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The Lost Fleet: Beyond the Frontier: Steadfast by Jack Campbell

June 28, 2014 4 comments

The Lost Fleet: Beyond the Frontier: Steadfast by Jack Campbell

Back when I was young and still somewhat naive, I was rather taken by the idea of history following a cyclical pattern. I think I first encountered the idea in The Voyage of the Space Beagle by A E van Vogt. At the time, I was studying the classical languages at school and had read Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire which was a somewhat ironic book for a European historian to be writing as the then major European powers were full of optimism and engaged in creating their own Empires. But the idea of a man writing about the fall of one empire as all the other emergent empires were doomed to fall seemed eerily prescient. Anyway, my understanding of history did seem to register Golden Ages followed by Dark Ages as different civilisations rose, prospered, and then fell. It also seemed attractive to believe that, after each Dark Age, the next civilisation would be better than the last. Young people always want to believe the later generations learn from the mistakes of the earlier. Sadly, that’s rarely the case. As each society reaches the point where agriculture and raw material resources can no longer support the local population, there tend to be wars and social collapse (if climate change wrecks enough of the world’s agriculture, the next collapse may not be very far away).

The Lost Fleet: Beyond the Frontier: Steadfast by Jack Campbell (pseudonym of John G Hemry) (Ace, 2014) is rather elegantly playing with this idea as John “Black Jack” Geary begins the book doing a tour of Earth (as the cradle of the now interstellar civilisation). Appropriately, he’s visiting Hadrian’s Wall in the North of England close to where I was born (not, you understand, that I was there when Black Jack visited). There’s much for him to chew on as he considers how the wall came to be built and, more importantly, why it was later abandoned and largely allowed to collapse over the centuries that followed. He also views other sites where the damage caused by the collapse of an empire remains as a reminder of past failure. He sees this alongside his own experience of helping the Alliance beat the Syndicate and then fight off aliens who might have done considerable damage. The state of the two human combatants remains fragile with the Alliance caught in a difficult economic situation as their worlds try to shift from a war to a peace footing. The Syndicate has fragmented with many planetary systems going through local rebellions against the old regimes who continue to holdout. No-one is doing well in this situation.

Jack Campbell (John G Hemry)

Jack Campbell (John G Hemry)

The book is full of discussions and insights into the collapse of order on both sides of the political divide. Before the war, there were political tensions but, along the border between the two sides, there was considerable trade and movement of people. Now that the war is technically over, there are the usual problems of recovering prisoners of war and dealing with refugees and economic migrants whose arrival from Syndicate space is stressing the resource-poor economies on the Alliance side. This leaves Black Jack with two major issues to address. The first is the enigmatic presence of six ship from the alien race called the Dancers. Their command of standard English is no doubt good, but they choose to communicate in a very odd way. Indeed, the retired general who’s been given the job of liaison officer finds trying to get anything approximating a straight answer out of them a challenge. Nevertheless, there does seem to be some method to their alien strangeness as they suddenly take off on an apparently random tour of human space with the general in tow. Fortunately, it becomes clear towards the end of the book that they have been able to see signs all is not well in human space.

The second issue relates to the extraordinary secrecy surrounding some of the activities of the Alliance. It seems factions have been taking long-term decisions without any public disclosure let alone discussion. Until the end of this book, it’s not entirely clear exactly what’s been done. Now we have a better view of the outcome, it’s obviously a disaster that’s waiting to rampage out of control. As a warning sign of the capacity for decision-makers to believe they are doing the right thing, we get an early visit to the moon of Europa where a secret lab was trying to create the perfect bio weapon. Unfortunately, it escaped the lab and everyone of the moon died. A permanent exclusion zone has been established and no-one is allowed to visit. This latest discovery may well be characterised as an infection of sorts. It will be interesting to see how Black Jack deals both with the politics of how such a thing came to be created and, more importantly, what’s to be done about it now. Putting the problem shortly, the Alliance and the Syndicates had some degree of stability through maintaining the status quo of the conflict. When Black Jack broke the impasse, the Alliance feared for its own stability as victor. Those who had been leaders on a wartime footing might not maintain their hold over power if there was a return to peacetime democracy. For some this would be unendurable. Such is the way in which leaders sow the seeds of their empire’s fall. Putting all this together, The Lost Fleet: Beyond the Frontier: Steadfast is rather a thoughtful book with quite a lot of fighting for those who like military SF.

For review of other books by “Jack Campbell”, see:
The Last Full Measure
The Lost Fleet: Beyond the Frontier: Dreadnaught
The Lost Stars: Tarnished Knight

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

The Lost Fleet: Beyond the Frontier: Dreadnaught by Jack Campbell

The Lost Fleet Beyond the Frontier Dreadnaught by Jack Campbell

The Lost Fleet: Beyond the Frontier: Dreadnaught by Jack Campbell (pseudonym of John G Hemry) (Ace, 2011) sees me going back in time to satisfy my curiosity. I was intrigued rather than impressed by the meticulous way in which The Lost Stars: Tarnished Knight was put together. Although the political situation as described was rather laboured, the military SF element was pleasing. It therefore seemed a good idea to go back a couple of books to look at the story from the main protagonist’s point of view. Black Jack was part of the practical mythology that informed the activities of the ex-Syndic world. Why not see how and why he had made such a name for himself?

The basic premise is not in any sense original. It assumes an individual from one culture can have a massive impact when he or she is transplanted into a different culture. Simply the fact of difference is enough to raise the hackles in the new culture. There’s always been deep suspicion of strangers. If they are also “foreigners” this doubles the paranoia that their very presence will change the world, and not for the better. This particular variation has a military leader who was “frozen” when his exploits had made him famous. Politicians over the decades then found it convenient to refer back to this man as having been a leader in their culture’s “golden age”. They mused how tragic his “death” had been. If only. . . and then his body is discovered and he’s reanimated. This is, of course, deeply embarrassing to the generations of politicians who have lauded his name. It gets worse when he’s able to start winning battles again. I’m coming into the story just after Black Jack has beaten the Syndic fleet and brought peace to this part of the galaxy. The man’s status as a hero is now undeniable. So what are the politicians to do with him?

Jack Campbell (John G Hemry)

Jack Campbell (John G Hemry)

They could arrest him, but what would the charges be and would the people tolerate a trial for the man who has ended the civil war? They could quietly arrange for him to meet an accident. If he “died” before, he could do so again and save all the corrupt from having to account to this man of honour. Yes, he’s the epitome of everything good about the military. Willing to serve but scrupulous both when it comes to accounting for his own actions and holding others accountable when they fall short of his high standards. People in power would be lining up to pay for his assassination so they could weep crocodile tears at his funeral and berate fate that had snatched the hero away. . . his legacy would not be forgotten, it would become an inspiration to all. . . and so on.

So we open as Black Jack and his new wife are on their way to rejoining the fleet after their short honeymoon. They are not sure what they will find but are convinced it will be dangerous. Indeed, their arrival coincides with an attempt to break the unity of the fleet. This is political suicide, because if unified command ceased to function, ships returning to their own sets of home planets might produce a balkanisation of human space, each warlord claiming sovereignty by virtue of local military power. To avoid this, the fleet is to be sent off to investigate the strength of the aliens in the adjacent part of the galaxy. This plays to the old political ploy that, if you can’t frighten your people with the threat of humans on the other side of a civil war, you threaten them with aliens at the gates. Despite various attempts to sabotage the mission, a strong fleet does set off and is soon in what used to be Syndic space.

Of course, this is no more safe than alien-controlled space. The fact peace might have been imposed does not mean old resentments have been resolved. Thus begins a significantly more interesting journey through local politics. Here’s our hero, a man with the reputation for righteousness and honour, suddenly forced to begin dealing with people who have little or no interest in compromise or even considering what might, objectively, be the right thing to do. It’s back to the good old days of dog-eat-dog power-broking with selfishness uppermost. And this is not just in Syndic governments. It also affects the operation of the fleet itself, particularly when it liberates some prisoners whose view of how the world should operate is very “different”.

At some point, the fleet crosses over into alien space and there’s some fascinating world building on the nature of their culture. This is a very brave attempt to formulate something inexplicable by our standards and, to a considerable extent, this part of the book is a success. I can’t recall anything quite like this in any other media: books, television, cinema, anime, etc. In part, this reflects the essential paradox in what the humans “see” and a real part of the fun is in listening to their attempts to understand it. Indeed, the strength of the paradox lies in reasons for the “first contact” which suggests I have not gone back quite far enough in the series. Perhaps, I should have read the book earlier than this.

That said, the slightly convoluted title The Lost Fleet: Beyond the Frontier: Dreadnaught delivers a thoughtful book on the politics of war and the management of the subsequent peace. What to do with standing armies has always been a headache. And I find myself recommending this to the broader SF community. This is not just military SF. Braces for strong reaction from ghetto fans. It’s better than that! Indeed, committed military SF fans may think the first half of the book has too much talk and not enough fighting.

For review of other books by “Jack Campbell”, see:
The Last Full Measure
The Lost Fleet: Beyond the Frontier: Steadfast
The Lost Stars: Tarnished Knight

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

The Last Full Measure by Jack Campbell

June 20, 2013 1 comment

The Last Fll Meadure by Jack Campbell

The question this novelette from Subterranean Press raises is a simple one. By their nature, all creative works are “political” because the purpose is to interact with the people who experience them. For these purposes, it doesn’t matter what the format of the work is. It can be fiction or not, in written form or not. The means of delivery is irrelevant. The content is the essence and each format comes with its own set of rules. So, for example, the rules require a journalist to be truthful whereas, by definition, someone writing fiction is not constrained by reality but is expected to be original, i.e. plagiarism can be a more serious problem. So when a creative person chooses the medium, access to the target audience depends on meeting that audience’s expectations or not pushing the envelope beyond what the audience will accept. So back to the question of “politics”. Although it’s a naive reaction to a book, I found The Last Full Measure by Jack Campbell (the pen name of John G. Hemry) hard to read because the political point of view being expressed is so far removed from my own. I’m not using the word “politics” in its narrow sense of discourse for the purposes of an election or for debating public policy because we take that to mean something potentially divisive or partisan. Ironically, even that definition is probably misleading. Politics fixes the prices for staples like bread or petrol through taxation and the availability or denial of subsidies. As I write this, there are riots in Indonesia over government attempts to end fuel subsidies, Egypt may be about to repeat its bread riots, Zambia is struggling to end the subsidy of maize, America is debating whether to impose controls on the right to buy and carry guns, and so on.

All aspects of our lives are touched by politics in one way or another, and we make political decisions on how to live our lives, i.e. personal choices are self-governance. So when an author decides what to write about, he or she is expressing opinions about the content. In romantic fiction, for example, an author’s lead female character assesses the suitors. What jobs do they have? What possessions do they own? What are their prospects? Are they good breeding material? Are they the right race and religion? And so on. So this book is an exercise in storytelling. It’s an alternate history set in America where the victory against the British and the subsequent introduction of a democratic constitution under Washington have been lost. This describes the beginning of the second revolution and fires the first shots in what will become a civil war. It could have been written in a sly way, allowing issues to arise naturally. Sadly, it’s polemical and, at times, confrontational in asserting the correctness of the author’s point of view. While there’s no doubt we should all resist tyranny, we could have been given a fantasy or allegory to transform the battle against authoritarianism into art. Instead we get a jail break and a first set-piece battle to make it seem “real”. To my mind, this naturalism makes the book highly “political” and too overtly so. If the author is going to write about revolution, the least he could do is hold up a mirror and show us something more interesting about the process.

John Hemby aka Jack Campbell

John Hemby aka Jack Campbell

All alternate history depends on the quality of the “what if”. In this case, we go back to the Presidency under Thomas Jefferson and have Vice President Aaron Burr pack the senior ranks of the army with political appointees. Because the chain of command held up, this converted the army into a political tool and it became a force of repression as rich power-brokers took command in the White House. We then get the usual rewriting of history, military tribunals replacing conventional courts, slavery confirmed throughout America, indentured labour expanded in the North. It’s a classic model of ownership applied to a society. However, a few brave souls begin to organise and speak out. So here we have Abraham Lincoln a prisoner convicted of sedition and Joshua Chamberlain sent to work alongside the slaves on a plantation. Except an increasingly confident army faction takes action and rescues both men, hoping their academic and political expertise will enable them to run a more successful PR campaign to raise the people in support of armed insurrection. This leads us up to the Battle of Gettysburg where the more radical tactics of the New Republic defeat the traditional battle plans of the incumbent army, in part led by political hacks with little actual combat experience. For those of you not up on American history, the title of the book is a reference to the Gettysburg Address given by Abraham Lincoln in November, 1863. When talking about the sacrifices made in the battle as a contribution towards the birth of freedom, Lincoln praises those who fell and gave “the last full measure of devotion”.

In another context, the military fiction might have been entertaining but, in The Last Full Measure, the result is tedious and perfunctory, the sequence of events largely depending on coincidence and happenstance. So this is not recommended unless you want a book that panders to your specific “political”, in this case Republican, point of view, namely that the US Constitution as interpreted by Republicans must be upheld no matter what the cost.

For a review of novels by Jack Campbell, see:
The Lost Fleet: Beyond the Frontier: Dreadnaught
The Lost Fleet: Beyond the Frontier: Steadfast
The Lost Stars: Tarnished Knight.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

The Lost Stars: Tarnished Knight by Jack Campbell

September 22, 2012 1 comment

Rather more years ago than I care to remember (although the fact I can remember is reassuring — it keeps my fear of Alzheimer’s at bay), I paid to see If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium. It was one of those faintly titillating films, rather popular at the time, in which the sexist behaviour of young men was gently satirised. More relevantly for our purposes, it showed a whistle-stop tour around nine countries in eighteen days. Let’s pause for a moment to consider how meaningful the stay in each country would be. Or, put another way, the title has it right when it hints that the country is irrelevant to the point of the journey. So here’s Jack Campbell, a pseudonym for John G Hemry. He’s a military SF guy and has been doing a tour of our neck of the galactic woods in The Lost Fleet series which has now gone Beyond the Frontier.

The simple version has the human area of this space divided between the capitalists and the communists (the Alliance and the Syndicate Worlds). As is required in all military scenarios, the actual politics of the two sides is largely irrelevant because all the author and his readers really want to do is deal with the fighting. In fact, the governments on both sides are corrupt and incompetent, and only a few good people at key times and places can keep the individual planetary systems going. The primary hero is “Captain” John Geary (better known as Black Jack) and he does his best to keep the hypernet system in play and so preserves the metatransport system for future generations. Things hot up when he’s sent to investigate the aliens who lurk on the border. So we’re now spread over the two declining “Empires” while Black Jack is battling aliens and/or allying himself with aliens. Although the questions of gender are reasonably well handled with women in government and the military rising through glass ceilings and performing as well as the men, the more general political systems are very superficial and reflect the prejudices built into the current American playbook, i.e. by world standards, it’s very right wing.

Jack Campbell (John G Hemry)

Of course, that does not of itself mean the books are essentially fascist and that, if they were fascist, this would be a “bad thing”. The humans on both sides have been caught up in essentially authoritarian systems with a high degree of mutual antagonism. As individual communities go through fairly convulsive changes, there’s a general need for a range of players to discuss the faults in the current arrangements and how matters might be rearranged to achieve better outcomes. In this, the relationship between civil authority and military command is a constant theme. The focus on the military also means notions of honour and duty are paramount. The civil authorities are more often interested in power for its own sake. There’s little sense of honour although, sometimes, fanatical levels of duty. Most government officials are intent on preserving their own positions even though this may not benefit the “people”. In this, it’s fairly obvious the author is pro-democracy but there signs of nuance in some of the scenarios and the associated discussions. There are also questions raised about the role of religion and the extent to which it should influence the behaviour of governments and the way in which the military operates.

In The Lost Stars: Tarnished Knight by Jack Campbell (Ace, 2012), we’re dealing with a rebellion led by a political and a military leader who manages to overcome mutual suspicion long enough to seize control of the star system. For the record, this is the first novel told from the perspective of a Syndic world and it takes place at the same time as Black Jack is off meeting the aliens. We then get descriptions of both land-based and space battles as General Drakon and President Iceni collect military materiel wherever it can conveniently be found, and pick sides in a civil war in an adjacent star system. Since they have thrown off their Syndic yolk, they would prefer not to have a Syndic system in their backyard. Given the background, this is continuing the broader narrative thrust of the series and the descriptions of the military matters is done very well. Unfortunately, I find the broader political discussions rather tedious. I understand why the author wants to include this material. It obviously gives some depth to the shifting patterns of government power and allegiances. But I find the general tenor of the debates rather superficial and somewhat prejudiced. I could have followed the story and enjoyed the broad narrative flow if the text have been reduced by about 25%.

So for those of you following the series, The Lost Stars: Tarnished Knight is more of the same and, if you enjoyed what has already been published, you will enjoy this.

For a review of other works by Jack Campbell, see:
The Last Full Measure
The Lost Fleet: Beyond the Frontier: Dreadnaught
The Lost Fleet: Beyond the Frontier: Steadfast.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

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