I’m pleased to welcome Jack Campbell, author of the The Lost Fleet series, here to Peter Hodges.com for a short chat about his fiction, his personal philosophy, and the craft of writing science fiction. If you’re interested in a short biography and a complete bibliography, please visit his Web site.
We’ll start today with questions directly related to the The Lost Fleet and move toward the other items on next Friday, March 7. As always, comments are encouraged!
If someone has never heard of you, why would they/should they read your books?
I’m a storyteller. My books are meant to entertain and maybe make the reader think a bit. But they’re also realistic, with real-seeming characters dealing with the sorts of situations readers can easily imagine facing themselves.
Military science fiction is a crowded field. How would you differentiate your work from others in the marketplace? What makes your approach to story/character unique?
I suppose one difference is what one fan told me, that he couldn’t tell my politics from my books. I’m also very much writing what I know, the actual challenges and strains of military life, the people you encounter up and down the chain of command (good and bad), the way equipment never works as advertised, the bonds that keep people fighting when every instinct tells them to run, how it feels when everything you can possibly do couldn’t save someone. I’m not the only writer who takes logistics into account, but I think building in real-world considerations keeps the story real.
How has your career in the Navy influenced your characterization of “Black Jack” Geary?
Geary is an officer dropped into the ultimate “opportunity to excel.” One of the secrets to writing is to be mean to your characters, and I gave Geary the worse possible situation I could imagine from my own experience. Yet he also benefits from the confidence of people whom he respects, and I’ve seen that can make a tremendous difference in anyone’s ability to do their job.
In your experience, do you find it valuable for a commanding officer to cultivate the traits Captain Geary shows? Is Geary your “ideal” commander?
In many ways Geary is my ideal commander. He’s a pro, he knows his stuff, but he also knows what he doesn’t know and isn’t afraid to seek advice or sanity checks. A commander needs a lot of self-confidence, but has to balance that with an understanding that he or she isn’t any more perfect than anyone else. (Initially, when he’s still shell-shocked from what has happened to him and is trying to learn how the fleet works ‘today’, Geary is less assertive at times. But part of that is because he’s taking the time to learn how the system works instead of flying in and immediately carpet-bombing everything and everybody.) Geary evaluates his subordinates based on their capabilities, tries not to act on negative reactions to personalities, allows debate, but always makes it clear who’s in charge. Like any other commander, he’s operating within a system that constrains his ability to act, so he has to figure out how to do things right despite that. He also has to avoid the temptation to do things just because he can, since that’s a big step down the slippery slope.
The science of space naval combat at relativistic speeds is portrayed in a unique (to my knowledge, you may have other influences) way. Is this your own brainchild, or did you commit a substantial amount of time to researching this aspect of your fiction?
I’ve done a lot of studying of physics, but the amount of realism in the Lost Fleet books is due to a challenge posed by my writing group. When I read the first drafts to them those engineers and physicists and just plain demanding readers wanted to know how it worked. They’d seen hand-waving and magic technology in a lot of other stories and wanted to know if I could mesh in real physics and make it work. As it turned out, I could, in great part because of my professional experience with relative motion as a ship driver. I also found that building in real science forced me to create battles which didn’t cut corners. That is, the battles had to conform to real limitations on capabilities, which meant they came out feeling real.
For better or worse, “Black Jack” Geary is sometimes compared to David Weber’s Honor Harrington. Do you welcome the comparison? Is this comparison a stretch?
Weber’s series is very openly based on the Napoleonic wars, with Harrington a stand-in for Nelson. I based the Lost Fleet series on Xenophon’s March of the 10,000 and on the many legends of sleeping heroes who would someday awaken to save their people (and doubtless be very unhappy with what those people expected of them). I also tried to make the military environment universal, rather than based on the Royal Navy in particular (though I did happily plunder the list of Royal Navy warships for names in the Alliance fleet). In the sense of having leaders who grow into their responsibilities, the
comparison between the series could be valid, but mainly I think the comparison is in the sense of characters and stories which the audience finds engaging. How could I complain about that?
More to come from Jack Campbell next Friday, March 7!