Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Lost Fleet: Dauntless

The quick and dirty: 
Rating: 4 stars
Length: Slim and snappy (293 pages)
Publication: June 27, 2006 from Ace Books
Premise: The Alliance has been at war with the Syndics for nearly a century, and their desperate mission is turning into a failure when they find Black Jack Geary, a legendary war hero who they thought had died, in a frozen survival pod. His temporary command of the fleet during negotiations becomes permanent when the discussions go south, much to his dismay. Tired and worn, John Geary faces threats from the Syndics, from his own fleet, and from the gaps in his own knowledge about how and why the war has spiraled in the way it has. He has to try to get the fleet back home without dying on the way...and find out how to live up the reputation of the greatest war hero in Alliance history.
Warnings: For all the grimness, the worst this book gets is discussing concerns about killing enemy prisoners and some off-screen deaths on other spaceships.
Recommendation: If you're into science fiction, space opera, or military fiction at all, check this one out. My largest complaint was that it felt like it ended too quickly, and the rest of the series is on my list of popcorn reading. The book is intelligently written but also compact and delightfully easy to follow.

What makes this one intriguingly different: 

The text on the back suggested that this would be one of the very gung-ho sort of patriotic adventures that tend to crop up a lot in this genre; many are fairly testosterone-loaded, which can be fun regardless of gender, and they're very centered on things like duty, sacrifice, the fine tradition of your republic/alliance/kingdom/empire/federation/homeworld, and above all heroism. You tend to get a very British-influenced federation (*cough* Star Kingdom of Manticore, David Weber *cough*), one lone hero with mad creativity and a talent for finding unconventional ways out of bad situations, and a mixed bag of superiors and subordinates to be either embraced or avoided. This by no means makes the formula bad, but the fact remains that it's there and that this book very easily could have gone that route.

After all, ordinary-but-competent commander John Geary has been promoted to captain after his supposed death, frozen in carbonite hiberation for a century, elevated into the legend of Black Jack Geary, rescued, and shoved into the command chair in the Alliance's hour of need. If there was ever a situation lending itself to King Arthur sendups and Kipling speeches (sorry, David Weber, I tease out of love), this would be it, but Campbell takes the book down a different road by making Geary tired and worn. He's been pulled into a war that was barely beginning when he "died," and his weariness blends well with an Alliance that's exhausted from a century of war that it's starting to lose. Individual officers still have enthusiasm and aggression, but underneath that you can see cracks from the sheer toll of having been at war for their whole lives.

In the century since Geary's day, the war has taken its toll across the military. Some manifestations of this are predictable: the ships are made and destroyed quickly, which means that younger officers are being thrust into positions that they don't have the experience to hold. Other aspects, though, add unexpected depth to the universe. Since young officers don't have old officers to teach them, they don't pick up small traditions like salutes....or crucial skills like how to command a full fleet in battle given the delays imposed by communication and sensor input in space. Alliance military ethics have also taken a slide, to the point where worries about civilian casualties and killing prisoners have become a thing of the past. Campbell handles this well, pointing out that people never set out to be evil: the war was important, so the rules got bent once and then again until no one really though about what they were doing. The speech itself has problems, but conceptually it works: Geary isn't necessarily a better person than people in the present, but his standards were set in peacetime, when some standards of conduct were non-negotiable.

Simply put, Geary has to try to live up the reputation that sprang up after his death; he was a promising officer, and willing to die to help cover the escape of others, but he certainly wasn't known as a hero. The things that make him extraordinary in the present are the very things that made him a capable officer in the past: dedication to duty, attentiveness, a good grasp of space battle strategy, respect for the chain of command, and an ironclad commitment to honor. He has to try to resurrect those skills in his new fleet without pushing too hard and seeing himself overthrown as fleet commander, and the way he uses his own legend is really beautifully done. The Syndics are afraid of the very idea of him; many subordinates worship his reputation, but others think that the time in hibernation has dulled his edge, and he has to be brilliant without succumbing to the lure of who people think he is. Fortunately, he's uncomfortable with the hero worship, only really enjoying it when he's able to spook the enemy or break up an argument about the tradition that he represents. He also doesn't agonize over how he doesn't deserve it, which is a relief; his almost crotchety frustration with the whole business strikes exactly the right note.

That frustration works especially well when he's musing about his age and someone nearby calls on the ancestors, a common practice. Interestingly, this universe seems to be either not based on a central Earth or so far removed from it that no one ever mentions anything about it. That provides a lightness, a sense of exploring a universe that still includes humanity but isn't tangled up with Earth's history; most books feature ships named something like Churchill or Nimitz or Constitution (or Enterprise if the author wants to tweak a few noses) to play up the historical weight of the Navy in space, but this doesn't. Things are similar enough to keep things smooth, but different enough to go in unusual directions.

At any rate, this trend works especially well when it comes to religion. People don't call upon gods or saints or a universal deity; instead, they all call on their ancestors for guidance and protection, and act for those ancestors' honor. There's also a chapel-esque setup of soundproofed rooms where people can go to light candles, drawing the ancestors with brightness and heat, and then talk to those ancestors. For a marvel, it's not cheesy or tacky, not weighted down with everyone bickering about whose ancestors are the best, and not busily appropriating Asian culture with nonsense about "your cowardice shames the honor of our ancestors!" People just call on their ancestors, feeling that living up to those expectations matter, and it's quite simple and lovely. The darker side of it shows when Geary meets one of his descendants, a grand-nephew who has grown bitter about living in the shadow of a legend. Good people can break themselves striving after that reputation, and this one very nearly has.

The red pen: 

Unfortunately, this one does fall prey to some of the more common space opera problems. The most obvious is perhaps that the people who oppose Geary and fill the role of minor antagonists are altogether uninteresting; they tend to be flamingly incompetent, mean-spirited, or both. Captain Numos in particular exists to promote aggression all the time...except when it would put him in excessive danger, at which point it's a good idea to run and everything that's wrong is someone else's fault. He tries to undermine Geary at every turn, presumably because he wants to be charge instead or go straight home, and that would be fine if he ever expressed approval of anything Geary did or was even competent, a problem that plagues everyone in this cast of minor antagonists.

At one point Numos disobeys direct orders in battle for the chance to do more shooting, miscalculates and thus gets to do less shooting, and then calls Geary on a fleet-wide circuit to complain about how he wasn't getting to be active enough in the battle. It's mind-bogglingly stupid, and the man has no ability to pose a serious threat to Geary's leadership. He's there to whine and reinforce how great Geary is, and that's all the more disappointing given how interesting a principled opponent with good alternative plans could be. Captain Faresa, Numo's sidekick, is essentially more of the same, but her spitefulness tends to manifest less as actual action and more as snide comments during conferences. We also meet an officer who decides that he would need a month to say whether a basic supply-gathering course of action is a possibility, and this while he knows that they're being chased by an entire fleet and desperately need more supplies. Even after all the talk about how the old officers in this fleet are the ones who know how to avoid dangerous situations, that level of abject failure is unrealistic.

The closest we get to a good opponent is Co-President Victoria Rione of the Calla Republic. She has some negotiating power because she controls the ships from those parts of space that are allied with the Alliance but not formally part of it, and if Geary acts--in her estimation--too rashly, then she can and will remove those ships from his command to increase their chances of survival. Alone among the fleet members, she doesn't buy into the legends of Black Jack Geary. His other opponents think essentially that the legends are true but that the man inhabiting them is a shadow of his former self, and that they could do a better job living up to his real spirit. Rione, on the other hand, thinks that Geary is nothing more or less than a man who might be able to do a good job but is far more likely to get everyone killed by living up to that very legend. He certainly has opportunities to launch risky attacks that would improve fleet morale if they succeeded, and she's concerned about the toll that would take.

This is actually a really great dynamic....the first three or so times they have that conversation. After that, it degenerates into him explaining his plans and past and actual wishes over and over while we learn no new information and nothing changes. She does eventually make the point that if the fleet returns with him at the helm then he'll have a dangerous amount of political capital, but that isn't really explored and it's the only new thing in their interactions. Scenes on the bridge and in private indicate that she's slowly coming to trust his judgment, but every time he has the chance to do a risky thing it's as though someone pushed a reset button on the whole affair; the repetition gets dull.

Beyond those characterization issues, the only real problem is the way that Campbell occasionally ends up on the wrong side of the showing/telling line when he's discussing emotions. We see many of quiet and subtle moments, a lot of good inspirational speeches, and then the awful sentences that just sit there looking awkward. They don't come in huge clumps, which is fortunate. But really, look at sentiments like this: "Perhaps, in his own way, he had been shying away from dealing with what happened to Repulse, but by openly stating his feelings to others, he'd come to accept it somewhat." Now look at it again, this time bearing in mind that he just spent a couple pages praying and feeling better and that we already know all this from how the conversation went, and tell me that you need large doses of that sort of thing to be annoyed. It's ham-fisted therapy talk, and snipping that one sentence would have improved the scene immeasurably. The same tends to go for the rest; something happens, people react, things are painfully overstated, and then we move on to a better paragraph.

All in all, this is space opera at its grim best, pulling out honor and nobility amid a bad situation without ever forgetting how bad the situation really is. People are at war and dying in a mess of forgotten tradition and their friends' blood, and somehow they find hope....even if the source of that hope doesn't believe a word of it. You could do much worse than this one, and I whipped through it in barely two days; it's speedy and light in all the best ways.

Prospects: The series ended with The Lost Fleet: Victorious in 2010, but Campbell has two spinoff series planned. 

Enjoyed this? Try: 
~Mutineers' Moon by David Weber. It's the first in his Dahak series, which takes "that's no moon!" to new and glorious levels. It shares the same sense of an ordinary man being pulled into a long-running conflict, but it's based on near-contemporary Earth rather than a potential future.

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