Monday 30 May 2011

Book Review | The Lost Fleet: Dauntless by Jack Campbell

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The Alliance has been fighting the Syndic for a century-and losing badly. Now its fleet is crippled and stranded in enemy territory. Their only hope is Captain John "Black Jack" Geary - a man who's emerged from a century-long hibernation to find he has been heroically idealized beyond belief.

Now, he must live up to his own legend...


It's military science-fiction, Jim, but not as we know it!

Wait, no, scratch that. The Lost Fleet: Dauntless - book the first of a series of six and still counting - is military science-fiction exactly as we know it. And that's no slight, in itself... though Jack Campbell's genre debut certainly has its drawbacks. There's a [certain] carelessness to the prose, a sense of redundancy about some of the action, and characterisation is simplistic throughout; the ingredients of a terrible tale, all told. Yet Dauntless is actually pretty decent. Somehow or other, the author - which is to say the pseudonym of retired Naval officer John G. Hemry - hurls all those things in a pot, and comes up with roses. Space-posies.

Speaking of flowers... what thoroughly masculine science-fantasy this is. This is thin ice to tread upon, I understand, but at the risk of mildly slighting the ladies among us - I mean you no harm! - let me take a moment to clarify that assertion: Dauntless is about conquest, survival, and the glory of sacrifice. It's Starship Troopers the first-person shooter, the book, with little in the way of ornamentation. There are explosive space battles, nail-biting near-misses. Imagine Battlestar Galactica without the bleeding heart. And though of course there will be exceptions, that, I think, is rather the preserve of geeky dudes.

Of which I am one - reporting for duty, Sir, and proud as punch to serve! I began the first novel of The Lost Fleet with no expectations at all, and came away in much the same state, albeit having had a flurry of an evening with Captain John Geary and his crew, who find themselves fleeing en masse through the universe carrying a key that could mean the end of a centuries-old intergalactic war. They are "a fleet decimated in battle and trapped, facing overwhelmingly superior numbers," (p.21) and pursued at every turn by relentless Syndic forces who will stop at nothing to show Geary's battered ships a good time by way of their grapeshot cannons.

Thematically, Dauntless is concerned with heroism; with what it means to be a hero, above all else. Everyone seems to think John Geary is a hero, for instance - long thought dead after a glorious space battle which went down in history, but in truth only sleeping (in stasis on an emergent shuttle). That is to say, everyone... except John Geary. When he's rudely awakened to find his reputation preceding him a hundred years after his last command, the century having passed by in the blink of an eye, "Black Jack" - so-called - cannot believe himself equal to the legend the books have him as. An early loss - of one of his own descendants, no less - shows him the true measure of heroism, and Geary finds himself sorely lacking.

All of which makes for a fairly diverting conflict: a character arc that, though predictable, grants Dauntless a modicum of import where otherwise it would go in want.

Anyway, when you get right down to it, Dauntless has precious few aspirations in that regard. It's a bit of military SF fluff for the boys, a harmless escapade of the old guard perfectly content to putter about in its own modest corner of the genre. If I were to recommend you read the first book of The Lost Fleet, it would be with all that in mind...

...but then, we all have our guilty pleasures. And I dare say The Lost Fleet might now number among mine. Dauntless is quick, competent, and utterly undemanding: you'll know if it's for you within a few sentences, and if it's not, well, so what?


The Lost Fleet: Dauntless
by Jack Campbell

UK Publication: February 2011, Titan Books
US Publication: June 2006, Ace Books

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  1. "Dauntless is about conquest, survival, and the glory of sacrifice."

    It's lucky you warned me. I shall remove this book from my TBR pile immediately, and stick to books about shopping and friendship and true love.

    In all seriousness, you really think only geeky guys like military sf? What, geeky girls don't exist?

  2. I don't think niall was saying that at all. The Lost Fleet is just silly military SF with little interest in women as anything other than objects. I wouldn't recommend it to anyone, woman or man, but whatever.

  3. No! Geeky girls totally exist! But I fear The Lost Fleet will worry even such wondrous creatures.

    Pretty much what Anonymous said except, well, I enjoyed it. Almost despite myself - hence the guilty pleasure bit. As I said, you'll know if it's for you - irrespective of your gender, I should perhaps stress - within a few pages. So there's that.

    Oh, and space battles. And 'splosions. :)

  4. I think you do the author a disservice. It's not just a "silly military SF with little interest in women as anything as objects".

    It is a "silly" military SF, and it treats all its cast members as soldiers - because, well they are soldiers. As the story and all the other side characters are developed further on, the female characters are also consequently fleshed out. Similar to the Malazan books, the author portrays that how in a military in which physical prowess is not key - there wouldn't be much differentiation between sexes.

    This approach is not really new; Honor Harrington and the Vorkosigan saga have a similar "desexualization" in the depicted military. To leap from that to "objectification" of women is a tad sophomoric.

  5. Are you speaking to the later books in The Lost Fleet, axe? No spoilers - I might just read them eventually - but if that's the case, if the characterisation improves enough that there are folks prepared to mount a defence of it, then all the better.

    I wouldn't go half so far as anonymous does, anyway - though I'll say I did find much of Dauntless a bit single-minded, and that mind very little concerned with such questions of accessibility.

    But onwards! To Fearless, even...

  6. Really liked your review, Nial!

    Where's the harm in saying this one book's more for the boys, anyway? I think that's fair enough. Not the whole genre, but Dauntless - sure. And who'd disagree with someone saying some chicklit novel was aimed at the ladies?

  7. Ummmnn... Only just started reading this book and am enjoying it despite Geary's tendency to go on and on about his feelings when he really should be parking them for a more suitable moment - compartmentalise, man! And you say this is masculine sci-fi...

    From a girly girl who finds your view on gender to be rather hilarious.