In – or around – 1975, a young Naval Academy midshipman named John G. Hemry read Xenophon’s The March of the 10 000 (known to scholars as Anabasis), as part of a course called Philosophy of War. An almost 2500 year-old account of a Greek mercenary company’s escape from deep within enemy territory after the death of its leaders and the failure of its mission, it would prove a fortuitous choice.
In 2006, a little over thirty years later, that same John G. Hemry, retired from the Navy and assuming the pen name Jack Campbell, released the first book in his series The Lost Fleet, Dauntless: a space-set account of an Alliance warship fleet’s escape from deep within enemy territory after the death of its leaders and the failure of its mission.
So... classical Greek literature as space opera, huh?
“I think most ancient works could work well as space opera,” Hemry says. “They deal with many of the same themes about humans and a largely unknown world/universe around them. Homer's Odyssey is about someone sailing into unknown regions, finding monsters and peril, as well as beautiful women the captain has sex with.” A pause as we consider why that tale sounds so familiar. “That's also the framework for the original Star Trek series.” Ah! “It worked then and it works now. There's a tremendous amount of inspiration to be found in old works, because while times have changed, people haven't, and anything which has survived in print for thousands of years has done a good job of telling a story.”
Which could also be said of the books of The Lost Fleet. The story is thus: two interstellar human civilizations, the Alliance and the Syndicate Worlds, are at war. The war has raged for close to a century, and no one quite knows why they’re fighting anymore. Dauntless opens in the aftermath of a mighty battle, in which the Alliance has been battered into submission by the Syndics, and is forced to negotiate a surrender. All senior Alliance personnel are required to leave their ships, which leaves recently-found-and-defrosted legendary hero, Captain John “Black Jack” Geary, in charge. And when the surrender turns into a massacre, it is Black Jack Geary, his knowledge one hundred years out of date but his time in rank making him the most senior Captain ever, who must, Demolition Man-style, save what he can of the Fleet and get them (and their all-important, war-clinching trump card: the Syndic’s hypernet key) back home to Alliance space.
All five published books of The Lost Fleet series (Dauntless, Fearless, Courageous, Valiant and Relentless) are perennially to be found in the Top 100 Best-sellers in Science Fiction Adventure at Amazon.com; #4 Valiant and #5 Relentless made it into the USA Today best seller list, with the latter even making an appearance on that of the prestigious New York Times. There can be no doubt that the forthcoming Victorious (released April 24), the much-anticipated conclusion to the series, will follow.
“I've been pleasantly surprised by the success of the series,” Hemry says modestly, when asked about his feelings on such impressive sales. “I think every writer starts out thinking that their first book is going to have tremendous success, but that very rarely happens, and it didn't happen to me. My first seven books did okay, but not great by any means, so I kept my expectations low for The Lost Fleet while also doing my best to make the series as good as possible.”
Those first seven books – three in the Stark’s War series (Stark’s War , Stark’s Command  and Stark’s Crusade ) and four in the JAG in Space series (A Just Determination , Burden of Proof , Rule of Evidence  and Against All Enemies ) – are out of print, but are available for download from BAEN’s WebScriptions. Hemry is hopeful of reprinted paperback editions, following the success of his latest series; the question is, under which name would they appear? There is much in a name, and all were originally published under his own, John G. Hemry, while The Lost Fleet’s author rejoices under the rugged, no-nonsense moniker of his alter-ego, Jack Campbell. That name could’ve been given to a character played by Schwarzenegger in his heyday; it gives the impression that the author is a man’s man, a kind of a Bear Grylls of the spaceways. John G. Hemry sounds more cerebral, less devil-may-care; is that why the name change?
“The reason has to do with the way book sales work today,” Campbell explains (for what is, no doubt, the many-hundredth time). “The major bookstores use software to order books, and that software is supposedly designed to base orders for new books on the sales history of that author. What too easily happens is that the software decides the last book didn't sell ‘enough’ copies, so it orders fewer of the next book. That in turn very easily results in even less sales of the next book, so even fewer of the book after that are ordered. Very quickly, the major chains will only be ordering one copy of a new book for that author, which is far too few to give the book any chance of taking off. Authors call this the death spiral, because once you get caught in it the end is books selling far too few copies and publishers not wanting anything to do with new books by you.
“One way out of the death spiral is to adopt a pen name, which the software sees as a new writer, and therefore orders a decent number of copies for the stores,” he continues. “It gives you a chance to re-launch. The pen name doesn't guarantee success, of course, it just gives you a chance. The strange thing is that you don't need to keep secret that Jack Campbell is a pen name for John G. Hemry. No one tells the software.”
But how does one decide on a pen name to escape this death spiral? Hemry is aware he named the heroic main character of his series after himself, right? (Or perhaps vice versa.)
“I actually chose the pen name some time after starting writing about Black Jack,” Hemry says, “so that was a coincidence. The Jack comes from both my father and my oldest son, who are Jacks, and I have a lot of Campbell blood on my father's side, so it seemed a natural last name to pick for a pen name.”
Hemry then delivers a teasing aside. “I'm currently undecided on whether I'll ever reveal the true reason why Geary got the nickname.” (Oooh!)