Military Science Fiction Lessons from Jack Campbell’s Legendary LOST FLEET Series

Posted by March 6th, 2014

john_hemry_1What’s military science fiction, you ask? Fiction in the style of BATTLESTAR GALACTICA would be the short answer. Stories about interplanetary conflict that emphasize military strategy and play-by-play  descriptions of battle scenes. To get the long answer, read our Q&A with Military SF Landmark author Jack Campbell. His Lost Fleet series recounts the adventures of naval officer Jack Geary, who “comes back from the dead” to help the Alliance stand up to its enemies—the Syndicate Worlds. 

NG: There are 15 books in the Lost Fleet universe. What’s the secret to your world’s longevity? Do you have advice for writers who want to write military science fiction worlds that make readers readers keep coming back?

JC: There are several different things that have enabled me to keep the stories coming in the Lost Fleet universe.  The first is that the initial scenario gave me so much to work with.  I had been thinking for years about how to successfully write a long “retreat in space” story.  That’s a lot harder than it may sound, because it requires a combination of technologies and ways of fighting that allow a beleaguered force to survive and continue trying to reach safety.  I had the classic long retreat book as a model (Xenophon’s March of the 10,000), which had been used by other writers in the past, and I wanted to make what I was doing feel real.  During the same period that I was thinking about how to do that story, I had also been thinking about sleeping hero legends, which are common in societies around the world.  Such legends (like that of King Arthur) say that the hero is not dead, but sleeping, and will someday return when needed.  They are probably based on real people who were, well, real people, not awesome heroes.  I wondered what it would be like for someone to awaken from a long sleep and discover that they were now thought to be an awesome hero, and that everyone was expecting them to save the day.  After years of thinking about these two ideas, I suddenly realized that they fit together perfectly.  Both required a lot of background to make them work, so the Lost Fleet stories began with a double dose of background.  That gave me a lot to build interlocking storylines about.

But I had only planned for six books in the Lost Fleet series.  When readers demanded more, I had to think about how to do that.  Over the course of the first six books, a lot had happened which could feed into new stories.  Even the great victory at the end of book six led to the reality that wars don’t just end.  The prices they inflict on societies and governments linger, and they can spawn new problems.  How does the great hero of a war deal with an imperfect peace?  What about the events beyond human occupied space, which had played an important role in the first six books?  Those issues gave me the basis for the Beyond the Frontier continuation of the Lost Fleet series.

I was concerned about the stories and characters growing stale, though.  I needed to have new eyes, new perspectives to help keep the old eyes fresh for me when writing and for readers.  And many readers had asked to learn more about the enemies in the Lost Fleet, the people of the Syndicate Worlds.  With the Syndicate Worlds crumbling in the wake of the war, that offered a perfect opening for a fall of empire type story.  And I had a good place to set such a story, at the Midway star system which had played a role in the first six Lost Fleet books.  I could even intertwine the plots of the Beyond the Frontier books and what became the Lost Stars series.  Same universe, but new characters and new ways of seeing things, as well as a very different set of challenges.  The spin-off really helped keep the original series vigorous.

I also made the decision to avoid the bigger trap.  It’s a common problem in SF (and Fantasy), in which the armies and the fleets and the enemies and the stakes just keep getting bigger and bigger, so that before long entire galaxies are exploding in a fight to control the universe.  An author can run with that for a while, but eventually the ridiculous meter pegs and the stories hit a dead end.  Instead, I have scaled things back, focusing on smaller actions with smaller forces.  The stakes actually seem bigger when you do that, because the loss of each ship means more, and because you can tell more about more individuals, which makes their fates important to readers.  Overall, the challenges faced by the characters are still very big, but the battles they fight are on a scale that avoids the bigger trap and allows a wider variety of missions.

And, finally, aliens.  One alien species made an appearance in the first six books.  The later books bring in two more species.  I made those aliens truly alien, not just funny-looking humans.  The mysteries posed by those aliens, the questions raised by their different ways of thinking, the threats posed by two of them, have given me a lot of material to work with.

My advice to other writers would be to make your universes rich in potential for stories, to shift the action now and then to new places and people who can interact with the old places and people but drive new stories, to keep the scale of the story on a level where individuals matter, and to throw in new elements which naturally grow from the story but create new questions and dilemmas.

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The Alliance has been fighting the Syndics for a century – and losing badly. Now its fleet is crippled and stranded in enemy territory. Their only hope is a man who’s emerged from a century-long hibernation to find he had been heroically idealized beyond belief.

Captain John “Black Jack” Geary’s legendary exploits are known to every schoolchild. Revered for his heroic “last stand” in the early days of the war, he was presumed dead. But a century later, Geary miraculously returns from survival hibernation and reluctantly takes command of the Alliance fleet as it faces annihilation by the Syndics.

Appalled by the hero-worship around him, Geary is nevertheless a man who will do his duty. And he knows that bringing the stolen Syndic hypernet key safely home is the Alliance’s one chance to win the war. But to do that, Geary will have to live up to the impossibly heroic “Black Jack” legend.

NG: You were a naval officer for many years, which  helps with getting the military theory right in your books. What should writers be mindful of when it comes to writing about space warfare?

JC: If there is one overriding lesson from the Lost Fleet books, it is that readers appreciate reality.  (Not just SF readers, because a lot of my readers say they don’t normally read SF.)  That may seem like a contradiction, but it’s not.  Early on, I decided to handle space warfare in realistic terms.

That meant several things.  The foundation of it all was to look at space as if it were a battlefield.  What are its characteristics?  (Really, really, really big; mostly empty; no up or down, right or left; basically unlimited visibility; except when close to planets, everything operating in the exact same medium.)  What does that mean in terms of the way warships would be designed and battles would be fought? (Capability for tremendous velocity, ability to see enemies for vast distances, no real “space fighter versus spaceship” divide, etc.)  A space warship designed to operate in such a medium ends up feeling a bit like a ship, and a bit like an aircraft, but also a completely different thing.

One of the hardest things to convey when writing about space is how incredibly huge the distances are even within a typical star system.  Reciting distances in terms of hundreds of millions of kilometers doesn’t give anything that people can easily grasp because the numbers are just too big.  When I decided to abide by light-speed limitations on communications and sensors, I stumbled upon a method of showing how big space was while keeping the numbers within human scales.  Saying that the enemy is two light hours away, and therefore that anything you are seeing is two hours old because light itself takes that long to cover the distance, and that a message sent to those ships would take two hours just to get there, presents the distances in a way that brings home to anyone just how big they are.

A common complaint about SF space battles is that they often feel two-dimensional instead of reflecting the unlimited three-dimensional nature of space.  To show that requires stepping out of models based on battles on Earth.  Some things can be used.  I based spacecraft formations partly on World War Two heavy bomber box formations, because those were three-dimensional, interlocking defensive formations.  Concentrating force against weaker portions of the enemy instead of slamming head-to-head is a long-standing principle of warfare, and it applies in space as well, though in space doing that means thinking in terms of maneuvers through three dimensions which can be seen well in advance by the enemy.  Momentum matters a lot.

By contrast, I made the people on the ships recognizable to people today.  I think that certain aspects of the military have been around for a very long time, and will stay around for a very long time in the future.  The interplay between different levels of officers, the importance of the senior enlisted personnel, the roles different members of the crew play, the different ways in which different specialties (engineers, doctors, Marines, pilots) view things, are all critical to presenting a realistic image of those people.  Just as important, it’s an image that readers can identify with.

I also made logistics a factor.  In the real world, things like fuel, food, ammunition and other factors drive a lot of decisions.  If SF forces have unlimited quantities of those things, at their core they won’t feel real, because the commanders’ decisions won’t reflect the things that real commanders have to worry about.

lost_fleet_guardian_coverAnd that leads to my final point, which is that incorporating all of those things into my space battles made them a lot more complicated.  Conventional wisdom would be that readers wouldn’t like that.  In fact, readers have responded very positively to that complexity.  Just as importantly, that reality has forced me to write better.  I can’t do something simple (change the frequencies of the shields) to resolve a problem the characters face, and I can’t do some hand-waving to get my characters out of a mess.  I have to come up with solutions that require tough decisions and sacrifices by those characters, just as in real life.  I have to think through the tactics and strategies.  It all feels real, because I treat it that way.

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About Jack Campbell:

Jack Campbell is the pen name of John G. Hemry, a retired U.S. Navy officer. His father (LCDR Jack M. Hemry, USN ret.) is a mustang (an officer who was promoted through the enlisted ranks), so John grew up living everywhere from Pensacola, Florida to San Diego, California, including an especially memorable few year on Midway Island.

John graduated from Lyons High School in Lyons, Kansas in 1974, then attended the U.S. Naval Academy (Class of ’78), where he was labeled “the un-Midshipman” by his roommates.

John speaks the remnants of Russian painstakingly pounded into him by Professor Vladimir Tolstoy (yes, he was related to that Tolstoy).

He lives in Maryland with a wife who is too good for him and three great kids. The two eldest children are diagnosed as autistic but are slowly improving with therapies, education and medications.

Visit his website at www.jack-campbell.com.

What is your approach to choreographing battle scenes? Join the discussion on Book Country!

 

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