Captain Jack Geary is a man out of time.
He was the fallen hero of a key engagement of forces at the beginning of the peace-loving Alliance Worlds’ long and bloody war with the hostile Syndicalists. ‘Geary’s Last Stand’ was a legendary space battle which ended with the heroic ship’s Captain bailing out at the very last moment in an escape pod, having hung back alone long enough to single-handedly hold off enemy forces in order to secure the escape of a vital Alliance convoy. But his escape pod’s distress beacon was damaged during the battle, and Geary drifted in suspended animation for the next hundred years, believed dead by his people before finally being picked up by the Alliance Fleet while they were on an important mission deep in enemy territory. Now Captain Geary awakes to find the same war has been raging between the same two sides for the entire time he has been asleep, and that during those years he has become a mythical hero to his people: Captain ‘Black Jack’ Geary -- a source of almost religious inspiration to the increasingly gung-ho Alliance side, who have embellished his story and turned him into a superhuman figure of such battle-hardened militaristic superiority no man could ever live up to such an image.
After an attempt to end the war once and for all with one momentous and audacious raid on enemy territory that goes disastrously wrong for the Alliance, a twist of fate puts Geary back in command of the entire marooned fleet -- now cut off from home-space and stranded deep in hostile territory. The fleet flagship, Dauntless, is secretly home to a vital component in the battle against the opposing Syndic forces – an enemy ‘hypernet key’: a device that unlocks the enemy’s faster-than-light transportation system and would therefore bring about crippling superiority for the Alliance forces if it could be brought back home and duplicated. It is essential that Dauntless gets back to Alliance space, then -- and it is Captain Geary’s job to ensure that as much of the fleet makes it back with him as possible. Can he use the legend of Black Jack Geary to help inspire his fleet in the face of the overwhelming odds it will face during the long, difficult retreat through enemy territory that lies ahead of it? And can the man behind the myth cope with the pressure this new responsibility has heaped upon his shoulders? Especially when he discovers that the Alliance Force has developed, during the hundred long years in which he was frozen in suspended animation, from a structured, orderly democracy into a super-aggressive, recklessly ill-disciplined and amoral fighting force that values pride above all else, doesn’t see tactical retreat as ever being an option, and which has taken this suicidal route largely as a result of its deification of the memory of the undefeatable ‘Black Jack’ Geary – a man who, in reality, never existed!
This is the evocative and intriguing scenario underpinning the six books that make up The Lost Fleet series by SF author Jack Campbell -- the pen name of retired US Navy officer John G Hemry. This first volume, Dauntless, establishes the above scenario and is the first stage of a long and potentially involving saga grounded in Xenophon’s “March of the Ten Thousand”, starting off as a partial reworking of the Ancient Greek historian’s famous account, while updating and bringing to a space setting the perennial theme of the returning hero who comes back to lead his lost people, that is so often found in legend -- such as that of King Arthur, for instance -- and elsewhere in a great deal of the world’s fiction.
The series falls into the category known as Military Science Fiction. Campbell clearly draws heavily from his experiences in the US Navy when attempting to make his account of the conduct of war in the far future seem as realistic as possible, despite the deep space setting. A vital element in the success of this lies in Campbell establishing for himself a clear set of rules for how things work in the fictional Universe he has created, and then sticking to them. There may well be various methods and systems of faster-than-light space travel invoked during the course of the story, and fictional concepts such as ‘Jump Space’ are frequently referred to and used as plot points (both of which straight away make the physics of this Universe considerably different from our own); but the author sets out a clear set of rules and guidelines for how these concepts are allowed to be handled. There are no magical, miraculous escape clauses in this Universe: difficult decisions have to be made at some point, sacrifices are required and leadership is constantly being tested by the kind of real-world problems likely to have to be confronted in the heat of battle. These sorts of leadership problems are at the root of the appeal of The Lost Fleet series. And when the forces of his protagonists come to be engaged in battle, Campbell insists on realism in his portrayal of their conduct. For instance, although the battleships, cruisers and auxiliary supply ships of his fleet can move at faster-than-light speeds in various well-defined circumstances (a nearby ‘jump point’ is required in order to facilitate the process) messages between Captain Geary’s fleet’s forces can only ever be relayed at the speed of light, as can scanner information relaying the whereabouts of both his own and the enemy’s forces -- which means that there is always a time delay that can vary between a few minutes and several hours in the accuracy of the information being received by the flagship – a factor which invariably has a huge influence in the tactical decisions Geary frequently has to make during battle and during the fleet’s retreat from enemy forces.
As Geary debates how to protect his more vulnerable but essential forces in battle, and how to retreat from enemy space without making unnecessary sacrifices; as he plots a course home using faster-than-light system jumps, knowing that he must somehow second guess the decisions of the enemy fleet who are pursuing them, and somehow forge a winding, indirect path that may sometimes actually take the Alliance fleet further away from home in the short term, just to avoid his damaged forces having to confront the full might of an enemy that could always be waiting for them at the other end; as he attempts to calculate how long to spend lingering in enemy star systems in order to restock on essential supplies or make repairs, always knowing that his decision could force the Alliance fleet to engage with enemy forces before they are fully ready to if he gets it wrong – as he attempts to think through all this, these difficult tactical military decisions also have to be made against the social and political background existing within the Alliance fleet itself, which is made up of all sorts of competing interests. Geary has to figure out how to deal with removing an incompetent ships’ captain from his command post with tact, and without starting a general revolt among his own forces; he has to figure out how to assuage the fears of Co-President Rione, who leads a section of the fleet affiliated to a federation of worlds who have joined forces with the Alliance against the Syndics, but who have misgivings about the conduct of the war; he has to somehow convince the squabbling gaggle of fleet commanders to go along with his plans despite many of them preferring him to lead the fleet in the style they imagine the mythical ‘Black Jack’ Geary would, rather than in the most rational, competent way he knows, while others would rather he wasn’t there at all! Almost worse than any of this though is the adulation and adoration he sees in the eyes of many of the people around him, who see the hero from the stories they grew up with rather than a real person.
In fact, most of the drama in this first volume of the six-part series revolves around the Captain having to deal with the political machinations going on behind the scenes within his own fleet rather than the Syndic enemy itself, which remains somewhat shadowy and nebulous throughout the book. One of the issues the story deals with quite imaginatively (and which obviously has some relevance to present day real life conflicts) is the idea of a long war, originally fought for the best of reasons in order to protect freedom and democratic values, eventually leading to the abandonment of those values in the heat and desperation of battle. Geary awakes after a hundred years to find that his people have abandoned simple disciplines such as saluting a commanding officer; but more troubling to him even than that is their shockingly ruthless attitude to the enemy. ‘The Laws of War’ Geary once took as sacrosanct and abided by in his day have long since been abandoned, and Geary is horrified to discover that his own people now conduct themselves in a manner that is little different from the enemy he once knew and reviled. Part of the saga deals with this mythical hero trying to redeem his own people, even though they want the gung-ho hero figure they’ve re-imagined him to be, in the hundred years since his disappearance, to confirm their present methods. The uses and abuses of myth; the necessity for such myths but the inherent, almost inevitable dangers associated with them, looks set to become an increasingly more powerful theme as this saga develops.
Campbell hits on a compelling technique for bringing his unwilling ‘hero’ to life, frequently letting the third person singular narrative viewpoint of the book slip into italicised first person passages that take us right inside Geary’s decision-making processes. These internal monologues -- sometimes quite lengthy, sometimes just a line or two -- work by bringing a sudden jump in the tone and the immediacy of the story, emphasising the tension of decision-making in a highly pressured situation, and illustrating the Captain’s tactical reasoning in the most stark terms possible. The narrative pull of the book lies firmly in the realm of its straightforward and realistic depiction of the stresses and strains of leadership, and the great responsibilities required in the enacting of such a role. This is where Campbell’s great strength as a writer lies and this first volume in the series illustrates his ample skill in the area. It does mean that characters are generally more lightly sketched than would be the case in most novels; and we never get to know anything at all about the enemy or even why they are at war with the Alliance. Not until the end of the book are these issues even addressed, but this does at least suggest they are to become important factors later on. Campbell apparently had the whole plan for the six-part book series sketched out from the beginning. This is a long saga, intended to unfold gradually over a great number of book-length episodes, so we can hopefully expect to see the narrative gaps filled in as it goes along; the same goes (I would imagine) for characters such as Rione and Captain Desjani, who in this volume are more or less defined purely by their relationship with and attitude to Captain Geary. The fact that Geary has only just been re-woken at the start of the book means that he is finding out things about the fleet at the same time as the reader, even though he is in command of it! Campbell has done more than enough by the end of this first instalment, though, to keep readers coming back for the next stage in the long journey he has in store for them.
This newly published UK version of “The Lost Fleet: Dauntless” from Titan Books comes with a whole heap of ‘extras’ in the form of the first few pages of the follow-up volume “The Lost Fleet: Fearless”; the first part of an interview with John G. Hemry (aka Jack Campbell); and a list and commentary by Jack Campbell on the author’s top ten Sci Fi books. A compelling read.