Best-selling author Jack Campbell (AKA John G. Hemry) on the past, the present, and the future of The Lost Fleet.
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 And when the surrender turns into a massacre, it is Black Jack Geary, his knowledge one hundred years out of date but his time in rank making him the most senior Captain ever, who must, Demolition Man-style, save what he can of the Fleet and get them (and their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!)
There could really be any number of reasons; Geary is a complex and intriguing character who had clearly led a checkered existence before his cryonic suspension after defeat at the long-ago first battle in the early days of the interminable war. His heroic last stand, a death-defying (and, it was assumed, -earning) feat of derring-do, has made him a legend in his descendants’ lifetime, a walking return-of-the-Messiah fable. Hemry has created a world in which hero worship is painted as one of mankind’s greatest pitfalls (certainly, his worrisome Co-President Rione can think of little else), but how much of this reflects his own philosophy and how much is merely a convenient rallying point for anti-Geary rhetoric?
“I think in terms of history, the whole ‘man on a white horse’ thing is a common peril for any society,” he says. “People at the top are surrounded by subordinates telling them how great they are and answering to their every order, and that can really distort someone’s perspective. They end up believing they are extra special, and too many people are willing to look for someone extra special to solve their problems. The legend of the sleeping hero who will return to save the day is a common one and I think reflects that desire for someone who can fix everything. But too often the “great ones” have feet of clay. George Washington was such an incredible leader not just because he did so well as soldier and political leader, but because he could have held absolute power and refused it. We always have plenty of Napoleons, but there are never enough George Washingtons in this world.”
Black Jack is very much a George Washington (although he is constantly being suspected of being a Napoleon). But those that doubt him are few, and the reverence in which most of the Fleet holds him is echoed in—and perhaps even partly explained by—the reverence they have for their ancestors. The belief system throughout the Fleet seems to be a cohesive one: the living stars.
“The religion issue was important to include, I think, because religion influences every human society and is particularly important for those who face battle, and need something to lean on when things are darkest,” Hemry explains “The earliest known civilized religious remains in the Middle East reflected ancestor worship, and I thought it would be interesting to contrast the high-tech, star-traveling civilization with the oldest form of religious belief. I simplified my presentation of it by referring only to general beliefs, [but] it’s safe to assume that, in practice, the Lost Fleet people differ on details and have sects. I sought universal elements, the sort of things found in every belief, and cast them within the form of the ancestors and living stars: tolerance, steadfastness, faith in a higher purpose, and proper treatment of others are all things which can found in many teachings. Too often those are lost track of, but they’re in there.”
Hemry is no stranger to comparative religion, with some of his earliest enthusiasms encompassing history and Greek mythology. But from there, science fiction fever took hold, and Hemry’s geek credentials are impeccable.
“My first exposure to science fiction was through Edgar Rice Burroughs,” he says. “I read The Mastermind of Mars in fourth grade and I was hooked.” He grew up in the 1960’s, and his first science fiction TV encounter was Lost in Space (“which even then I found increasingly running off the rails into absurdity”). By 1968, Hemry was living on Midway Island, where his father — an officer in the US Navy — was stationed at the time. “We had one TV channel which only broadcast a few hours a day; programs a few years old whose tapes had been flown out to the island. But on Saturdays and Sundays the theater would show two one-hour TV shows as an afternoon matinee, and one of those shows was always original Star Trek.”
Hemry still lists Star Trek–along with a perhaps surprising choice in a Trek fan, The Empire Strikes Back–as the best of all imaginable futures.
“They both shone,” he says, “because they used very fine writers to flesh out their futures and fill them with a sense of reality and wonder. Star Trek, with episodes written by many greats in the field, had a vast influence on science fiction. [And] The Empire Strikes Back… If it had been the equal of, say, The Phantom Menace, then Star Wars the movie would probably have been a stand-alone blip of success with sequels rapidly fading into obscurity. Thanks in great part to Leigh Brackett’s work on the screenplay, Empire ensured there would be a Star Wars franchise (for better and for worse). I name those the best futures, because they show the difference good writing can make to how well a future holds up over time, and how much strength good stories bring to any imagined future.”
More recently, Hemry tends toward the animated, listing as recent favorites: “… either the awesome works of Pixar like The Incredibles, Wall-E and Up, or Japanese anime like The Girl Who Leaped Through Time, Moribito, Haibane-Renmei, Cowboy Bee- bop, and Ghost in the Shell, and anything by Miyazaki. The one thing I think ties all of those together is that all of them are primarily about their stories and about people, with the special effects or animation purely secondary, although still impressive.”
Among his other genre enthusiasms, Hemry cites his favorite classic authors as “… people like Leigh Brackett, Heinlein, Poul Anderson, Andre Norton, Gordon Dickson, Zelazny and H. Beam Piper.” As for modern writers, well… “One of the ironies of becoming a writer is that it leaves a lot less time to read,” he says, “[but] writers I admire include Connie Willis, Elizabeth Moon, C.J. Cherryh, Greg Bear, David Sherman, Sharon Lee and Steve Miller.” (Korval!) “A couple of series I buy as soon as new ones appear are Laini Taylor’s Fairies of Dreamdark, Isabeau Wilce’s Flora Segunda, and L. A. Meyer’s Bloody Jack series,” Hemry adds. “Meyer’s work is straight historical fiction set during the Napoleanic wars and nominally Young Adult but well worth any adult’s time. His lead character, a girl named Jacky Faber, is really entertaining and well-drawn as she wreaks havoc through historical events. I particularly like the way Meyer really catches the feel of the environments he writes about.”
Meanwhile, Hemry has the future of his own series with which to contend. First, in the upcoming Victorious, we will see a conclusion to the story begun in Dauntless, five books ago. (“No endless series here,” Hemry assures us.) At the end of the previous novel, Relentless, Captain Geary has led the Lost Fleet home, but the war still continues and Geary, promoted to Fleet Admiral, must go back into Syndic space to find a way to negotiate an end to the hostilities. But all will not, predictably, be smooth sailing.
“The Syndics are masters at laying traps,” Hemry says, “and there may be a very big one waiting at the Syndic home star system. The Alliance fleet will learn just how badly the Syndic leadership wants to cling to power, and the strains of the long war will claim another casualty in an unexpected way. And the fleet will find itself defending former enemies against a threat of still mostly unknown size and power.”
Ah, yes. The aliens.
Plus, we can only hope, the long-running will-they-won’t-they relationship of Geary and his forbidden love, Captain Desjani, will come to some kind of resolution. Unless that will wait until the follow-on series….
“There will be two follow-on series to The Lost Fleet,” Hemry promises. “One, called The Lost Fleet: Beyond the Frontier, will follow Black Jack as he and his friends–and enemies–deal with the events following Victorious. The other series is called The Phoenix Stars, and is set in a Syndic star system, also dealing with events following Victorious. The main characters here are Syndics, so their moral centers are a bit underdeveloped compared to Black Jack. But they know what Black Jack did and they know if they want to do anything similar they need to change a few things.”
In Hemry’s previous two series, Stark’s War and JAG in Space, his heroes were both part of the US military establishment, with national identities still well entrenched. In The Lost Fleet, those lines seem to have blurred, if not disappeared entirely; it’s Alliance vs. Syndic, not country vs. country. But without the war, can the many worlds of the Alliance maintain that sense of united purpose?
“One of the things which the follow-on series will show is how divided the Alliance is internally,” Hemry explains. “They had the big common enemy and they united against it, but after that enemy is dealt with, then what? Humans seem to have trouble when their formal allegiances are stretched over too large a group.
“Empires come apart, and democracies reach a certain size and then shed pieces over time. We can temporarily transcend regional and cultural boundaries when confronted with a big enough humanitarian event, like the tidal wave in South Asia or the recent earthquake in Haiti. But it seems that it takes catastrophe or an external threat to make us find common ground. Hopefully we’ll figure out another way to get along.”
THE FINAL 5 WITH JOHN G. HEMRY
Trek or Wars? Original Star Trek.
Marvel or DC? DC. (See Legion of Superheroes answer above.)
Vampires or Werewolves? Werewolves. Still nasty, but at least they’re not dead.
Dragons or Unicorns? Feathers or lead? It depends.
Time Travel: Pro or Con? See my short story “Joan” in the November 2009 issue of Analog (I have to plug wherever I can).
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