Interview with Jack Campbell

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 launching The 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…(questions in bold, answers in unformatted font)

Lost Fleet

 

 

How would you describe, in TV Guide format, The Lost Fleet (both the original series and the sequel series Beyond the Frontier) and Black Jack Geary, the hero of the series?

Well, let’s see.

Black Jack Geary thinks he’s just a typical officer in the Alliance Fleet, until he reawakens from a century in survival sleep and discovers that everyone in his future think he’s the greatest hero who ever lived.  Moreover, they expect him to save them as well as end the war which has raged for a hundred years.

The Lost Fleet.  A mighty fleet of warships, the last hope of the Alliance to end a century of war, is trapped in an enemy star system far from home and facing overwhelming odds.  Can a legendary hero, back from the dead, live up to the myths that have grown around him and save them all?

Beyond the Frontier.  He ended the endless war, but now Black Jack Geary finds himself mistrusted by the government and ordered on a dangerous mission to learn more about the first intelligent alien species ever discovered by humanity.  Can he and the fleet under his command survive their mission and help hold together an Alliance that is fraying at the seams?

 

When you first started writing the Lost Fleet novels, how differently did you approach this series compared to Stark’s War and your JAG in Space series?

Both the Stark and the Sinclair/JAG books were set in the not-far-off future, with the latter series set only a century ahead of now.  The action in Stark had been ground fighting, while that in the Sinclair/JAG books was focused on a Cold War sort of situation in this solar system with few spaceships on each side.

For The Lost Fleet I decided to tackle the classic space opera format with fleets of spaceships and faster-than-light travel in the distant future.

But I wanted to do it differently than the usual treatments.  I wanted it to make sense, to be real.  In that respect, I approached The Lost Fleet in the same way I did the Stark and Sinclair/JAG books.  If this was really happening, what type of tech would justify it, what sort of tactics would develop, how would it all work?  How would a long war impact the military and civilians on both sides? How would the technological and political limitations everyone faced drive what they did?  How do I realistically portray the military in the book, not in a comic book way but as the military really is?

Another difference was in the main character.  Stark and Sinclair are both characters of relatively junior rank who find themselves confronting personal decisions on right and wrong.  In Stark’s case, that leads to a decision to avert disaster, but in Sinclair’s case the decisions reflect the realities we all face that we could go either way and not change the world but nonetheless change who we are and who we want to be.

Finally, both of the earlier series were directly inspired by my own experiences.  I wrote Stark after a tour at the Pentagon, so that series is a reaction to some of the worst things I saw there.  The Sinclair books draw heavily on my own time in the Navy, with many characters and experiences based on those I encountered during my time as a junior officer.  But when it came to The Lost Fleet, I had never been responsible for command of a fleet, or the fate of billions, so I had to extrapolate those kinds of things from what I had done.

“Black Jack” Geary, on the other hand, finds himself thrust into a position of huge responsibility whether he wants it or not.  He has to choose to do his best, but from the start everyone expects miracles of him.  He has to live up to that hero worship, to be better than everyone expects and better than he thinks he can be, while not succumbing to the temptations that such hero worship throws in his path.  In short, Stark and Sinclair find themselves growing into heroic roles as a result of their decisions, while Geary is thrust into a heroic role and must fulfill it.

Of course, as noted above, the scale of action is much greater in The Lost Fleet.  Stark’s actions decide the fate of a colony and a country, and Sinclair’s actions may not resonate far outside his own ship, whereas Geary has a fleet and a vast interstellar Alliance depending on him not screwing up.

Has the success (bestsellers in paperback, promotion to Hardcover with continued sales) of The Lost Fleet changed your approach in any way?

I don’t think it has.  I’m still about telling a good story, and not talking down to my readers.  That is, I work in some pretty complex things like the three-dimensional space battles with real-world limitations on light speed and relativistic effects because I think people were tired of seeing two-dimensional fights in space in which space itself didn’t play much of a role.  I want my characters to be real, and I want them to be true to themselves.  That is, I have a plot which forces choices upon them, but what they do when faced with such choices is consistent with who they are.  Someone doesn’t suddenly do something totally out of character just because the plot wants that to happen.

Beyond the Frontier: DreadnaughtThe one aspect of The Lost Fleet that did alter was the length of the story.  The original series was set as six books, and I made sure to have a cl

ean ending at the finish of Victorious.  But there was a great deal of interest in more stories about the characters in The Lost Fleet.  That required me to carry on the story with new challenges and situations which realistically grew out of the original six books.  Fortunately, there were plenty of loose ends to work with (as is the case in real life, where stories never just end).  I used those loose ends for the Beyond the Frontier continuation of The Lost Fleet, exploring new issues (and regions of space).  In particular, I was able to explore the concept of alien species.  I didn’t want non-human intelligences that acted and thought like humans.  The aliens have to have what are to them good reasons for what they do, even if their actions seem irrational to humans.  One of the parts of Dreadnaught and now Invincible that I really enjoy is dealing with the different alien species and their different ways of thinking and seeing the universe.

I was also able to add-on the Lost Stars series, telling about events from the point of view of some of the Syndic enemies.  This was another thing a lot of readers had asked for. The Lost Stars lets me show more about Syndicate society and how it impacted those living under that system, and how they view things in some cases very differently than people from the Alliance do.  Tarnished Knight is set in the Midway Star System and has a storyline that actually interweaves with those in Dreadnaught and Invincible.

I guess you could say the success of The Lost Fleet has allowed me to expand The Lost Fleet universe.

Between the characters of Ethan Stark and John “Black Jack” Geary, you’ve focused a great deal of your narrative on the idea of a Hero.  What informed your idea of what a Hero should be?

I suppose the answer to that has three parts.

Like many people, my first conceptions of what a hero is came from reading and studying history.  Of course, heroes from the past come in many shapes and sizes.  When I was a kid, I found myself repeatedly getting disillusioned by the flaws in historic heroes.  It took a while for me to realize that the flaws did not always diminish a hero.  The flaws could instead greatly enhance that person, for they meant that a very human person had managed to overcome their flaws.  In some cases, the more you learn about someone the more amazing they are, flaws and all.  George Washington, for example, or Joan of Arc.  These were people who vastly exceeded any standards expected of them and did great things for others.

The second factor was working with a wide variety of people and seeing, first-hand, how leaders addressed challenges in the real world.  The good leaders showed me examples of doing what was right, while the bad leaders gave me way too many examples of how not to do things.  Both were important in  forming my image of how someone ought to react.  It’s not a matter of being perfect, but of being aware of imperfections and trying to overcome them while supporting those who work for you.  That sort of thing shouldn’t require heroism, but standing up for the right thing and for your people requires many small acts of putting yourself on the line.  Everyone knows how rare are leaders who will do that consistently.

Finally, there was the personal experience of facing tough situations and hard decisions.  I was far from perfect in such matters, but my own failures and (occasional) right decisions gave me personal insight into the pressures faced by those who have to make decisions, who are responsible for others.  There are always multiple choices.  Those choices may all be bad, but they need to be faced.  What price are you really willing to pay for what’s right?  And what if you’re actually wrong?

I have read studies such as Joseph Campbell’s books, of course, and concepts like the Hero’s Journey are important.  But I think for me, personally, the three parts I laid out above are what formed my concept of who a hero is.  Not someone who wants to be a hero, not someone thinking of themselves, but someone who does the best they can and somehow overcomes mental, moral and physical challenges that should by all reasonable expectations have defeated them.

 

How well do you think Stark and Geary would get along with each other?

I think when they met there would be a mutual sizing-up.  Stark would be wondering whether Geary would try to micromanage his subordinates to death, and happy to discover that in fact Geary believes in giving someone a job and then letting them do it (though he is tempted at times to step in even though he knows it would probably be a mistake).  Geary would be wondering whether Stark was too much a loose cannon, someone so certain he knew what was right that he wouldn’t follow orders when they were given.StarksWar

Their situations in the books are very different.  Stark has been fighting for a long time, against both external enemies and a military system that distrusts its own people and seems to seek disaster.  He has developed a pattern of working against the system in order to survive, protect those he is responsible for, and win. Geary is (at the start of Dauntless) fairly inexperienced at actual combat (he’s only fought one real battle, though he’s done a lot of training).  He is the product of a system which was not perfect, but far less politicized than the one he encounters when assuming command of the fleet.

The greatest things they have in common are professionalism and respect for those who serve them.  Both are not about personal gain or glory, but about doing what needs to be done.  Both are aware of their own limitations and the ways in which they need the support of those who work for them.  I think they would see that in each other.  Both know they have to send people to face death, but both are acutely aware of the costs of their decisions and never make them lightly or for self-serving reasons.  When all was said and done, I think they would make a good team, sort of a Grant and Sherman situation.

 

When I initially reviewed Lost Fleet: Dauntless, I pondered the name switch. What made you adopt Jack Campbell as your pen name, aside from the AI software overlords who control book selling and distribution? (I thought perhaps homage to Joseph Campbell since your stories focus on a Heroic Ideal, while commenters suggested legendary editor John Campbell).

I do admire both Joseph Campbell and John Campbell, but the source of Jack Campbell was a bit closer to home.  Part of my ancestry is Scottish, specifically Campbell, so that’s where the last name came from.  I knew it would resonate in the field as well having a family connection.  Jack is the name of my father and the name of my eldest son, so that’s a dual tribute.  I don’t mind at all the implied tributes to Joseph Campbell and John W. Campbell which are a bonus of sorts.  But the name Jack Campbell comes mostly from my own ancestry and family, which I guess is sort of appropriate given the importance of ancestors to the people in The Lost Fleet.

Thus ends the first part of this interview

2012 Rob H. Bedford

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