The Lost Fleet series by Jack Campbell: A Retrospective

Spanning 17 books in 12 years so far, The Lost Fleet and its offshoots are a monumental undertaking for its author, the retired US Navy officer writing under the pen name Jack Campbell.  And even though the books are lacking the depth, character development and finesse of great science fiction novels, I found them strangely compelling, and they quickly became one of the guilty pleasures in my library.

The Lost Fleet focuses on fleet-based space combat.  In a future where a large portion of the universe is colonized, the two biggest powers, the generically named Alliance and Syndicate, wage a war that had lasted for a century by the time we step into the story.  An officer who was lost during the very first battle of the war, John Geary, had been found drifting in space in suspended animation, revived, and given the command of the Alliance fleet, which found itself deep behind enemy lines, likely to be destroyed.  Throughout seven books in the original series, “Black Jack” Geary, as he became known after his disappearance, utilizes novel (or archaic) tactics to defeat the Syndicate over and over again, in his quest to bring the fleet home.  In the follow-up series, Lost Fleet Beyond the Frontier, Geary takes the fleet again to explore star systems occupied by three distinct alien species, battles them and brings the force home again.  And in an offshoot series, The Lost Stars, a Syndicate star system declares independence from the Syndicate and must defend itself from attacking fleets.

As one may have guessed, the books are full of space combat.  Campbell, a former naval officer, relishes in simulating various tactical situations and resolving them via very detailed action reports.  However, this is also the story of John Geary, and his quest to change the minds and habits of people who weren’t even born when he was lost.  The century-long war has changed the society and military strategy a great deal.  Both the Syndicate and Alliance battle head-on, and life expectancy of people in service and ships is measured in months.  Soldiers have become suicidal and embraced this mindset.  And their commanders stopped following the chain of authority, instead passing tactical decisions by a committee vote.  Geary, fresh from a different time, struggles throughout the series to reestablish the chain of command.  He also wins by employing the old tactics, which had been largely forgotten: dodge during a fight, run when necessary and always do the unexpected.  In addition to the traditional enemies, however, he must also navigate through somewhat simplified politics and strike a balance between obeying the Alliance government and threatening it, so that he is not seen as disloyal, nor imprisoned for posing a threat to the civilian rule.

The Lost Stars series branches out a little.  Here we have two protagonists, President Iceni and General Drakon.  These two command the space and ground military forces, respectively, even though Iceni delegates her power to one of her underlings.  The series focuses on the two trying to democratize their star system, liberate others, but a large part of the text describes land and space battles as well.  In fact, all three series are full of battles, with a little light political philosophizing in between.

The focus on battles is one of the greatest strengths, but also weaknesses of the books.  Campbell does an exceptionally good job describing the fights, and always changing them up a little to make them interesting.  His use of relativistic speeds, and his strict adherence to a very limited range of weapons further helps to make the battles believable.  However, he also runs into two significant issues, which he never overcomes in his series.

The first issue is that he always pre-stacks his board.  He decides how both belligerents will behave.  He also comes with the concept of near perfect battlefield intelligence.  In his universe, sensors can detect nearly anything, to a great detail.  This is used to great effect in describing how the speed of light limitation slowly uncovers the battlefield, and how people make decisions based on the time it takes for new information to travel.  This also means, though, that all ship commanders have perfect information about their fleet and their opponents.  As a result, the battles truly play as computer simulations, and it’s only up to the respective commanders to outthink the enemy.  And here the author does his pre-stacking.  Geary is the only one with enough flexibility to employ new strategies; the enemy never adapts to changed situations.  They may try to use a tactics that would negate Geary’s tactics from a previous engagement, but by that time Geary already readjusts.  This is especially evident with the Beyond the Frontier series, where the alien races are extremely one-dimensional and don’t adjust at all.  As a result, Geary’s only real enemy is the sheer number of forces thrown his way, not the capabilities of the enemy commanders.

And that’s where the other major problem lies: there are no antagonists.  The enemy is always faceless, just like a computer game.  Geary faces some internal dissent, but as a protagonist he never faces a real antagonist that would force him to change as a character.  He disposes of (or changes) the internal dissenters, but he’s the same person at the beginning of the first book as he is at the end of the last one.  Throughout the books a reader may be a tiny bit concerned about Geary’s physical welfare, but never worried that he may descend into a power tripping madness or just give up.  In addition, without a constant antagonist, the books can get quite monotonous: Geary’s fleet arrives at a new star system, faces overwhelming odds of faceless enemies that employ the same tactics Geary used in the previous book, and Geary comes up with a new tactical plan that defeats them, allowing him to proceed to the next star system.  I’ve never felt the sense of dread that comes from expecting the final battle with an enemy that can match our protagonist.

If anything, the books read like the battle sequences from Ender’s Game, but without the character development between battles.  One could go even further and see parallels in the one-dimensional ship commanders and child soldiers on one side, and Geary and Ender as the flexible leaders who outthink the enemies on the other.

As I stated at the beginning, though, I enjoyed the books.  I did so for the simple reason that Geary is inconsequential, and just a vehicle to further the plot.  He is the ideal moral pillar whose only shortcoming is that he doesn’t know how to talk to women.  He is steadfast in his convictions, and he manages – rather easily – to convince others of his world view.  He is never in any real physical danger, and in absolutely no moral danger, so I didn’t have to worry about him.  Iceni and Drakon are not any better developed, either.  This makes for some light reading, where I could fully focus on the battles, and not bother with anything else.  The Lost Fleet series doesn’t pretend to be a great literary work but is still superb at what it sets out to be: naval combat in space.  Approach this series with that in mind, and you won’t be disappointed.

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