Once More, Unto the Breach

A good science fiction writer can make a space battle exciting. A great science fiction writer can make conversation just as exciting. Jack Campbell is a great science fiction writer.

Jack Campbell, in fact the pen name of John G. Hemry, arrived on the scene some time ago, with his now-completed six book Lost Fleet series. The series chronicled the efforts of a massive Alliance space fleet to escape from deep inside the territory of the Syndicate Worlds, an enemy state with whom the Alliance has been at war for a century and who has managed to lure the Alliance fleet into a potentially catastrophic ambush. The fleet's only hope is Captain John 'Black Jack' Geary, a fabled Alliance hero found drifting in a survival pod, a man a hundred years out of his time and a captain several ranks out of his depth. But the war has been a slaughter on both sides, with the institutional wisdom of both state's star fleets completely wiped out, and Geary, a well-educated product of a less rushed era, may well be the greatest fleet commander of this time.

In the follow-up series, Lost Fleet: Beyond the Frontier, Geary is tasked by the Alliance leadership to once more lead the Alliance fleet into danger. This time, however, his orders are to go beyond Syndicate Worlds space, to explore what seems to be the realm of the first non-human sentient species humanity has ever encountered, and one that seems as paranoid as it is hostile.

Oh, did you assume the Alliance was humanity, and the Syndicate Worlds were the aliens?

That's one of the more notable aspects of Campbell's work; the man is absolutely miserly with description. I originally picked up the Lost Fleet somewhere around the middle, and there seemed no reason not to assume the Syndics, as those in the Syndicate Worlds were referred to as, were non-human. More than that, even, Campbell at no point provides any real description of Geary himself, or the other key characters in the series, leaving it pretty much entirely to the reader's imagination to visualise who these people are and what they look like. In the hands of a lesser writer this would seriously hamper the reader's ability to immerse themselves in the story, but to Campbell's credit he writes with a spare but powerful style, emphasizing dialogue and conflict, both military and interpersonal, over adjectives. The result is a pulp-style novel in the best sense of the word, a fast-pace story that whisks the reader along so fast they don't stop to wonder about little things like what people look like.

With the first book in the Lost Fleet: Beyond the Frontier series, Campbell really pushes his talents to the limit. For a book about a powerful military fleet venturing out to confront hostile aliens, most of the book revolves around Geary struggling to balance the demands of the much-maligned government, the orders of a frankly moronic headquarters, and factions within the fleet who would be more than happy for Geary to overthrow the lot of them and crown himself king, or at least president-for-life. But rather than be dragged down by what could otherwise have been a dull series of the brilliant Geary running rings around these future-rubes, Campbell gives us a man who still believes in the ideals of the century-old, peace-time Alliance, not the admittedly squallid realities of an Alliance that's been feeding men and women into a meat grinder for a hundred years, with all the social damage such actions would bring. So while he could easily disregard the politicians and the bureaucrats, trading on his status as a living legend and folk hero, Geary finds himself constrained by his sense of honour to abide by the laws of the Alliance, no matter how unworthy those who make and implement the law may seem. Campbell never tires of giving Geary a problem and then forcing him to think his way through to a solution, one that balances four different factions' demands, the best interests of the fleet and of the Alliance, and his own personal honour all at the same time, and as a result even Geary's more mundane struggles make for compelling drama.

You don't have to have read the original Lost Fleet series to pick up Lost Fleet: Beyond the Frontier, but I would definitely recommend it. While Campbell does a serviceable job of catching new readers up on the broad strokes, there are a whole host of events, characters and details he glosses over, and while none of them are vital, knowing about them would greatly increase the appreciation of the story Campbell is telling with this latest installment in the life of 'Black Jack' Geary.

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