Jack Campbell is John G. Hemry, whose previous series for Ace was the tremendous but only fair-selling Paul Sinclair series of military legal thrillers. In an e-mail exchange, Hemry explained to me the reasons for using a pseudonym for his newest opus. In addition to wanting to get away from the pigeonholing authors endure when they're known for writing one type of book, e.g. military SF, there's this: "The pen name was primarily driven by bookstore buying software. I've been caught (like so many others) in the decreasing orders death spiral. Based on prior sales, the chains order fewer copies, so they sell fewer, so they order even fewer, so they sell even fewer . . . The pen name short-circuits that because the software just sees the pen name and doesn't assign any sales history to it."
I'm not sure if there's a word for how infuriating and depressing this is, that the fate of a writer's career is determined by software. Surely there have been armed insurrections over less. Okay, perhaps not, but there ought to be. After all, the notion of being consigned to oblivion by a computer seems a little too close to some of the bleaker visions of dystopian SF to me.
Hemry/Campbell's space operas (and I'll refer to him as Campbell from here on) have always sought to add new layers to the conventions of military SF, and this new series is no exception. The only complaint I have with Dauntless is that it takes too long getting going — not in the action department, certainly, but in adding the intellectual and moral dimension that makes Campbell's military tales stand apart from the pack. It isn't until you're almost halfway into the book before the characters begin to feel like people, and even then they never really shed their archetypal qualities. But the book's second half makes up for the quibbles I have over its first. The Lost Fleet may take another volume or two before it matches the excellence of Campbell's work under his own name. But at least this one has a chance to rescue his career from the Big Brother software that has sent so many undeserving writers packing.
The hero of this saga is Captain John "Black Jack" Geary, a soldier for the Alliance. He was believed lost in space and long dead after a nasty battle with the Syndicate Worlds. However, Geary is located and revived from cold sleep by an Alliance fleet a century after he went missing. He is dismayed to discover that he is now regarded as a valiant war hero, his accomplishments and valor wildly exaggerated so that the Alliance can have an unrealistic standard of perfection toward which to aspire. It's not that Geary wasn't brave at the time. But he now finds himself having to live up to an unrealistic image several generations of Alliance soldiers have been brought up to revere.
The Alliance is doing badly against the Syndic. As Geary is being revived, a major Alliance fleet is trying to get itself out of a trap set by a traitor. Geary suddenly finds himself fleet commander when the Admiral and most of the other top officers are massacred while trying to negotiate terms. Immediately Geary is in a quandary. He disdains the way so many of the sailors under his command gawk at him with pitiful hero-worship, certain he'll find a way to save them, even perhaps a magical one. He also realizes that to fail to live up to his reputation could cause a quick collapse of morale and disilliusionment. Mainly, he must turn the weary Alliance fleet into a decent fighting force. A century of warfare has dulled its edge. There is more bureaucratic time-wasting, and a greater emphasis on individual honor than on working as a unit. Alliance ships have a tendency toward rash action, and they get their asses handed to them for their trouble.
At first it's a little hard to swallow the whole hero-worship angle. (Let alone that the whole Alliance navy appears to be led by utter idiots!) Then it becomes more plausible when it's explained that the majority religion in the Alliance is one of ancestor worship. In such a culture it's easy to see how a revived war hero might be viewed by a devout bunch of soldiers as not far from the Second Coming of Christ. Also, Campbell has Geary forced to deal with all of his fleet's ship captains, many of whom revere him, others who simply respect him, and still others outright skeptical and scornful. This brings a nice balance to the drama and gives Geary some weight as a character.
Trouble is, Campbell doesn't get into the meat of all that until we're about halfway into the book. The first half strictly focuses on Geary's helping the fleet escape the star at which they were ambushed. So the action kicks in very quickly. But we don't really know, and thus feel for, the principals yet. These scenes will appeal mainly to military SF fans enamored of straightforward accounts of battle technique. But the necessary dramatic tension isn't as strong as it could be, because we don't yet have a personal stake in everyone's fates.
Eventually, Campbell gives us that stake, and the second half contains both better drama and action. Perhaps the most sobering and relevant section of the book comes when Geary discovers, to his horror, that over the years the Alliance, for all its talk of honor and valor, has abnegated many of the rules of war. Geary has to stop some of his ships from leaving Syndic prisoners to die on captured vessels set to self-destruct. That the Syndic would do the same thing to Alliance prisoners is not a justification Geary is willing to accept. No matter your victories in battle, if war allows you to become as evil as your enemy, to dispense with the moral high ground in the interest of expediency and petty vengeance, then you have already lost. Today, when we see how our own country has been shamed — or at least, anyone in it with a conscience has been shamed — by our government's actions in Gitmo and Abu Ghraib, this is the most chilling section of the book by far.
The characters become more fleshed out as the story progresses, though not all Campbell's choices are good here. For one thing, he relies too heavily on letting us hear Geary's every inner thought in italicized text. This is an old convention, I know, but it's best used sparingly. Campbell gives us entire paragraphs of Geary's inner turmoil, which has the ironic effect of making the whole affair seem shallow rather than deep. A little subtext often goes a longer way than simply laying everything a character is thinking and feeling right out there on the nose. Also, there's a civilian character, Co-President Rione of the Callas Republic (an Alliance ally), who essentially takes on the role of Geary's Conscience. It did get to the point where, after seeing her pop up once too often to give Geary one of her smug "do you really know what you're doing?" lectures, I was ready for him to tell her to get the fuck off his bridge. But mostly, I did grow to like this crew, if not as well as those of the Michaelson from the Paul Sinclair books. So it is that a fair first half followed by a strong second half means a good book overall and a very promising series to come.