Jack Campbell interview

Jack Campbell’s The Lost Fleet series packs serious geek cred. It’s been recommended to me again and again. Titan are now bringing the series to the UK, starting with the release of Dauntless, Fearless and Courageous, then publishing more every month until we reach Victorious and the planned sequel series Beyond the Frontier. The spin-off series Phoenix Stars will also get a look in. By late 2011 we should have our grubby mitts on Lost Front: Beyond the Frontier: Dreadnaught.

Amazingly, Jack Campbell (actually a pseudonym for John G. Hemry; yes, he of Stark’s War fame) has kindly agreed to be interviewed by this Geek Native blogger! Here goes:

The Lost Fleet: Dauntless was first published in 2006.We’ve reached 2011 and the series is now exploring the book shelves across the United Kingdom. Has these five years rushed by in a blur, have they crawled past like years suspended in a lifepod or perhaps somewhere in between?

They have tended to rush by. It seems like only yesterday that I was hoping that Dauntless would do well, and I vividly recall when my agent called to tell me that it was going into a second printing. Then a third printing. And it just kept going. It still feels more than a little unreal. I keep waiting for the next shoe to fall.

To a great extent, when you’re writing a series, you’re all wrapped up in getting the next book written and trying to promote the books that are already out there and the next one that’s being published. What’s happening outside of all that is a bit of a blur.

In The Lost Fleet we have the Alliance military up against the Syndics. The military is pitted against an intergalactic corporation. Was it a deliberate choice to have a corporate culture as the bad guys?

Yes, that was deliberate. The excesses of communist-type dictatorial governments have been well-exposed and documented in the last few decades. They are unquestionably qualified as bad guys. But at the other extreme you have wealth-centered dictatorships, which I don’t think have been used as commonly in recent years even though they can produce just as much ugliness as so-called “peoples” dictatorships. I’m not against free enterprise by any means, but corporations aren’t necessarily in favor of free enterprise. If they forget other goals, if they become centered solely on short-term profit and what’s good for their individual bottom line, they can be just as destructive as any other self-centered organization. The Syndicate Worlds are run by corporations without any checks on their behavior, corporations who literally own the government, so they form a classic totalitarian government. But like autocratic governments on Earth, to remain in power even the Syndicates need at least the passive support of the majority of the population.

The combatants in The Lost Fleet are two different human cultures rather than humanity against an alien culture. Did you feel aliens would undermine the story?

Not to give away too much, but humanity in The Lost Fleet may not be as alone as it thinks it is. The clues that there may be someone else out there, and that the someone may be playing a role in events, grow with time.

That said, an essential element of the struggle is that humanity is, indeed, fighting itself. The century of war can’t be justified by xenophobia or an implacable alien foe. Instead, the fault lies with us, the responsibility for ending it lies with us, and how we act during that war lies with us. Humanity has to face that, and deal with it.

How much of your own experiences as a United States Naval officer found their way into The Lost Fleet?

There are many details, naturally. Small events, attitudes, the way sailors talk about the food on ships, interactions with other officers, and so on. I’ve worked with engineers, and Marines, and supply officers among others, so I know the different ways of thinking they bring to situations. Captain Geary personifies many of the best characteristics of the officers I served with. Other characters personify less-admirable individuals I worked with. Overall, that is about presenting a realistic picture of the military as opposed to an idealized vision or caricature.

Aside from interactions with people, I worked with equipment, and gained a knowledge of how that works in the real world. Or, often, doesn’t work as advertised.

And of course I drove ships, gaining experience with relative motion involving massive objects maneuvering around each other. I also tracked aircraft above the ships and submarines below them, gained experienced in supporting amphibious operations and special operations and a variety of other things. All of that goes into what happens in the books. I worked out the battles in my head, using my experience with relative motion to see how things would play out and what maneuvers would accomplish.

There’s intangibles, too, that I hope carry over into the books. The feeling of being out there, far from home, when things are quiet and the stars are your only companions, or the feeling when everything is going to hell simultaneously and others are looking to you to tell them what to do. The feeling when you succeed, and the feeling when you fail.

I was struck by the importance of time, distance, delay, communication and the challenges they present battles in space early on in Dauntless. In terms of the series, did you remind the reader of the challenges in order to emphasis the complexity of fleet conflict in space or to illustrate the tremendous distances the fleet would have to travel in order to get home?

It was a bit of both. All too often fictional action in space simply uses models from Earth, but space is very different. The immensity of space is critically important, not just in terms of getting from one place to another but also in terms of what ships have to be like. If those ships can get around fairly fast despite the huge distances, then they’re going to be going really fast when they meet up with each other. Unlike on Earth, where you have sea and air and land, everything in space is operating in the same medium with the same limitations and capabilities.

You can’t get away from the fact that the field of battle plays a major role in what happens. Space is huge. It has no up or down except what humans arbitrarily assert. It is effectively limitless, with few obstacles. And it is three dimensional in a way nothing is on Earth. Aircraft or submarines can only go up or down so far before they hit hard limits. Spacecraft can go in any direction forever.

So, really, it was about being true to reality. This is what we really have to deal with. It’s not Earth. It’s nothing like Earth. What happens may share some similarities with what would happen on Earth, but it’s going to be different in important ways.

All of that contributes to reality in the action and to hard choices. What is actually happening right now a few light hours distant? You don’t know. You have to guess. It’s going to take days to get there. You can’t call home and ask for help. Even talking to someone in the same star system may take hours for a one-way message. It’s huge out there and dealing with all of that drives everything.

I often hear The Lost Fleet compared to Battle Galactica. Do the comparisons get to you? Are they annoying? Just a little bit, perhaps?

Not annoying, really. Honest. Though there was a timing issue that caused some people to ask if the new Battlestar Galactica inspired The Lost Fleet. I had written Dauntless and gotten it accepted by the publisher before the new Battlestar appeared on television. But the book did not actually hit the shelves until after Battlestar appeared. So the timing could have implied some influence, when in fact I hadn’t seen or heard anything about the new Battlestar when I was conceiving and writing the first books of the series.

There were some good things about the new Battlestar series. Unfortunately, the series succumbed to the Battlestar curse under which the storylines increasingly seemed to have even less idea of where they were going than the characters in Galactica did. As a writer, I don’t want readers reacting to events in my stories by going “what the hell?” and unfortunately there were more and more WTH? moments in Battlestar as it went along, culminating in a real WTH? ending.

I think the comparison benefits me. I hope The Lost Fleet has the same positives that the new Battlestar series did, but that The Lost Fleet also managed to maintain a clean story with an ending that left readers satisfied.

Would you ever want to spend any significant amount of time on a spaceship?

In some ways I’ve done pretty close to the same thing. Being on a warship at sea for an extended period is, I think, in some ways similar. Not a lot of room, perhaps no fresh air, watch your head for anything that might bump, close living quarters, not much privacy, equipment everywhere, and so on. I had a talk with an American astronaut on the International Space Station, and we understood all the same things, though it was interesting to hear the differences. For example, he talked about how physically strenuous moving in zero gravity could be, because you have to use everything to move and stop yourself. On the other hand, I think astronauts get better food than we did in the fleet. And astronauts do get a window. On submarines, you don’t even get that.

It would be awesome to look down on it all, to see the Earth and everything and everyone on it as one thing. And it would be awesome to go somewhere new, to see places that haven’t been trod by humans before. But I imagine space travel will be like sea travel. Lots of work, lots of downtime, cramped quarters, some spectacular scenery and the real fun at the destinations.

Any plans on a TV series or movie for The Lost Fleet? What about approving a roleplaying game license for the setting?

There aren’t any plans that I know of, but I’m certainly open to the possibility. Of course, TV and movies face the danger of having your story and characters completely changed unless you have the clout of a J. K. Rowling. Best case is something like they did with The Lord of the Rings, which every author would die to see done with their work, and worst case is like they did with The Last Airbender, or The Lightning Thief, or Starship Troopers…

No one has yet proposed a roleplaying game, either. But, again, that could be a lot of fun.

Which authors would you encourage people to read?

Whichever authors they personally enjoy. Reading has to be work sometimes, but even work can be fun.

Some of the current authors I particularly enjoy are C.J. Cherryh, Elizabeth Moon, Tanya Huff, Andre Norton, Brandon Sanderson, Mike Shepherd, Kat Richardson, Connie Willis, David Sherman and Jack McDevitt. The Bloody Jack series by L. A. Meyer is a lot of fun. Madeleine Robins’ Point of Honour and Petty Treason are also enjoyable, and I’ve been following the Girl Genius graphic novel series by Phil and Kaja Foglio.

In terms of classics, there’s always The Lord of the Rings. That defines “world-building.” I will always enjoy the likes of Poul Anderson, Leigh Brackett, Roger Zelazny and Andre Norton. Those were story-tellers.

I find James Burke to be a great source of inspiration because he shows how everything ties together and leads to other things. He’s a great synthesizer of history and technology. And in military terms Geoffrey Regan’s military blunders books are great compendiums of just how badly people have bungled things in the past.

I know Neuro-Immune Dysfunction Syndrome is a subject close to your heart. Is there a charity in this area you’d recommend to Geek Native readers looking for a good cause to support.

NIDS is theorized to be one aspect of the umbrella-diagnosis of autism, which has grown at an alarming rate in recent decades. Autistica in the UK (formerly Autism Speaks, as it is still known in the US) is one of the leading private organizations backing research into finding causes and treatments for autism.