Jack Campbell,
The Lost Fleet: Dauntless
(Ace, 2006)

Far into the future, humanity has spread out into space and colonized many worlds. Humanity has also split into two groups: The Syndicate Worlds ("Syndics") and The Alliance Worlds ("Alliance"). Neither group has encountered other intelligent species. The two groups of human colonies have evolved very different belief systems and political structures, but they have been able to maintain an uneasy peace and some civilized trade arrangements.

That was, until Grendel. In the Grendel system, a convoy of Alliance cargo ships, with armed escorts, was attacked by a Syndic fleet.

Thus began the Alliance-Syndic War, with both sides so large and widely dispersed, that a conclusive end to the war would be hard to achieve. As to the attacked Alliance cargo convoy, most escaped, mainly because of the legendary Last Stand of Black Jack Geary, the commander of one of the armed Alliance escorts, who stayed behind and died, allowing almost everyone else to escape. Thus did Black Jack Geary step into the history books and inspire generations to come to fight with stubborn ferocity.

One hundred years later, a seemingly unwinnable war rages on. Finally, the Alliance gets a break, as a Syndic traitor gives the Alliance access to the Syndic "hypernet," a way to jump straight into Syndic space. An Alliance fleet is amassed, and jumps -- straight into a trap, and the Alliance military leaders are all killed off.

Oh, I forgot to mention one little thing: on the way to the big invasion, the Alliance fleet picks up an ancient escape pod, carrying none other than Commander John "Black Jack" Geary, who has drifted in hibernation, or "cold sleep," for a century. Geary is revived and suddenly finds himself, by dint of seniority, fleet commander.

This is an amazing piece of military science fiction writing, with a protagonist who is remarkable and memorable. Can "Black Jack" possibly live up to the legend that has grown out of the Grendel Incident? Can he lead the badly damaged fleet back to Alliance territory? He is a century out-of-date regarding technical and historical knowledge, but he also remembers many things related to military tactics, to beliefs and values, that everyone else around him never even heard of. He remembers what peace was like, and he remembers honor.

It would have been easy for the author let Geary be a larger-than-life hero. If Jack Campbell had done that, this book would likely have been a somewhat-above-average military space adventure. Campbell, instead, wrote Geary as a real person, with flaws, strengths, doubts, skills and deficits. Black Jack does not enjoy his newfound fame; he is not even sure that he is glad that he survived that century of cold-sleep. But, he is dedicated to doing his best for the fleet, and helping them both to survive and reclaim their sense of honor.

Some of Black Jack's speeches to the ships' captains under him, and to the fleet as a whole, are things that our modern world leaders occasionally need to hear, especially in these days of the War on Terror.

Campbell writes well. Period. The book flows well, with an excellent mix of action and philosophical debate. The characters are very interesting people, and not just the remarkable protagonist. Many of the ships' captains, good and bad, are interesting supporting characters.

Campbell also tackles some science issues that are oft forgotten in science fiction novels. When ships are traveling at one-tenth to one-third the speed of light, there would be realistic effects that would create distortions in tracking them, viewing them and hitting them with weaponry. And, when two fleets engage in a battle that spans the length and width of an entire solar system, there would be issues with communications (i.e., noticeable delays between sending a message and it being received) and in viewing (i.e., when you look across a system, what you see is not what is happening, but what happened eight or more minutes ago). Many authors ignore these factors as frustrating complications. Campbell builds them right into the warp and weft of his story.

Overall, this is just a plain good read, with memorable characters and scenes, and a writing style that is aimed at people who like to think and ponder while enjoying the action.

Bravo! I can't wait for The Lost Fleet: Fearless, which is scheduled for release in 2007.

by Chris McCallister
19 August 2006

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