Jack Campbell is the pen name of John G. Hemry, a retired Naval Officer whose military experience provided him with a solid foundation for writing Military Science Fiction. He’s published under his real name (Hemry) but when launchingThe Lost Fleet, he adopted the name Jack Campbell and has since become a superstar writer of Military SF. John takes time out of his schedule to answer some questions I posed…
You’ve kept quite busy, churning out at least a book a year for the past decade, sometimes more than one a year. What’s your writing schedule like?
My writing schedule tends to be chaotic. My wife and I have three children, all on the autistic scale, the oldest two pretty badly. That has and does require lots of attention and flexibility. Three typical teens would be hard enough. I write when I can, usually when time and inspiration hit together. I’ve found that I can’t just set aside some particular time and write then. I need the time and the ideas, the feeling, the words. When I try to force words out, the result is very obvious (and not in a good way). On the other hand, the muse sometimes seems to chose the worst possible times to tap my shoulder and start whispering to me. At times like that I just try to juggle writing and whatever else needs to be done, writing in bursts of a few minutes, jumping up to deal with things, then getting a few more lines in before getting up to deal with something else.
My Navy experience actually helps with that. I was taught how to focus on something while also remaining aware of everything else around me. I can be writing, locked into my fictional world, and still know when something is happening that I need to react to, even if that something is the proverbial “why haven’t I heard the kids for the last few minutes? What are they doing?”
Some of my best ideas come when I’m not writing. When I am exercising, taking a shower, or doing something else unrelated to writing I may get inspiration for a new story or for a scene in something I’m already writing. For me, the down time is just as important for story writing as the time spent in front of a keyboard.
Did you always plan on telling the story of The Lost Fleet from the other side of the war or was The Lost Stars something that came to you as you were writing The Lost Fleet?
The Lost Stars evolved from the story in The Lost Fleet. As the enemy took on more details, more faces, the inevitable questions arose. Why are these people fighting? Why are they supporting a government that doesn’t care about them? What have they been taught to believe? Saying “they’re evil” isn’t really an answer. Even truly evil people justify their actions somehow, and one of the lessons of history is that people who aren’t evil can fight to the death for causes that seem to have no virtue at all. As The Lost Fleet went on, readers asked for more about the Syndics, and I started to fill in the blanks for them. I also realized that a story told from the perspective of one or more Syndics, especially in the aftermath of the war with the Alliance, could be interesting. When someone has been taught to believe in nothing but a system which has obviously failed, what do they do next? When empires crumble, everyone has to make choices. Midway Star System offered me a good place to tell that story and intertwine it with the ongoing story of Geary and his fleet.
One other motivation in writing The Lost Stars was to offer me something else to write about in The Lost Fleet universe. I’ve been following Black Jack and his friends for a while. Readers want to see more of that, but there’s a real danger of those stories becoming stale if I burned out on writing about the same people. The people in The Lost Stars are very different from those in the Alliance. Everything they do is more Byzantine, more wrapped in maneuvering against each other and mistrusting each other. That’s the society the leaders of the Syndicate Worlds created in order to keep potential opponents from uniting, but now some of those people have to work together or die. And, of course, there’s a lot of fighting, but in The Lost Stars there’s a lot more ground action, and the space actions involve a lot fewer ships as the remnants of the Syndic mobile forces battle each other.
Some (including myself) compared, or at least feel some resonance, to The Lost Fleet and the re-imagined “Battlestar Galactica.” Was this intentional, or do you think that you and the creators of BSG are drawing from the same pool of myth and themes?
It was not intentional, though the timing of when the TV series and book series came out makes it look so. Dauntless had already been written and accepted by the publisher, and I was working on Fearless, when the new “Battlestar Galactica” came out. So we must have been drawing on some of those same general concepts. Of course, there are some significant differences between The Lost Fleet and the new “Battlestar Galactica” and I think those differences grew over the span of the two series. (Not that I wouldn’t mind having Lucy Lawless show up in a film adaptation of The Lost Fleet.)
The myths and themes involved have endured for a reason, I believe. They are ideas and concepts that resonate with many people. I deliberate invoked the “sleeping hero who will return someday” legend because it is so universal, and because I couldn’t help wondering how the real people behind such stories would feel if they could awaken and discover who they were now believed to be. The idea of a long, desperate fight is also an old one. How does it end? And I have long been fascinated by the question of the impact of individuals on the course of history. How much difference could one person make against the vast forces of social, political and economic inertia? But in the past certain people have made differences by their decisions, and I wanted to show one such individual all-too aware of his own fallibility as well as the power he held to alter the course of events.
In that respect, I believe that the new “Battlestar Galactica” and The Lost Fleet went in different directions. To my perspective,“Battlestar Galactica” evolved into a storyline where no one knew who they were or what they were really doing, and ultimately their efforts could not change a course of events in which the only “solution” was to hit a reset button on human history. The Lost Fleet took the position that while great uncertainties and challenges face us all, it is possible to change the course of events and win even when victory seems impossible. And that doing the right thing may not guarantee success, but it is still important.
Have you ever been approached to write in an already established universe/franchise, for example, “Star Trek,” “Star Wars” etc.? Would you want to play in an established sandbox?
I haven’t yet received any offers like that, though part of the basic concept behind The Lost Fleet came from talking with a writer in the “Star Trek”universe. That writer was trying to figure out whether a “long retreat in space” scenario would work in “Star Trek”. It wouldn’t, because of the way “Star Trek” handles faster-than-light travel and other issues, but that got me wondering whether any long retreat in space scenario could work. Eventually that became part of The Lost Fleet.
The most difficult part of playing in an established sandbox is that the rules of play may well be extremely detailed in ways that become extremely confining. Or the rules may have evolved in ways that clash with my own ideas of how to tell a story, or of how the established universe was originally created. For example, there doesn’t seem any doubt to me that when “Star Trek” was originally created Star Fleet was intended to be a military organization. They had military ranks, military authority, weapons, and if anyone was charged with wrong-doing they were tried at a court-martial (by definition a “court-martial” is a military court). But in the decades since there has been a strong trend to civilianize Star Fleet and downplay any military aspects. I would have trouble working within those parameters because I don’t think they make sense and I believe they clash with the intent of the creator of the series.
“Star Trek” did play an indirect role in the creation of my second series, though (the Sinclair/JAG in space series). A major SF/Fantasy convention included a panel to discuss court-martialing James T. Kirk for his many and varied violations of rules, regulations and directives (especially that annoying Prime Directive). Since one of my additional duties aboard a destroyer had been to serve as ship’s legal officer, I was included on the panel and was able to point out all the military legal grounds by which Kirk could have got off without being charged or convicted. That led to my publisher suggesting I write a military SF legal series, which is what became the Sinclair/JAG in space books.
With the mythic feel you’ve injected into The Lost Fleet do you see yourself ever turning your pen to fantasy or is Military SF where you’ll be spending the forseeable future?
I have done a few fantasy stories. “Highland Reel” was recently accepted for the upcoming anthology Rip Off! edited by Gardner Dozois. “Mightier Than the Sword” was in the anthology Turn the Other Chick, and I’ve done a variety of short fiction in other magazines, especially Analog. Many of those stories have involved time travel of one sort of another, like my last story in Analog (“Betty Knox and Dictionary Jones in the Mystery of the Missing Teenage Anachronisms”).
I also have a series ready to go that I call “steampunk with dragons.” The Dragons of Dorcastle is SF, but with a fantasy feel in many ways. That series let me play with horse cavalry, steam locomotives, sailing ships and (yes) dragons. I just need a publisher to snap it up. One of the odd things in that respect is that I believe that readers are interested in seeing different things from a writer they enjoy, but publishers tend to want an author to keep doing the same thing that worked last time. I just need to convince a publisher that I really do know what I’m doing when it comes to writing stories.
You offered a quote to Myke Cole’s spectacular debut novel Shadow OPS: Control Point and Myke has said “The Lost Fleet series is the best military science fiction I’ve ever read, hands-down,” what authors older and newer do you think are doing it ‘right’ in Military SF, as well as the genre in general?
Myke Cole is one those authors, of course. He knows what he’s writing about and does it really well. Another who writes from experience is David Sherman of Starfist fame. Joe Haldeman has to be mentioned, as do Elizabeth Moon and Tanya Huff. Mike Shepherd and William Dietz also write entertaining stories in the genre, as of course does Taylor Anderson with his Destroyermen series.
I enjoy a lot of different writers such as Connie Willis, C.J.Cherryh, L.A. Meyer and Jack McDevitt, and have been renewing my acquaintance with earlier writers as I read their books to my kids. Andre Norton, Roger Zelazny, Leigh Brackett, Robert Heinlein, H. Beam Piper, Poul Anderson, and of course Edgar Rice Burroughs. ERB is a fascinating writer to come back to. He ignores or breaks rules right and left, and somehow you don’t care because the story is just carrying you along.
Obviously, your military background helped to inform you writing, how long have you been a fan of SF?
The first SF book I read was when I was in fourth grade and spotted The Mastermind of Mars in the school library. Edgar Rice Burroughs claimed another victim, though it took me a while to run down the rest of the Barsoom books.
I read a lot more history over the next few years than I did SF, though. I really got into SF in high school, and continued that through college and into the Navy. When you’re deployed, there is a lot of time to read and I took advantage of that. I like most SF, though I think critics undervalue the importance of sub-genres like military SF and Space Opera which are the meat-and-potatoes of SF. Maybe it’s not literary Art, but people like to read it.
While serving, did you find other fans/readers of science fiction in the Navy?
Sailors (and other military personnel) tend to be big readers. You’re away from home, on a ship or on a base, and even with movies and other diversions (like war) there can still be a lot of time on your hands when you’re not working. In particular, when you’re putting in very long hours (we used to joke on my ship that when we’d put in twelve hours straight that we’d only had to work a half-day) the need to escape into a book during down time is stronger than ever. The old limitations used to be that you could only haul so many books along with you, so that by the mid-point of a deployment everybody was reading everything anyone else had brought so they’d have something to read. Nowadays, with ebooks, you can bring a lot more books along with you.
One of the most gratifying experiences I have is when someone who has been deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan or elsewhere in the world tells me my works have helped them get through the time away from home and deal with the stresses they face. I know how important that is, so it means a lot to know I’ve helped some of the men and women out there. And I consider it important for those men and women to portray the military experience as realistically as I can, especially in this time when a much smaller proportion of the population is serving.
2012 Rob H. Bedford