Saturday, June 7, 2014

JAG in Space

(cover image from

John G. Hemry also writes under the pen name Jack Campbell, and I've been enjoying his Lost Fleet series - and the sequels - so much that I wanted to try the books published under his real name. His very first series, starting with Stark's War (2000), didn't sound appealing, so I went with JAG in Space.

Yeah, the series title is terrible, and it's not even particularly accurate. But I'll get to that in a minute. This is military science fiction with significant differences from what you might expect. Indeed, it's quite unusual, and if I wonder about the setting - which I do - I can't complain about the results.

I've enjoyed both of the books I've read so far. In A Just Determination (2003), we're introduced to Paul Sinclair just before he boards the USS Michaelson. He's a grass-green ensign on his very first deployment after graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy

In the second, Burden of Proof (2004), Sinclair has just been promoted to lieutenant jg, but he still functions as the ship's collateral duty legal officer, thanks to a one-month course he was assigned just to fill in a gap in his schedule.

Sinclair is a line officer in the U.S. space navy. He's not a lawyer and has no desire to be a lawyer. But in each book, he gets involved in a court martial proceeding against a fellow officer from his own ship. Thus the "JAG in Space," I guess.

(cover image from

For science fiction - certainly for military science fiction - this is set in a very odd time. Sinclair is an officer in the U.S. Navy, and their ships patrol some undefined part of the solar system which is claimed by the United States of America.

There doesn't seem to be anything there, not anything worth the claiming. They're just patrolling in order to maintain their claim to that particular part of space. Why they'd even want it? Who knows?

This doesn't seem to be too far in the future, and it's never explained why America spends that much money for no apparent reason. There's no hint of FTL flight, nor even of colonizing other planets within our own solar system. (Then again, we learn almost nothing of civilian society and see nothing but the inside of a space ship and a tiny bit of a naval space station.)

All in all, the setting doesn't seem to make much sense. America isn't even at war - this is a peacetime navy - although there's apparently the potential for a violent confrontation with the South Asian Alliance. But it's certainly unique, at least in my experience. After all, there's plenty of military science fiction set aboard starships in the far distant future.

Most of those seem to follow the pattern of Horatio Hornblower, C. S. Forester's great series set during the Napoleonic Wars. In that pattern - copied by countless authors since, both those writing military fiction set on Earth and science fiction authors, too - you follow the officers and crew of a military ship, getting to know them, until finishing with a climactic battle against overwhelming odds.

These two books do the first part of that - indeed, Hemry makes military life aboard a space ship seem very realistic - but they end, not with a battle, but with a trial. It's still a desperate situation for the accused, I guess, but the real drama is more about the courage of Paul Sinclair in risking his career to see justice done.

It's unusual, but it works. And it probably works mostly because Hemry's characters are superb. We like Sinclair right from the start, and most of the other characters are appealing, too. But all of the characters seem realistic, and they're all individuals.

This is character-based fiction which presents an interesting and very plausible view of both military law and life on board a military ship in space. It's a combination I've never seen before (a blurb on the back cover of A Just Determination calls it "The Caine Mutiny in space"), but it's as entertaining as it is unusual.

There are two more books in the series, and I've already got them on order. So far, the series has stuck to a very distinct path, and I just don't know if it stays that way in the next two books or not. I'd like to learn more about their society in general, but I have real doubts that he could make it seem plausible.

So maybe he'd be wise to stick with "The Caine Mutiny in space" for every book? I really don't know. Again, the characters are great, so at this point, I'm pretty confident that I'll enjoy the rest of the series, anyway.

Note: All of my book reviews can be found here.

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