Dauntless, The Lost Fleet Book 1, Jack Campbell (aka John G. Hemry) (Ace Publishers, 2006)

(Science Fiction, Military Science Fiction)

Grade: Δ — (Delta) A solid read, but only buy it if you like the genre.

In brief:

The Lost Fleet: Dauntless is the first of six volumes in Jack Campbell’s (aka John G. Hemry)[1] Lost Fleet series.  It is a straight serial Space Naval Military Science Fiction book that finds its hero in command of a fleet that is cut off and alone well behind enemy lines. Much of the book focuses on the protagonist, “Black Jack” Geary’s attempts to bring discipline and strategy back into the fleet. To that end, it is not so much an action adventure tale, as one about politics and the difficulties of command.  Having said that, it also has the single most realistic and engaging space battles I have ever encountered.

Setting:

Far future, deep space with Earth playing no clear or significant part in the story.  Faster-than-Light Travel is possible through both jump points (read slow but still FTL travel through a ‘hyperspace’ style jump) and ‘hypernet’ (read FTL superhighways through space).  Humans live in several interstellar nations that are divided into two blocks presently at war.  No known intelligent alien life is identified.

In Depth:

The Lost Fleet: Dauntless is a difficult book to review, because I loved much of it, but other parts drove me to distraction.  It definitely falls into the MilFic category of Right vs. Incompetent, but unlike many of its compatriots, the heroes may not be quite as ‘Good’ as they first appear, and the villains not quite so ‘Bad’ as they seem.  I found this to be a very appealing element, particularly in the way it is revealed.  Yet, many other parts, including its opening and some of its plot-logic, were exceptionally problematic.

The story starts quite abruptly, with ‘Black Jack’ Geary in recovering in bed and called to the shuttle bay by the Admiral of the Fleet.  There, he is given command of the fleet due to his seniority and legendary status, though at this point the nature of both are not totally understood.  Within the next few chapters, we learn that Geary was found floating in a hibernation style lifeboat, where he had been in suspended animation for a hundred years.  What is more, he is now considered a hero of King Arthur proportions for a Naval action he took at the beginning of the war, that saved his nation and subsequently shaped the tactics of the next 100 years.  As a result, he is viewed as a legend by half the fleet, and as a relic by the rest.

The problem is that, as the first in a series, I found the sudden opening of Geary in the bed being called to a meeting made me continuously double check to see if I had actually purchased the first book in the series.[2]  With no preamble of his combat action, nor the discovery of his lifepod, the story seemed to be starting in the middle.  Once I had determined for certain, however, that this was the first book of the first series, I quickly fell into the tale.

Within moments of Geary being noted as the Senior Captain of the Fleet, enemy treachery occurs and he is left in command. Thus, the Commander of the Fleet is a man who has no clear idea of the recent technology, state of the fleet, traditions nor even the nature of the war.  What is more, he discovers that far from the strict and efficient military structure that he is used to, Fleet based Chain-of-Command has devolved into a much more egalitarian style and tactics have reverted to primeval.  The story then progresses as he struggles to instill order in a rag-tag fleet, and reintroduce fleet tactics to a navy that has focused on aggression and individual initiative for far too long.

For me, this had both an appeal and broke my suspension of disbelief.  Many Naval stories, both space based and surface based, include such elements of protocol and command.  Indeed, both the soon-to-be-released first, and half-finished third book in my own series focus on such issues of command.  It is an intrinsically interesting element of stories set at sea, in space or in any military setting: how do you get people to do what you want?  Indeed, it is one reason why so many MilFic books fall into the Good and Competent vs. Evil and Incompetent category.  This book, in part, bi-passes the Good and Evil elements of that stereotype, but ends up focuses wholly on the Competent vs. Incompetent element.

By itself, that is not a bad thing.  Unfortunately, in this instance, the nature of how incompetence came to be the norm strained my disbelief beyond its limits.  In effect, as the story progresses, Geary comes to realize that each ship’s Captain is not only a law unto himself, but that they have little regard for the Chain of Command.  This is, in part, due to the loss of Fleet Tactics that occurred in the war due to the remarkably high attrition rate that has occurred, and in part due to Geary’s own legendary status within the annals of history.

Geary, whose own time predates this, has such knowledge because he learned it at the hands of great men. This logic makes a superficial sense; the high attrition rate of the hundred year long war has killed the most experienced commanders and so wiped out the legacy of how to run space combat when there is a time-delay due to the distances involved.

This is a great set up, except… well… don’t this people have books?  Aren’t their 3D recordings and/or simulations of combat maneuvers available to this nation of FTL capable star-farers?  How about training films, recorded seminars or any of the things we could do today?  After all, Alfred the Great managed his great victories based in no small part on the books he had read during his time in the church.  Is there no library at Fleet Headquarters?

What about innovation?  Even if all record of tactics and the timing of command was lost, surely someone might have thought of some of the tricks Geary used.  After all, Campbell/Hemry did and he’s never seen a space combat. Even if it is a matter of timing etc., that can be figured out.

Finally, and just as damningly, if the possibility of using such tactics has been totally erased, why hasn’t this fleet been wiped out long ago?  Based on the tactics used by Geary’s side before he manages to instill discipline, which resembled a Viking charge, the good guys should have been readily defeated by anyone even vaguely aware of Fleet engagements. Even if the enemy had suffered similar fates, one person on the other side of any battle who could figure out the tactics would have had the same effect in that battle as Geary had in this book.  This clear hole in the story pulled me out of the tale time and time again, and as such, lessened my enjoyment.

When we did finally get to see the tactics that Geary uses, however, it was worth while.[3] The author described the first realistic Space Fleet action I have seen in Science Fiction.  It was the first combat I can remember that showed both elements of four-dimensionality[4] and momentum.  What is more, when we see Geary’s fleet tactics employed, they are remarkable, if somewhat basic.  For the first time in my reading, we see a battle that truly seems to understand what 3D space combat is like, and how important relative time delays in observation are.[5]

Indeed, I will now have to go back and rethink a major scene in the third book of my series to ensure that I’ve really taken those elements into account. In this, Hemry has done a brilliant job.

Sadly, for me, this was overshadowed with the issues of world building.  The disappearance of tactical knowledge in a culture at war that is as technologically advanced as the one we are shown makes no sense.  Oh, I could believe they might not be as good as Geary, but totally losing the ability to control a fleet in combat seems unlikely.

Similarly, the total loss of Fleet command discipline which is the focus of this story seems even more unlikely.  The fact the fleet was not destroyed given the discipline we are shown is well beyond belief. Even so, the struggle that is shown makes it clear that the author understands command and control issues extremely well, not to mention how brilliantly the nature of the pressures on a Flag officer is portrayed.

Less damning, but still important for me, were the problems I had with some of the cultural aspects of the Lost Fleet World.  The belief system of the good guys was a combination of ancestor worship and mystical beliefs in the nature of stars.  While the ancestor worship worked very well both as background and within the story, the stars-as-divine element made no sense to me. In a star faring race, why would one begin to believe that stars, large astronomical bodies made up of burning gases, have divine elements?  To me, it seems a bit like modern sailors worshipping islands, and there is no way I can see us reasonably going from the place we presently are to a place where stars are believed to have some divinity.[6]

Thus, some of this book is marvelous, and some fails.  The World and backstory strains disbelief, but the story itself is compelling.  The hero, Black Jack Geary himself, is both Good and Right, while some of his opponents a bit on the Evil and Wrong side, but the issues are not as black-and-white as many other MilFic books.

So, end result?  I liked the book, but suspect that it would not be enjoyed by people who are not interested in stories about space combat and/or command, control and communications.

Having bitched for so long, however, I should note that I fully intend to read the next in the series and look forward to later reveals that may well change this review.


[1] Jack Campbell is the pen name of John G. Hemry, a retired Lieutenant Commander in the USN, who has also written the Stark’s War and Paul Sinclair series.  His experience in ship handling, fleet operations, Command structure show clearly through this work.

[2] I bought this as an e-book, and the notes available were not 100% clear on the matter… or rather, they were pretty clear, but there was no title list at the start of the book to note that this was book one, and the title was, as listed above, The Lost Fleet Dauntless.  Not volume 1 or, first in the series or any such thing.  That did cause a bit of confusion when I suddenly found him suddenly in charge of a fleet while I still didn’t know who he or the fleet were.  What is more, there are now multiple series, so I wondered if I had bought the first in the second or third series.

[3] For me, anyway.

[4] The classic 3D (height, width, depth) plus time, in this case represented by the delay in communications and observation.

[5] He does, however, hammer that point a wee bit too much.  I couldn’t tell you how many times he notes how long the difference between the observation of an event and its actual occurrence was… but it’s a lot.  Every time.  A lot.

[6] Unless, of course, there is some sudden, unexplained resurgence in Zoroasterism , or this is part of an alternate history where the society is descended from Pre-Islamic Persian culture.  Alas, however, I can see no indication of that, nor do I see how we could begin to reassociate theological aspects to stellar bodies from the point we presently are.

About Thomas Evans

I'm a writer of mysteries, espionage, and speculative fiction. In my previous incarnation I was an archaeologist specializing in gender and identity in Iron and Bronze Age Europe. Mostly, however, I was known for my works with the use of geomatics, multiscalular spatial analysis and landscape theory within archaeology.
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4 Responses to Dauntless, The Lost Fleet Book 1, Jack Campbell (aka John G. Hemry) (Ace Publishers, 2006)

  1. I’ve read the entire series and the first book of the follow on and I would add I few note.
    1) The lack of a number or other clear indication for what order the books run in is – unfortunately – not unique to this series, but here it was particularly irritating with meaningless titles that gave no indication of running order.
    2) The series as I whole I would say was at least one book too long. He tried to stretch the material too far and to me at least – it showed.
    3) On the lost of group knowledge, as it went along the series showed that is was probably at first a fairly slow process but as time went along has been accelerated as the best and the brightest of each successive wave of commanders are killed off increasingly quickly. So instead training is being left to second and third class leaders. However historically I can’t think of any case of this happening to both sides at once, so yes a suspension of disbelief is being asked for.
    4) I think the opening was designed to showing the disorientation of the main character. Personally I have mixed feeling about it. A one or two page prologue showing a snap shot of the main characters ‘Last Stand’ might have been better.
    5) Defining what the roles of various types of ship are within a fleet. Battleships and Battlecruisers, fair enough but then we have Heavy Cruisers, Light Cruisers, Destroyers but no explanation as to what they can do that the bigger ships can’t that justifies their existence? It is a tricky one and the same criticism can be made of a lot of similar SF settings (perhaps even my own).
    6) Non-mobile orbital facilities. This one bugs me, there is a section of the book where they destroy an enemy orbital platform by flying a ship into it. The platform can’t get out of the way, it more or less has to stand and take it. To the best of my knowledge the space stations that exist out here in reality have limited ability to shift their own orbit. In a setting where ships run around at fractions of C it is a stretch to say stations can’t move their orbital track by a few kilometres.

    Still on the whole an enjoyable book so I would agree with your review.

    • Thomas Evans says:

      Yeah, I found it really hard to judge, as that it was fun, but seriously flawed.

      Your list of problems is a very good addendum to my review, particularly the unexplained need for the large number of different types of ships without any real discussion as to their different roles in the world. What is the difference, here, between a Heavy Cruiser, Battlecruiser and Battleship? I know historically, but can that be put into context here? What is more, there are SO MANY variations here. Fortunately, in my own books, the roles are pretty clearly defined.

      As for the non-mobile space stations… I completely agree with your assessment. What is more, if they are going have an orbital station that can’t be moved, shouldn’t they have better point defenses and/or some fighters? I mean, we use fighters to defend bases now, shouldn’t they do that then?

      Finally, as to the attrition of the good commanders, why? I mean, I understand it was a nasty war, but really, shouldn’t of the good commanders have been good enough to live? Didn’t any of them survive long enough to be promoted? If not, they couldn’t have been all that good.

      Oh I cold go on, but you already said everything quite nicely.

  2. ignatx says:

    These books are so bad compared to his earlier “JAG in space” work. They feel deliberately dumbed down. They sell much better than the JAGs, which had much more complex characters and inter-personal politics, as well as really interesting insights into military bureacracy, so I think you have to say that the author judged the audience shrewdly. The milsf reader is probably the lowest form of literate life – a humourless Mary-Sue lover who wants a string of easy vicarious victories. You could fit a super mauler into the literary gap between Aubrey-Maturin and Honor.

    And it’s not just characterization that’s poor but the military campaigns. Victories have to be simple and overwhelming to satisfy these people – complexity, subtlety and ambiguity scare them as much as being in a real fox hole would. So Frezza’s terrific books weren’t a hit, Pournelle’s CoDo series isn’t an influence on modern milsf, Hemry has had to dumb down..

  3. ignatx says:

    ..I really can’t recommend the JAGs enough. They’re especially interesting when you realize that a lot of the material is actually about the modern USN and it’s notoriously bureaucratic/political culture. Junior officers have *very* hard lives and integrity comes at a cost; senior officers are a mix of the exceptionally competent and dedicated and people who kissed-ass exceptionally well; crews are endangered by contractor incompetence; etc.

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