Book review: The Genesis Fleet trilogy by Jack Campbell

Jack Campbell has built up one of the most successful military science fiction franchises, thanks to a few simple strategies. He kept the worldbuilding, character development and moral ambiguities at a minimum, and instead focused on the tactics of space battles. Each book features a different scenario, and the author comes up with a way for the good guys to emerge victorious. Over time, especially in spin-off series to the main Lost Fleet narrative, Campbell added more strategic elements, better character development and even humor. And so, here we are. At a prequel trilogy, which is far more refined than other books in the universe, with characters that are so likable I had problems parting with them, and with set pieces that are far more exciting than in the original series.

Earth and her old colonies are stagnating. After mankind discovered faster-than-light space travel, new colonies were established everywhere in the galaxy, and humanity expanded in an uncontrolled fashion. Earth and the original colonies got spread too thinly to police the new colonies, so they abandoned the effort and started dismantling their militaries. Veterans, as well as regular citizens who wanted a new life, left for the new colonies.

One such colony is Glenlyon, hosting the typical society of people who want to keep to themselves, free to pursue their own dreams. Unfortunately, even before they are fully settled in, a warship from a neighboring colony of Scatha appears, demanding tribute. Scatha is governed by a militaristic and expansionist government and wants to carve a large part of space for itself. The colonists are well aware of that, and they appoint Rob Geary, a former fleet officer from one of the old colonies, as the head of their space force. There is only one problem: Geary has no spaceship.

With the help if the hacker Ninja, Rob executes a plan where he lures the warship close to the colony’s space station, jumps over with a group of police officers and captures the ship. Everybody knows, however, that the victory is only temporary, as Scatha would send another, better ship to attack.

In the meantime, Lochan Nakamura, a failed businessman and politician, and Mele Darcy, a former Marine, are on a transport to a new colony, when whey are attacked by space pirates. The pirates let the people go to a nearby space station, where they are tricked into boarding a shuttle operated by slavers. Nakamura and Darcy, however, are made aware of the plan, hijack the shuttle and get rescued by another transport, which carries Carmen Ochoa, a former civil servant from Earth. Darcy leaves the transport soon thereafter and makes her way to Glenlyon, while Ochoa and Nakamura make their home in the colony of Kosatka.

Geary’s predictions about the attacks are proven true when Scatha arrives with a transport ship. Unable to attack, lest be accused of firing on civilians, Geary watches as the transport sends its cargo, colonists, to the surface, where the newcomers establish a second colony with the goal to conquer the planet from the surface. Darcy is named the commander of ground forces and begins training a few select troops, with which she later defeats the Scatha colony.

In the meantime, Geary travels with his ship to Kosatka, to request help. As he arrives, he is able to intercept and drive off a mysterious warship, which threatens to bomb Kosatka’s cities. This gives him some credit with the colony, but not enough to get immediate help. Soon after returning home, he must engage a much better warship that Scatha has sent over. He manages to capture it again, at the cost of his old ship.

Unable to easily capture Glenlyon, Scatha allies with others and attacks Kosatka. At that time, however, most colonies had already acquired additional warships and military forces, and battles get bigger and more complicated. Geary arrives to Kosatka just in time to help with the defense in space, while Darcy and her space marines disembark and organize the defense of Kosatka’s orbital station. Before the battle, Nakamura escapes to forge an alliance of like-minded colonies, while Ochoa joins the ground fight against the invading forces. The defenders prevail, chasing the invaders off.

Having come short again, Scatha tries to attack Glenlyon once more, this time with an overwhelming force. Geary can’t do anything but to keep the attacking warships in check, while Darcy leads yet another orbital defense. As the options for the defenders start running out, a large fleet arrives. It is the combined force of an interplanetary alliance, formed by Nakamura with the aim to counter Scatha’s alliance of the more aggressive colonies. This force defeats the invaders and sets to bring the fight to Scatha.

The Genesis Fleet follows roughly the same outline as the previous books in the franchise. At the beginning the protagonists are presented with a new tactical scenario, and they have to think and fight their way out of it. And just as before, these scenarios are also skewed in favor of the protagonists. The enemies always lack imagination and do everything by the book, but they arrive with an overwhelming force. The protagonists think outside the box, and sometimes even exploit the same rulebooks the opponent is using, to predict the enemy’s next move. In this trilogy, however, Campbell introduces multiple narratives, as well as combined operations, primarily involving space and marine battles. Perhaps I am projecting too much, but in the ground combat I often felt parallels between this fiction and the Russian invasion of Ukraine: the same disinformation and sabotage campaign, followed by an invasion under ridiculous pretenses, only to have it fall apart due to the inflexibility of the Russians, and the Ukrainian high morale and inventive defense. The last part of this trilogy was published three years before the invasion, which should have provided enough time for a potential Russian translation for their strategists. In the highly unlikely scenario that it did happen, the strategists took the wrong inspiration from the books.

This trilogy sees great improvement in its protagonists. They are likable to the extent where I find myself genuinely caring for them. They form relationships and families, have personal motivations beyond “I don’t want people under my command to die”, and they have their own narrative paths that weave around, never fully converging. The enemies are all anonymous, more like a force of nature, and I appreciated the respite from evil villains I’d be required to dislike. The author further humanizes the protagonists with his two favorite jokes: the importance of duct tape and how men are completely oblivious to women’s feelings towards them, until those women hit them over the head. The first few times, those jokes may have been endearing, but I felt that a little variety would have been welcome. Where’s the importance of WD-40, for example?

Note that I omitted character development from the list of improvements. There is development, but it is very awkward. All characters are fully rational and willing to completely change their opinions if presented with a reasonable argument. There is never any extended discussion, and never even a hint of miscommunication. In this regard, interpersonal and political relationships are handled just like fleet maneuvers. New information forces the appropriate change of attitude from the decisionmakers. Everybody has a very strong moral compass, and the only conflicts that are not resolved are when two characters with opposing, but very well communicated views clash, and then part with agreeing to disagree. Some of those opinions, in particular Geary’s and Darcy’s, sound close to lecturing. They are not as heavy-handed as similar inserts by authors like Terry Goodkind, but they dangerously skirt the line between passable fiction and real-world political lecture.

Despite the simplistic character development, the trilogy is very entertaining. Campbell does what he knows best: he creates very compelling battle scenarios and has them play out in a realistic fashion, given the initial setup. Fans of The Lost Fleet will not only get more of the same, but far more strategic conflicts. Those who wanted more than barebone battle scenarios will be pleased by the progress the author made with his characters. All in all, this trilogy is a real treat for the existing fans of the Geary universe, and a good jump-in point for new readers.

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