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Prequel Problems: Jack Campbell’s Lost Fleet series

By Tom Anderson

Jack Campbell is the nom de plume of American science fiction and fantasy writer John G. Hemry (b. 1956). Under his own name, he began writing around the turn of the millennium and initially saw only modest success with his “Stark’s War” and “JAG in Space” series and some short stories, but then had a smash-hit breakthrough with the best-selling “Lost Fleet” series, which debuted in 2006. These were the first published under his pseudonym, so maybe that really does make all the difference! The success of “Lost Fleet” has led to multiple sequels, spinoffs (including comic books by other authors) and – inevitably – a prequel, which we’ll be covering later today. Campbell has also written the “Pillars of Reality” fantasy series, which I’ll cover in a later article as it has also, more recently, seen a prequel series appear.

As Campbell’s work is so relatively recent, I should re-emphasise that these articles always must include plot spoilers by their very nature. If you want a vague spoiler-free review, I would say I find Campbell’s writing almost strangely compelling and addictive – he does a great job of always wanting to make you get the next book and find out what happens – and, impressively, this feeling even survives on a second reading. His writing style alternates between workmanlike pulp action and somewhat more introspective and thoughtful, though generally don’t expect any great depth (with occasional exceptions). I would certainly recommend the “Lost Fleet” series to anyone who likes military science fiction and the “Pillars of Reality” to a somewhat wider audience, though I can’t talk about the latter’s surprising twists without more spoilers.

Like many science fiction writers, Campbell was inspired by the original “Star Trek” TV series, and has stated that he first saw it as a kid on Pacific military bases projected on a cinema-sized screen – so in his head it was always a cinematic experience. As an aside, every time I read one of Campbell’s books (and particularly his author interviews) I am always struck by his strange parallels with Andy Cooke, one of my Sea Lion Press author colleagues. Like Campbell, Cooke is of a military officer background (RAF in his case, US Navy in Campbell’s). Like Campbell, he has written both a science fiction series (the “Endeavour” series published by SLP) and a fantasy one (the highly-recommended “Shadowlands” series published by Sergeant Frosty Publications, which is a modern reimagining of Narnia-style ‘kids and a portal to a magic land’ scenarios with fascinating new ideas). More specifically, both Campbell and Cooke have autistic children and have used their experiences with their different perceptions as inspiration for creaking fantasy groups who see the world in a similarly different way. I’ll discuss the latter in more detail when I get to Campbell’s “Pillars of Reality” series. In one of the “Beyond the Frontier” books (see below) Campbell’s characters even visit Essex, where Cooke is from!

Moving on from that tangent, let’s now focus on the “Lost Fleet” series (and a reminder that there will be spoilers from hereon out). The first “Lost Fleet” book, “Dauntless” (they are all titled after ship names in the titular fleet) opens in the far future with Captain John Geary having been revived from cryogenic suspension after a hundred years. Geary was the commander of a single ship of the Alliance, a democratic confederation of long-established Earth colonies, which was attacked without warning by the rival Syndicate. His escape pod malfunctioned, leaving him in suspension for a century before he was finally discovered by the future Alliance fleet and revived. It turns out the attack escalated into a war that has been going on ever since (with periods of intensity and rebuilding). Stories from Geary’s surviving crew about his conduct in the battle resulted in the Alliance creating a legend of Geary as the idealised perfect officer ‘Black Jack’ Geary, almost a religious figure in the present day, which he is naturally weirded out by. Interestingly, Campbell chooses not to explicitly depict any of this but open with Geary recovering in the future and tells all of it in hindsight. He also does not depict what happened immediately afterwards – the Alliance fleet launched an attack on the Syndicate homeworld, only to find they had been double-crossed by a supposed enemy traitor and trapped by the enemy fleet. The commanding admiral is (apparently) killed by the Syndicate when he goes over to negotiate surrender. Geary, as technically the most senior captain left thanks to his service record starting over a century earlier(!) is forced into command, and must find a way to escape the trap and get the fleet back to Alliance space.

I have written before about my annoyance with speculative fiction writers overusing ‘100 years later’ as a plot device just because it’s a big round number. However, in all fairness, this is just about the right number for the scenario Campbell wants to write here: essentially everyone is too young to remember the start of the war (at one point it’s addressed that human lifespan hasn’t got much longer than it is now) and almost everyone buys into the Black Jack legend rather than seeing Geary as a mortal man. One exception is his great-nephew, who bitterly tells him that their whole family has been raised with Black Jack held up as an impossible example they have to emulate. Geary is shocked and horrified that the Alliance has become degraded over the course of the endless war, with tactical ability abandoned as experienced commanders died off, replaced with a vague appeal to élan and aggressively rushing the enemy as its own virtue. (We see later that the Syndicate, by contrast, has emphasised rigid adherence to textbook tactics for similar reasons). This spirit of aggression is frequently invoked with reference to the Black Jack legend, and Geary’s political enemies among the fleet find it hard to reconcile this with him telling them to stay in formation – to the point that some of them act as though he’s not the real Geary or ‘lost his spirit’ while in suspension. It turns out that the chain of command has gradually broken down, with fleet decisions being a democratic vote of the captains in conference, which Geary is also appalled by; admirals have often risen to the top through virtue of their political skills in managing captains rather than their tactical ability.

Geary also discovers that the Syndicate and the Alliance gradually resorted to more and more ruthless practices, mistaking brutality for strength, and is horrified to learn they routinely kill or abandon enemy POWs. As soon as he takes over, he begins enforcing the laws of war once again – Campbell has said that exploring the reasons why those laws exist was a defining reason why he wrote the books, in contrast to some military SF that takes the same attitude as the brutal modern Alliance and Syndicate. By doing so, Geary gains respect and fear from the Syndicate as he repeatedly clashes with their ships on the long journey back (a journey, Campbell has said, which was inspired by Xenophon’s Anabasis).

Ultimately, the gimmick of the series is that although Geary was just an ordinary captain a century ago, his training in battlefield tactics and strategy makes him a nigh undefeatable genius by the degraded standards of the present. While this is an interesting idea, I feel Campbell over-eggs it a bit. When Geary is about to go into his first proper battle, he fears that he won’t be able to sit in an admiral’s chair as someone who has only done this in simulation, and that how technology has changed will make some of his knowledge obsolete. Unfortunately, this is never followed up on, and Geary ends up winning essentially every battle in a way that gets somewhat repetitive. The one time he is defeated, it is treated as a no-win scenario. Annoyingly, this is also the time when Campbell pulls the interesting idea of ‘there is no good option from rational analysis, so Geary talks to a deluded POW captain they rescued who tried to coup him’ just to get an idea from outside the box because he is starting to get predictable to the enemy. This would have worked much better as a plot device if it had been for a scenario where taking the captain’s advice had actually worked (at least to some extent).

While the series remains interesting and compelling, Geary’s Mary Sue tendencies can therefore be a distraction – especially uncomfortable when one remembers the man writing ‘John Geary’ has the real name of ‘John G. Hemry’ and it can come across as self-insert. Campbell does try to address this in the sequel series “Beyond the Frontier” with presenting Geary being out of his depth, but not always successfully in my opinion. There is also a repetitive sense to the original “Lost Fleet” books that Geary has a never-ending conveyor belt of internal enemies among the captains of the fleet, with new ones replacing the ones who get themselves killed or sent to the brig for plotting against him. While some of these are interestingly different to each other in motivations, at least one is so unmemorable that Campbell forgot he’d been killed and had him briefly mentioned as being in a conference in a later book!

I should also mention that the setting is relatively ‘hard’ science fiction, and one of the more interestingly consistent ideas is that Campbell adheres strictly to a relativistic understanding of the speed of light. While faster-than-light travel exists, it is limited to jumps between particular gravitic points around stars (which also means jumping to the more complex and unpredictable binary stars is almost impossible) or using dedicated jump gates, i.e. ships cannot travel faster-than-light in the middle of a battle. This means that all battle plans are based on seeing what the enemy looked like hours ago, closing on a firing pass and then giving orders at the right time so the more distant ships get them simultaneously as the later orders sent to the nearer ships so the whole fleet acts as one. The fact that Geary understands this is the basis of his tactical ability, whereas the complexities have been forgotten by the moderns in favour of simplistic aggression or rigid formations.

The original “Lost Fleet” series ends with Geary and company discovering that the war was originally provoked by an unknown alien race to weaken humanity (up to this point no aliens had been discovered) and, after defeating the Syndicate once and for all, he goes to the Syndicate Midway system in order to confront the aliens. This provides a sequel hook for two series. Firstly, in the aforementioned “Beyond the Frontier”, Geary and his fleet explore unknown space to learn more about the aliens, discovering more races too. This series is interesting but incoherent, losing interest in this plot initially in favour of going back to Earth. The Solar System is presented as a neutral area perpetually in bureaucratic deadlock thanks to thousands of years’ worth of different overlapping governments. One of Campbell’s best ideas, which I wish I’d thought of, is the traditional ‘crossing the line’ hazing ceremony from real life navies (done when crossing the Equator) instead being transferred to a ceremony for coming home to Earth – including King Jove for Jupiter instead of King Neptune for the sea, for example. This arc also introduces the idea of Mars being run by criminal cartels.

After Geary’s fleet returns to the Alliance, this then enters a separate plot about a secretive group within the Alliance government and military who had established a parallel government and fleet of robot warships during the war, which are now out of control – and becomes a classic American 1990s-style government conspiracy story but IN SPACE. As of now, this is where Geary’s story ends.

Meanwhile, however, Campbell also wrote the parallel series “The Lost Stars”. This is told from the perspective of the Syndicate rulers of the planet Midway (named in-universe after the Pacific island as it is an important crossroads) whom we met at the end of the “Lost Fleet” series. We learn more about the Syndicate culture, which is actually one of Campbell’s more interesting ideas once he had more of a chance to develop it. On paper, the Syndicate looks like a classic dreary grey communist Eastern European regime IN SPACE complete with state security forces referred to as ‘snakes’; however, it was born of hyper-capitalist overreach, with commanders and politicians referred to as CEOs for example and their downtrodden subordinates being ‘line workers’. Campbell therefore pulls off an interesting horseshoe-theory argument that extreme capitalism is functionally indistinguishable from Soviet communism. Much Syndicate terminology is drawn from the bland, inhuman corporate playbook, such as warships being numbered rather than named, and officially not referred to as warships but as ‘mobile forces’ (a term borrowed from the real life Imperial Japanese Navy). Elections theoretically take place, but everyone knows they are electronically rigged, evoking both the USSR and turn of the millennium concerns over voting machines provided by private companies in the US.

As “The Lost Stars” opens, two of the CEOs ruling Midway, Gwen Iceni and Artur Drakon, are certain the ‘snakes’ are going to coup them, so they strike first with their loyal subordinates, defeating them and taking over the planet. While originally launched from self-interest, Iceni and Drakon’s pre-emptive coup ends up leading them to split the planet off from the Syndicate as an independent, and eventually democratic, state. With just a few warships to start with, they need to build a force capable of defending them from the eventual revenge of the Syndicate – though Geary bought them time by destroying so many Syndicate fleets. Other Syndicate worlds start breaking away too, some under similar democracies, but others under ruthless warlords. Midway’s leaders have to make decisions on whom to help and whom to fight, while political intrigue and treachery goes on in the background.

I may not have succeeded in making it sound compelling, but in my opinion “The Lost Stars” may actually be the best of Campbell’s series in this setting. The intrigue between Iceni and Drakon, never sure if they can trust one another or each others’ subordinates, yet forced to work together, keeps the plot moving. They lack a tactical genius like Geary, though Iceni and her subordinate Marphissa learn fast, and a side plot leads to one of Geary’s female captains (who fell in love with one of Drakon’s subordinates in a POW camp) being assigned to help the small Midway flotilla. The fact that we are dealing with few ships and people adds more tension to it than the facelessly vast fleets of Geary’s books (though to be fair, the latter do do a good job of making losses hit home to the reader). There is also the interesting theme that Midway wants to become more democratic and less inhuman, but also doesn’t want to emulate the Alliance, which they still hate – so they have to come up with their own unique rank structures, ship names and terminology. Finally, there is an amusing running joke that Iceni tries to do Kremlinology analysis on Geary whenever he takes his fleet through the Midway system, but always gets it comically wrong due to being unable to accept that Geary wouldn’t seize power in the Alliance if given the chance. Overall, the interlinks with the chronologically parallel “Beyond the Frontier” series are quite nicely pulled off.

About my only criticism of “The Lost Stars” is that it is one of the most clear-cut example of “some American authors think putting in unnecessary Arthurian references, and then pointing at them with a stupid Ricky Gervais ‘look at this random celebrity’ grin, is clever”, an oddly specific bugbear which I have previously mentioned. ‘Gwen Iceni’ is meant to evoke Guinevere and the Iceni, Boudicca’s tribe; Artur Drakon = Arthur Pendragon; his subordinates Malin and Morgan are Merlin and Morgan le Fay, and so on. I read the books the first time without noticing any of this, none of it contributes anything to the setting (in fact, it arguably spoils plot points if you recognise the references) and, of course, there is no explanation whatsoever of why all these characters in the far future on a distant planet would parallel those names and legends. But this is very much a minor point in an otherwise compelling series, though it does slightly overshadow the end of it with a largely pointless climax scene.

You will notice that I have gotten this far into this article without actually mentioning the remaining “Lost Fleet” franchise series, the prequel itself. This was originally announced under the title “The First Stars” to evoke “The Lost Stars”, which makes sense, as it is similarly about planets slowly building forces to resist outside enemies – it’s just in this case they are the original colonies that will become the Alliance. However, presumably due to unhelpful executive meddling, the series was instead retitled “The Genesis Fleet” to evoke “The Lost Fleet”, even though at no point in the books is a fleet involved (there are only ever three or four ships at most in battles). “The Genesis Fleet” builds on lore established when Geary’s fleet returned to Earth in “Beyond the Frontier”. Set an unspecified number of centuries earlier, at this point the human race consists of Earth, the solar system and a handful of colonies, but new colonies are now being established farther afield. Earth’s unified military is being dissolved due to political events, meaning it is now a wild frontier in which ex-Earth military officers are highly in demand to command defence forces for the new colonies. One such officer is Rob Geary, ancestor of Jack Geary, who goes to the colony of Glenlyon (which had been mentioned in the “Lost Fleet” series as the later Geary’s homeworld).

I was a bit concerned when I first read this part, as I worried it was just going to turn into a carbon copy of the “Lost Fleet” series. However, surprisingly, Rob Geary is much less of a Mary Sue character than his descendant. He is not the sole central character of the books, he fights well but not transcendentally, and ultimately his contributions to Glenlyon’s security are not remembered in mainstream histories because of how he lost a ship (though it wasn’t his fault). Other protagonists include the ex-Marine Mele Darcy who sets up a Marine force on Glenlyon, the diplomat Lochan Nakamura and the government official Carmen Ochoa, who was born on criminal-ruled Mars and faces prejudice because of it. Ironically, she marries a soldier called Dominic Desjani and thus turns out to be the ancestor of John Geary’s flagship captain (and later wife) Tanya Desjani, who had looked down on Martians in the “Beyond the Frontier” series. At the end of “The Genesis Fleet” we see a framing device that John Geary and Tanya Desjani were looking up their family histories, and she becomes aware of this irony. Desjani is from Kosatka, and the “Genesis Fleet” series is partly about the young colonies of Glenlyon and Kosatka coming together against a common foe to form the nucleus of what will become the Alliance.

What was that common foe, you ask? Well, this is the biggest flaw in the “Genesis Fleet” series. When I first read about it, I was concerned that it would be the proto-Alliance against the proto-Syndicate, which would be unrealistic given the gulfs of time involved. Fortunately, Campbell did not make that mistake; the Syndicate’s origins are only hinted at once in “The Genesis Fleet”, when it’s mentioned in passing that a bunch of corporations have gone off to colonise some distant planets out from under government oversight. Another option would be for the fight in “The Genesis Fleet” to be between planets previously mentioned to all be Alliance members, with the message that eventually they will all settle their differences and join up. Unfortunately, Campbell instead chose to invent a flat and uninteresting foe, the ‘Scatha Star System’, who are a colony who’ve decided to build a military and take everyone else’s stuff. They were never mentioned in any of the chronologically later books, and nor are they totally destroyed at the end of “The Genesis Fleet”. This is fundamentally unsatisfying, and quite different to how Campbell developed the Syndicate to be a more three-dimensional foe than they initially seemed. In fact, the name of the enemy force is never mentioned in any of the synopses of the “Genesis Fleet” books on Amazon, and they are so unmemorable that I had to search through my Kindle to find a reference.

There is another issue with the “Genesis Fleet” series, which I touched on in my earlier article “Star Trek and the Sixties Aesthetic”. “Star Trek” enjoys an almost unique place in science fiction in that there is a well-defined era for the original series, another one a century later for “The Next Generation” and its spinoffs in which some new technologies have been introduced, and thus you can make a prequel feel solider by emphasising that certain things have not been invented yet. (As I’ll eventually cover, the prequel series “Enterprise” did sometimes try to do this, but often half-heartedly). In particular, this could affect military tactics, which would be very relevant for a military science fiction series like the “Lost Fleet” franchise. Unfortunately, Campbell doesn’t really try to take advantage of this. He pays lip service to the idea that ‘this is an earlier era’ by adding a nought after the decimal point when referring to speeds (such as 0.02 lightspeed rather than 0.2 lightspeed) and refers to particle beams as particle beams rather than the later Alliance nickname ‘hell lances’, but otherwise the battles are functionally indistinguishable from those of the other books. Together with the cardboard cutout enemy, this does make the books feel like more of a cash-in than a prequel people wanted to see.

Does the “Genesis Fleet” justify itself in any way? Perhaps. It certainly does a fair job of explaining why Earth is the way it is in the “Beyond the Frontier” books, although its portrayal of Earth military as being rigidly obsessed with ‘checklists’ and procedure is taken beyond parody into farce (says I – maybe it’s perfectly realistic for those with military experience!) It also makes a very half-hearted attempt to explain where the religious practices seen in the chronologically later books come from. One of the more interesting ideas of the “Lost Fleet” setting is that seemingly everyone in the Alliance practises a form of ancestor worship as their religion. While it’s unrealistically universal in its portrayal, it is certainly more plausible than older science fiction settings that suggest everyone in the future is an atheist for silly reasons (conversely, the Syndicate worlds are presented as officially atheist in the same ‘we won’t admit there’s anything greater than the Dear Leader’ way of communist regimes in real life, but the people often secretly practise folk beliefs). This prequel series would be a good place to explore that in more detail, but sadly it’s limited to a couple of vague nods here and there that the concept of ancestor worship is becoming more popular.

In summary, then, “The Genesis Fleet” is not a particularly good prequel. It feels more like a half-hearted cash-in or, as some reviewers suggested, “I want to write more space battles but I haven’t figured out what to do with Jack Geary and Tanya Desjani next yet”. Crucially, it does not feel like it was really answering questions that anyone was asking. By contrast, Campbell’s next prequel series, “Empress of the Endless Seas”, does explicitly address an era which felt missing from his “Pillars of Reality” series. To cut a long story short, there is a prophecy in the latter that one of our protagonists is from a line that will change the world, but it was never well explained just why the founder of that line was so important, in an era that was in between the present day and the distant past that the protagonists learned about. This new prequel series does follow and explore that founder’s life; though not all of it is out yet, I will be covering it in a future article.



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