Even before it rocketed to the New York Times bestseller list, The Lost Fleet series was hailed by critics and readers alike as some of the best new science fiction to hit the shelves. Jack Campbell has a lot going for him: strong storytelling, real-life Navy experience, and a knack for timeless epics. Plus, he’s a lot of fun to chat with. Here’s what he has to say about starship battles, the legend of Black Jack and the inspiration that drives him.
Sci Fi Bookshelf.com: The Lost Fleet series kicks off with one heck of a bang: the near-annihilation of the Alliance fleet, and the heroic efforts of Captain John “Black Jack” Geary to shake off a century-long hibernation and lead the survivors to safety. Did the inspiration for The Lost Fleet start with that moment in time, or was it more about the harrowing journey home?
Jack Campbell: The initial inspiration for The Lost Fleet actually grew out of a question posed by Susan Shwartz (another SF writer). She was writing Star Trek tie-ins at the time, and asked how a long retreat scenario would work in that universe. My answer then was you couldn’t do it because of the way Star Trek had established its rules for technology and faster-than-light travel.
But it got me to wondering how a long-retreat scenario could work among the stars. The model for long retreats is Xenophon’s March of the Ten Thousand, so I tried to imagine how that would translate with a fleet of spaceships. That was half the inspiration.
The other half came from another idea I had been thinking about for a while, the widespread myths in which an ancient hero was not dead, but only sleeping, and would someday return when most needed. King Arthur is one of the most widely known, but there are many others such as the Twelfth Imam. I had been imagining what it would be like for a such a person to actually reawaken in the future. Far from being a figure of myth, they would be a real person, and probably stunned by the legends which had grown around them.
After years of mulling over these two concepts, at some point they came together in my head, and I think they fit very well with each other. The fleet which needs a hero to get it home through great peril, and the hero who is shocked to discover what he is now believed to be and that he is now expected to save the day. The fusion of two ancient ideas made a good basis for a story.
SFB: What do you suppose makes Captain “Black Jack” Geary such a likable, all-too-human hero? Is it his constant struggle to live down his own legend, or something more?
JC: I tried to make him human in the sense of being aware of his own limitations and in being often almost overwhelmed by responsibilities that he had never asked for or expected. In much lesser ways, many of us face such situations, so it’s easy to empathize with what Geary is facing. At the same time, he sees the need to be more than he is. Unless he can achieve the sorts of things his heroic image claims he can do, then countless people will suffer. He’s smart enough to know he needs the help and advice of others, that he can’t go it alone even though ultimately the decisions he makes have to be his own. As a result, he respects those around him for what they know and as individuals in their own right.
So I think he is both accessible to readers, who can understand what he’s facing, and a character they can like because he keeps trying despite his fears and does his best to treat others right. He won’t let down those who are counting on him, even though the pressure is almost too much at times.
SFB: Can you give us a glimpse of what lies ahead for Black Jack?
JC: It’s hard to talk about what comes after VICTORIOUS without giving away what happens in VICTORIOUS. (Of course, the name VICTORIOUS does telegraph one of the plot points in that book.) His home is gone, lost in the past, so now the only home he knows is the fleet. He’s figuring out that every victory, every obstacle overcome, just leads to the next problem, and since his existence as Black Jack or his actions to solve past problems create some of the new problems, there’s no honorable way to avoid doing what he can to resolve each new problem. Fortunately, he won’t be alone.
SFB: What was it like to find out that RELENTLESS had sailed onto the New York Times bestseller list?
JC: Stunning. The success of the series built over time, so there were a number of “wow” moments. My first two series did okay, but not great, and never got past their first printings. It felt great when my agent called to say that DAUNTLESS had gone into a second printing. Then a third. FEARLESS got a second printing. COURAGEOUS went into its second printing almost as soon as it was released. I think that’s when it really sank in for me and the publisher that the series had serious legs and was continuing to build readership with each new book. VALIANT made some extended best-seller lists, so there were hopes that RELENTLESS would top that. And it did. It feels great to know that my writing, my storytelling, has been welcomed that way by readers.
SFB: How has your real-life Navy experience impacted your handling of your epic, intellectually dynamic space battles?
JC: It had a major influence. In the Navy I learned how to drive ships, getting a solid grasp for maneuvering very massive objects with tremendous momentum around each other. We were also tracking the movements of aircraft overhead and submarines beneath. That gave me an understanding of relative motion which I use to map out the movements in the battles. At times I use the old aviator trick of using my hands to visualize movements and aspects as portions of the fleet maneuver.
It was also important in terms of driving home how physical limitations constrain options. You have to plan ahead for where you want to be and when you want to be there. You need to factor in the range of weapons, and coordinate everything so that attacks don’t come in piecemeal or parts of your force are isolated from the rest. And you need to put yourself in the place of the opposition. Where could they go and where are they most likely to go?
I treat each situation, each battle, as if it were real, and I can’t just alter the composition of forces, or the arrangement of forces, or what ships could do. Once I set it up, that is what I have to deal with. That forces me to figure out how to come up with solutions that really would work rather than falling back on sudden amazing events or major on-the-fly technological breakthroughs that miraculously solve the problem. Basically, I treat the Lost Fleet universe as if it is reality, as if I’m driving those ships, and what happens has to fit that reality.
SFB: Do you have any advice for new science fiction writers today?
JC: Read and write. Read lots of things, even in areas you don’t normally like, because that’s how you get ideas for stories and how to tell them in different ways, and that’s how you learn what kinds of stories others told. Write down your own stories, too. Don’t just dream about them, write them down, and when they’re done (and you have to finish most of them so you learn how to finish stories) write some more.
There’s a website that the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America maintains called Writer Beware. It’s a great source of information on what to do if you’re a new writer, and on the many scams and frauds which can await new writers.
Write about what you know (from study or experience), and try to find those places where your own ideas and writing style meet the expectations of readers. You can’t just write for yourself, but you also have to be true to yourself.
And be prepared for rejection. Lots of rejection. Even veteran writers get shot down a lot. When you do get published whatever you wrote is fair game for anyone to comment on, and it’s pretty safe to say that some of those comments won’t be kind.
I always recommend going to SF/Fantasy conventions in your local area. That’s where you can meet and listen to local authors, maybe even meet an editor or two, get to know other aspiring authors in your area, and get some advice on writing and the publishing business. I’ve met a lot of great people at the conventions.
Oh, and speaking of conventions, this year I plan to be at Balticon in Hunt Valley, Maryland (May 28-31), Nasfic/Reconstruction in Raleigh. NC (August 5-8) and Capclave in Washington, DC (22-24 October).
SFB: Sounds great. Thank you so much for your time!
JC: Thanks for reading my work!
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