingly, he’s so unlike what everyone “knows” about the legendary Black Jack that it’s actually suggested to his face that maybe he has brain damage from the survival pod. He doesn’t, and it’s just that he’s an extreme example of why meeting your heroes can be a disappointing experience. 

So with a lot of mental effort, Campbell poured into Captain Geary, all the big dazzling battles, exactly how these ships work—the supporting cast of characters takes a while to hit their stride, especially in this novel. They all improve with time and familiarity like a good leather jacket, but everyone is a little stiff and awkward this first time out.     

Parting thoughts:

John G. Hemry—Jack Campbell is just his pen name—has inadvertently taught me a lot about the various expectations, pressures, and changes publishers can force onto an author. Even with this novel, it’s title wasn’t his first pick, but luckily he ultimately decided he liked this one better. The title issue doesn’t end with this one. He’s expressed dissatisfaction over the titles of other books within “The Lost Fleet.” 

Another thing that is clearly a decision by the publisher that makes little sense when you read these novels is the original cover art. There is nothing inherently wrong about these covers. They’re all pretty standard science fiction book covers, the artist is talented and maintains a recurring theme throughout the story. But, “The Lost Fleet” is primarily stories about massive fleets fighting in pitched naval combat. Every single cover usually features Captain Geary in powered armor, typically hefting a big rifle, something he never does, because as the acting Admiral of this force, when the battles happen, he’s on the bridge of the Dauntless.

I admire Hemry because he doesn’t take these little slights lying down and without comment. In his introductions, he often discusses what inspired his books, his writing, and how much the titling issue with the publisher is petty. In one of his later books, he even has one character tacitly mention the issue with the cover art.  She mentions she’s going to write a series of memoirs about all this and have Geary on each of the covers, bravely leading troops into battle. When he objects, that it wouldn’t be very representative, she responds that isn’t the point. After all, she’s trying to sell books.     

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