Friday Reads: The Lost Fleet

lost fleetI picked up the first of THE LOST FLEET series at Eastercon in 2012. I’d seen the books around for a bit, but for some reason I wanted to read something that was pulpy and fun and my good friend Sam Enthoven recommended it to me. So I bought the first one from, I think, the Forbidden Planet stall and started that evening.

That was about eighteen months ago. Since then I’ve read 11 books in the series, which I think means I quite like it. I’m not entirely sure why, to be honest – the books are flawed in many ways, but I keep on going back to them. He’s now one of the few authors I actually go and buy on day of release. I may need some sort of intervention.

The books tell the story of Captain John ‘Black Jack’ Geary, a starship captain who was involved in the first battle between the Alliance (his guys, seem pretty cool) and the Syndics (capitalism gone mad). These two branches of humanity have been niggling at each other for years over their borders, but all-out war was thought to be unlikely. Whoops. Geary’s ship valiantly repels the first invasion, but is destroyed – and Geary’s escape pod malfunctions, cryogenically freezing him and then heading off into deep space, untracked.

A hundred years later, he is found and, luckily for the series, woken up. The war has raged for all of that time. Now the Alliance has sent its biggest fleet to a meeting with the Syndics, a meeting which will end the war, and on the way they come across the escape pod.. In the intervening years, the legend of Black Jack has become the greatest myth of the Alliance – he is venerated, a war hero, the greatest of them. His descendants struggle with the fame of his name, and every member of the Alliance fleet worships his memory. Obviously, they’re hugely pleased to have him back (although some are a bit suspicious). This is quite awkward, as a hundred years of constant war means that the Alliance he once knew has gone, to be replaced by a fleet of badly-constructed ships – if the chances are they’ll be blown up, why bother building them to last? – crewed by young incompetents (why bother training?) and commanded by hidebound officers (this is how we do it, no questions, even though we’re doing it wrong). Honour is all, so ships will break out of formation to try and score more hits on their enemies, even if it means death for them and anyone nearby. They think nothing of bombing civilians and killing prisoners. They don’t even know how to salute properly. Frankly, it’s a mess.

Obviously the meeting is a trap. The top brass are all killed, and Geary – thanks to his length of service! – takes command, and does some cool tactics which means large parts of the fleet manage to escape. He puts some noses out of joint, though, because he doesn’t do it the right way, never mind that he saves the ships. Now, trapped far from their home territory, bearing news of the betrayal, the remnants of the fleet must head home through enemy space. Will Geary be able to teach them how to love again? No, wait, sorry. Will Geary be able to forge them into a proper fighting force, make it across the star systems and defeat the Syndics? Find out over the next six books!

Then there are two spin off series, currently running. One follows Black jack as he heads off into space (again!) to find aliens, and one follows the rulers of a Syndic world, coping with the new world (universe?) order. They’re both pretty fun as well, although I think there’s a risk of overkill. The trouble is – well, not trouble exactly, the thing is, Campbell believes that every book is someone’s first, even 10 books into a series. I’m sure he’s right. It’s laudable to remain as open as possible. But what that means is that I have now read pretty much the same explanation of space battles and lightspeed and the set-up of the Alliance and how Geary was recovered eleven times. I’ve given up on those bits, I just skip right over them and get back to the action. So in that sense it’s not a problem, but it is unusual and a bit jarring.

But oh, the action. Campbell’s prose is solid, his characters a little clichéd at times (although his main three or four are very well-drawn), his plotting a bit stretched out (like I said, it takes six books for Geary to get the fleet home) but what he can really do is write space battles. They seem quite realistic to me – no lasers zapping through endless miles of space, no FTL drives, no FTL comms – and that gives them an edge, a feeling of tension and kinetic power. Plus he’s more than willing to throw ships and characters into the fire, so – apart from Geary – you never really know who’s going to make it through alive.

The books aren’t great literature, but they’re fun, different, easy-to-read and enjoyable. There’s an enjoyable moral greyness to them, as the Alliance are greeted with as much horror by Geary as their enemies. There isn’t much more one can ask for from a series, really. If you’re after a bit of escapism and a fun series to work your way through, this might be it. Dauntless is the first.