Jack Campbell

Jack Campbell is the pseudonym for John G. Hemry, a retired Naval officer and graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis. As Jack Campbell, he writes The Lost Fleet series of military science fiction novels. He also wrote the Stark’s War and Paul Sinclair series under his real name.

Often compared to Battlestar Galactica and StarGate Universe, The Lost Fleet follows Captain John “Black Jack” Geary and the stranded Alliance fleet as they retreat home across the enemy star system. The first three books in the series – Dauntless, Fearless, and Courageous – have been released in paperback in the UK by Titan Books, who very kindly sent us a copy of Dauntless for review. So impressed were we by the book, that we tracked down author Jack Campbell for an interview.

1. Dauntless throws the reader right in at the deep end, starting with the aftermath of a pitched battle. Was this how you always envisioned beginning your saga?

Yes, because the Lost Fleet series is about the story of Black Jack Geary, and that’s where I think his story begins. I could have begun earlier, shown the fleet preparing to leave home, finding Geary, and so on, but that would simply lead up to the event that drives everything after that point. I thought it better to right off the bat get into Geary’s head as he was forced to deal with what had happened, to show him facing this great, unlooked for and unwanted responsibility, and how he would deal with that.

Figuring out where to start a story can be difficult. I believe it’s not just a matter of having a good hook, but also having a hook that plays directly into the main themes of the story. For me, it’s always frustrating to begin reading a story which seems to be aimed in one direction, only to have it suddenly shift gears and head off somewhere else. What is The Lost Fleet series about? A beaten fleet trying to get home against tremendous odds, and the one individual who might be able to save them. So that’s where I began Dauntless.

2. It was pleasing to see several high profile female characters, such as Desjani and Rione; was it your deliberate intention from the start to include more female characters in what can be a male-dominated genre?

A few months back I heard about a US Navy carrier task force in the Indian Ocean which was commanded by a female admiral. The carrier air group commander was also a woman, as of course were some of the fighter/attack aircraft pilots, and many of the members of the crews of the warships. This is real world, but it’s also something that has happened almost under the radar of society as a whole. What would have been regarded as unthinkable fifty years ago, the stuff of science fiction, is now routine enough not to make waves. By contrast, SF can sometimes present an almost retro vision of the future, so that SF ends up behind where actual events and changes have taken us.

There are plenty of historical examples of strong women commanders as well, though the history we’re taught has tended to give them little notice (such as the Irish pirate queen Grace O’Malley) or played down their accomplishments (such as Joan of Arc or Boudica/Boadicea).

I would say that including strong female characters in my books simply reflects who those women are and what they can do as individuals. The future I present is what I call an ability based society. That is, one where what matters is whether or not someone can do the job. I know that’s idealistic, but I hope that over time artificial barriers of any nature will dissolve.

So for me the question would not be whether to include high profile female characters, but how I could possibly justify not having them.

3. In the character of Jack Geary, your book explores the gap between a man and his legend; was the mythologizing of historical characters a subject that interested you and how did you go about writing this aspect of your book?

One of the primary ideas that went into the Lost Fleet series was based on a common sort of legend about heroes from the past who are not dead, but only sleeping, and will reappear someday when they are most needed. One of the best known examples of this kind of legend in the west is King Arthur, but similar concepts are found in many other places, such as the Twelfth Imam of Islam. I had long been fascinated by these legends, because behind each of them must be some actual human being who would probably be extremely surprised at the legends that had grown up around them. What would it be like for such a person to awaken after a long time and discover that everyone thought he or she was a great hero and would now save them? With SF I could have someone sleep for a century, to make that sort of thing a real possibility. And when the man in my story awakens, he is in a future with similarities to the past he has known, but also great differences, and it takes him a while to figure out what some of those differences are.

Myth and history are full of heroes who did not chose their fate, or tried to avoid it. For every Achilles there has been an Odysseus. I liked the idea of exploring how it would be for someone who doesn’t consider himself to be a hero to be in that position, of being told “you’re the great hero who will save us.” Black Jack is forced to face that fate, and to try to live up to it, because if he doesn’t, a lot of people who believe in his legend will die. But he also knows that if he ever really comes to believe the legend himself he could do a tremendous amount of harm. Power holds that kind of double-edge, and here is someone who never sought or desired such power but now has it and must use it.

Mark Twain once said that his writing style consisted of chasing his characters up a tree and then throwing rocks at them. Well, that’s what I did to Black Jack. Whenever he starts to get comfortable, I find some more rocks. He’s not happy, but he keeps dodging the rocks.

4. There’s an admirable dedication to realism in the book, particularly in the focus on the limitations of communication and travel across massive distances. How difficult was it to balance realism with action and do you find it difficult to enjoy science fiction with less of a focus on real-world physics?

I had to make sure my technology allowed me to keep the action up while also emphasizing the nature of space (huge, empty, etc.). One of the compromises there was giving my ships the ability to accelerate and decelerate at pretty impressive rates. That allows them to reach fractions of light speed (usually one tenth to three tenths of the speed of light) fairly quickly, so my action can occur within days rather than weeks or months. I imagine readers who like the realism of seeing warships require days to get into position and fight would have their patience stressed if the fleets took months to do the same thing. That was a story-telling compromise, to keep the action moving while also showing the distances involved.

But even though I gave the warships great acceleration, I factored in the physics that will make life difficult for a fleet moving that fast. Why not accelerate past point three light speed? Because you have to be able to hit a target, and because you have to be able to slow down again.

The limitation of communications and sensors to light speed felt right as well. It constantly emphasizes how big the battlefield is, and throws in uncertainties. Light itself requires hours to cover some of the distances involved. You don’t know what’s happening now at some distant point, and just about everywhere is a distant point. It’s easy, looking up at the night sky, to forget that what we’re seeing is history ranging from minutes old with the nearer planets to hours old for the further planets and on to years for even the nearest stars. But if you make that point in a situation where an enemy force is a few light hours away, it makes the idea come alive.

I found that really taking into account the nature of space, and what warships in space would have to be like, produced its own kind of excitement. The key was taking it all seriously. If this is the battlefield, and you have this kind of technology, how would the battles have to work? When you do that, you run into tension, because any real tactics involve real risks, and no technology solves every problem.

Every SF novel contains its own assumptions about future technologies, and therefore what is possible. “Impossible” can be defined as “we haven’t figured out how to do that yet.” So I have no problem with SF that supposes capabilities that let us play games with physics as we currently know it. What does bother me is when a story doesn’t maintain consistency, one in which the technology can do something, then it can do other things, then it can do more things. Whatever the story requires, the technology can provide even if they couldn’t do that in the last chapter. Consistency also means that everything ties together logically. Armored knights aren’t clomping around armed with assault rifles and spacecraft that can move across a star system in fifteen minutes aren’t choosing to fight by coming to a dead stop and slugging it out at point-blank range. Those things bother me because they make suspension of disbelief too hard, and because they weaken the story in fundamental ways. If technology can suddenly solve all problems, then characters never face those extremely hard moments when all they can do is chose the least-worse alternative. That’s where story tension comes from, people having to make hard choices. “Recalibrate the shields to make the problem go away” isn’t a hard choice.

5. What, in your opinion, is the role of science fiction in our culture?

It plays a number of roles, I think. SF offers a chance for unexplored wonders and amazing things in places we have never been. Once upon a time a sailor like Odysseus could get on his ship and find strange islands populated by strange creatures in the Mediterranean. Now we have to imagine going to other planets and stars in hopes of finding such things, but we can still imagine that.

SF also serves the very important need to think about “what if?” (Or the variant of that, “if this goes on.”) What happens if…? What do we do if…? SF gives vision to such things, painting worlds devastated by nuclear war or environmental catastrophe. Of what a utopia might be, or what it might become. 1984, Brave New World, and On the Beach are all prime examples of SF that made people think about what might happen, and take steps to protect against those things.

SF can also distance us from things, giving a new perspective. If we look at something differently, does the answer change, or do we gain some new understanding, or do the fundamentals really remain about the same?

So, in my opinion, SF feeds our need for wonder and adventure, the old question of what might be around the next bend in the road. It can make us think about the consequences of what we do, or could do. And SF gives us the means to look at familiar things in new ways.

6. You have a very visual style; do you have any desire to see the series adapted for film or television and if so, how would you like it to be done?

It would be nice to see a good TV or film adaptation of the series. Ideally, like any writer I would want the sort of thing that was done with The Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter movies. That is, some adaption that might clean up weak parts of the story but otherwise stay true to story and characters while doing the necessary condensing to fit it all in. Unfortunately, for every movie like The Princess Bride that gets everything right, there seem to be several like The Lightning Thief or Starship Troopers that make big changes that cause the movie to crash and burn.

Seeing as I’m not J.K. Rowling, I wouldn’t able to exercise much control over a video property, so I’d have to hope for the best. The best “dream project” would probably be a series of films on cable or in theaters, but that’s a very great deal to hope for. As long as something sticks to the characters and story, I’d be happy no matter the format.

One option I think would be interesting is that the books have sold fairly well in Japan. An anime version might be a lot of fun.

7. What were your influences when writing the novel? To what extent does your own military history inform your writing?

One of the major influences in this series was Xenophon’s March of the 10,000. That’s the classic long retreat story, and I wanted to see if I could tell a story like that set in space.

Dauntless was also being written during a period when many people were talking about a very long war and declaring the willingness to do anything necessary to win. I wanted to explore what long wars tend to do to the combatants, and also look at the idea that the ends justify the means (which assumes that any means actually further the end, which they may well not). A lot of actual history factored into that aspect of things.

I’ve read a lot of space opera and military SF, so I wanted to draw on the best of that but also put my own stamp on it.

In terms of literary influences, I tend to hark back to storytellers. Andre Norton, Robert Heinlein during his middle years, Leigh Brackett, Roger Zelazny, Poul Anderson and similar writers. Walt Disney offered some great examples of storytelling, as do the Pixar films nowadays. You can learn a lot about telling a story by watching how they do it.

My own experience plays a big role. I try to write about how it really is. Not a cartoon of the military, but the sort of people and situations you actually encounter. Geary represents some of the best of the people I was privileged to work for, and some other characters represent the worst individuals I worked with. The feel of operations, complaints about the food, worries about fuel and spare parts and broken equipment all come from my experience, as does the maneuvering of massive objects around each other. If I hadn’t had my experience with driving ships I’m not sure I would have been able to grasp relative motion well enough to work out the battles and other movements in Dauntless.

And of course both Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and real world experience taught me that details matter. It’s not that you spell them out or list them in detail or dialogue, but that you know them so that those details are in the background, bringing reality to the world and the writing in the foreground.

8. How much research do you do when you are writing and what does this involve?

Research can take different forms. The series I wrote before The Lost Fleet (the “JAG in space” or Sinclair series) was one set in this solar system about a century from now. That series involved only a few ships, moving much slower than what the ships in Dauntless can achieve. In the course of working out how those ships would maneuver and how any engagements would look, I came up with a lot of the concepts that translated into Dauntless. So in a sense that previous series was research on movement and combat in space.

As a rule, I’ve got a good idea of what I’m going to deal with once I start writing. I collect information all of the time, reading many sources and looking things up when they pique my interest or I need something for a project. You never know what might come in handy. If some specific information is needed, I can usually find it on the internet, though there are reference works I buy because I need to often go back to the information they provide. For example, George Cameron Stone’s A Glossary of the Construction, Decoration and Use of Arms and Armor in All Countries and in All Times is pretty darn useful even if it doesn’t quite live up to the expansive title.

For one story I wrote (These Are the Times) I needed a good geographic reference for Boston in 1775. I was able to find online a map in the archives of the Library of Congress which was from that period and showed me everything I needed in the way of places, roads and other information. Another time I needed to know how a certain part of the battlefield at Gettysburg looked from a certain angle. This was a critical issue in the story I was writing, but nowhere could I find a map or image which showed what I needed. So I went up to Gettysburg and checked it out for myself. For yet another story (Swords and Saddles) I needed a very detailed map of part of central Kansas. I was able to buy a standard atlas and gazetteer which provided the topographic information I needed. As those examples indicate, I go to whatever source I can find the information in, hopefully without incurring too much delay. I think it’s important not to settle for “good enough” in such things, because the accurate detail plays a big part in making the story real.

9. What books and authors do you enjoy reading for pleasure yourself?

One of the odd ironies of being a writer is that most people become writers because they love reading, but the more success you have as a writer the less time you have to read because you have to spend that time writing.

In terms of fiction I enjoy a fairly wide range of authors, such as C.J. Cherryh, Elizabeth Moon, Tanya Huff, Andre Norton, Brandon Sanderson, Mike Shepherd, Kat Richardson, Connie Willis, David Sherman and Jack McDevitt. I’ve been following L. A. Meyer’s Bloody Jack series, which is a lot of fun.

I’ve always liked history and books about mythology, culture or other aspects of human life, books like Ian Mortimer’s The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England, Geoffrey Regan’s military blunders books, Seth Lerer’s Inventing English, or Patricia O’Conner’s Origins of the Specious. They’re not only fun, they’re full of ideas I can use, so I’m doing research I might need some day while also having a good time.

There are a lot of good graphic novels out there these days. I particularly like the Girl Genius series by Phil and Kaja Foglio.

I dive into heavier stuff occasionally to keep up to par on the sciences. I’m no whiz at science and math, but I try to watch new developments and keep as wide an understanding as possible. And of course histories of science or technology offer the best of both worlds, showing how today’s certainties often become regarded as missteps. James Burke does a great job of that kind of thing, tying it all together and showing how one thing influences the next.

10. After having read the first book Dauntless, what can readers expect from the rest of the Lost Fleet series?

Geary has to continue to grow into his responsibilities, all while fighting off attacks on the fleet, avoiding Syndicate flotillas trying to overwhelm him, dealing with challenges to his authority within the fleet, and a growing hostility between Tanya Desjani and Victoria Rione. He has to worry about supplies, about what is happening back in Alliance space, and about a powerful faction in the fleet that wants him to overthrow the government when they get home. Plus there are growing indications that someone else may be playing a role in the war between the Alliance and the Syndicate Worlds.

11. What advice would you offer to any aspiring writers and how did you get started in writing professionally?

The primary advice is to read and to write. Reading a lot shows you what ideas others have used and how they explored those ideas. Writing teaches you how to write. Like anything else, you have to practice, and try new things. I used to say that I wrote short fiction so I would have something to do while waiting for my novels to be rejected by publishers, but really short fiction can teach you a lot. It allows you to try many different approaches and ideas, and if something isn’t working you can much more easily abandon it than if you’ve already mentally and emotionally committed to a novel. You don’t want to just work on the same thing, endlessly repolishing the same scenes and dialogue. Besides, some ideas aren’t worth a novel. Sometimes a few thousand words says it all, and at times like that you need to know how to say it a few thousand words.

You have to be prepared for rejection. Tremendous amounts of rejection. That’s part of being a writer. Editors turn down your work, agents turn you down, editors turn down more of your work, and so on. If you do get published, there are critics and reviewers to deal with, and no writer gets acceptance from all of them. Then there are readers, who may also reject you, and that might hurt the worst. It happens. Writing is hard work and unlikely to make you rich or famous, but if you’re really a writer you’ll write anyway.

Go to local conventions that have authors attending. At the least, you’ll likely have a chance to talk to them or hear them on panels, some of which will be about writing and the writing business. You might meet an editor or an agent. But you will meet other aspiring writers.

I started writing seriously about the time I retired from the Navy. It took a few years before I made a few short fiction sales and I made my share of mistakes. These days, when you can find market guidelines online it’s easier to avoid those mistakes. But eventually Marion Zimmer Bradley bought one of my short stories for her magazine, and a few months later Stan Schmidt bought another for Analog magazine. Then, hoping to build on my limited success, I didn’t sell anything else for about a year.

Armed with three short fiction sales, I attended the World SF Convention which happened to be in Baltimore that year. There I met an agent, and another writer introduced me to an editor for one of the major publishers. After realizing that I should ask what she was looking for in the way of stories, I got her name and card. It still put my submission on the slush pile, but it was on top of the slush pile. The editor liked what I sent well enough that I got a book offer, after which I called that agent. Then the hard part started…

12. Do you have any current or future projects you are working on?

I’m currently working on two follow-on series for the Lost Fleet. One of those is called Beyond the Frontier, and follows the same characters as they deal with the situations that exist at home and in space after the end of the Lost Fleet series. The other is called The Phoenix Stars and is set in a Syndicate Worlds star system also following the end of the Lost Fleet series, so the two follow-on’s are taking place at the same time. The Phoenix Stars allows readers to see how “the enemy” handles what has happened, but I can’t say much more about that without giving away things in the Lost Fleet series.

Besides that I occasionally have short fiction published, such as most recently in Analog magazine (March 2011) “Betty Knox and Dictionary Jones in the Adventure of the Missing Teenage Anachronisms.” And I have a Young Adult SF series that my agent is shopping around. I call The Dragons of Dorcastle “steampunk with dragons.” It’s actually suitable for all adults, young or otherwise.

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