Wednesday, April 30, 2014

"The Lost Fleet: Dauntless" by Jack Campbell

(cover image from

The Lost Fleet: Dauntless (2006) by Jack Campbell is the first in his Lost Fleet series, and I'm not sure how I've missed it until now. I've certainly seen it often enough, but I guess it just didn't sound appealing until a trusted friend recommended it.

But I'm not sure why that is. A quote on the cover says, "A rousing adventure. . . the kind of hero Hornblower fans will love!" And I'm a huge fan of Horatio Hornblower.

I'm a fan of military science fiction, too. At least,... it's kind of a guilty pleasure, admittedly, since I rarely take it seriously, but I still find it fun. This is a little different from the typical military SF I read, though.

First, the story: John "Black Jack" Geary had become the great hero of his people in the century since he'd lost his life early in the war in a heroic rear-guard action. Only, it turned out he wasn't dead, just in suspended animation until their fleet stumbled upon his survival pod.

When the book begins, that fleet has suffered a crushing defeat, and Geary ends up in command of the remnants, facing a surrender-or-die ultimatum. Of course, you know that neither of those things is going to happen, but escape is the only chance they have. And they're far from home, deep in enemy territory.

At first, I wasn't sure if I was going to like this book, mostly because it's all told from Geary's point of view. The other characters are minor, at best. Typically, I like military fiction with lots of appealing characters - well, I like fiction in general with lots of appealing characters - so this was a bit different.

Geary faces not just opposition within the fleet, but his own doubts, as well. Some of his people think that he's the legend come back to life, destined to pull off miracle after miracle, but others doubt that he's even qualified to lead (most of his service life has been spent in suspended animation) or that there's anywhere to lead the fleet. And at least one of them fears that he's the legend - or that he thinks he is.

All this was interesting, but it took awhile before the book really grabbed me. But grab me it did, and I've already ordered the sequels. Still, there's another way that this book is atypical for military SF, and that's that it actually has something to say. It's actually thought-provoking.

Geary's service was pre-war and at the very beginning of the war. But the century of brutal war since then has changed his people and the fleet itself. No one else in his command really recognizes this, because they've grown up in it. And it takes awhile for Geary to recognize the changes, too.

These days, in a time when many politicians envisage a never-ending 'war on terror,' when we're told that torturing prisoners of war is just how we 'baptize terrorists,' when people who won't be doing the fighting and dying themselves can't wait to start the next war, this is a worthwhile theme to explore in science fiction, don't you think?

Also, most military science fiction seems to disparage democracy, apparently preferring a hereditary aristocracy, instead. That's how it seems to me, at least. Now, maybe an authoritarian outlook should be expected in people who write military fiction, I don't know. Certainly, the military itself isn't a democracy, and can't be.

But Geary's society does seem to be a democracy, and not a hopelessly inept or corrupt one. (Admittedly, we don't learn that much about it.) And the only civilian politician in the fleet isn't a fool or a coward. She doesn't like Geary much, but she's got good reason to distrust him. A legendary hero come back to life, if he could pull off another miracle, would have the kind of influence on a war-weary population that could indeed endanger their democracy.

So, although this book didn't immediately grab me, it was certainly interesting enough to keep reading. And as I did, I became more and more impressed as well as being increasingly entertained. I don't know how I missed this series previously, but I really hope the next books are as good as this one was.

Note: My other book reviews are here.

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