Apr 282009

The Lost Fleet is one of those rare pieces of science fiction actually concerned with real world physics, and the limitations and realities such natural laws put on travel and combat in outer space.  It seems the consensus among authors that things such as silence in outer-space and realistic travel times between two points in space is boring and therefore ignored, sacrificed on the altar of entertainment.

Time for a detailed (if nerdy) example:  Consider, in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, the Millennium Falcon is able to travel from the asteroid field in the Hoth system to Bespin without taking on any supplies. (Supported by the logic that anywhere they could get supplies they could likely get help or parts to fix the hyperdrive) If we assume that Bespin was very close indeed astrologically speaking it would still have to be at least a parsec or two away, meaning no less than 6 light years, conservatively.  Even if the trip took a whole year (which it couldn’t have as there is less than a year between the battle of Hoth and the battle of Endor, according to official timelines) the ship is still traveling 6 times the speed of light  Think about that.  That’s from here to the sun in less than 90 seconds.  And that’s at their ‘sub-light’ speed.

The ships of the Lost Fleet do posses FTL technology, however, it’s travel within the system that defines Jack Campbell’s take on the genre, as the FTL only works between star systems and not within them.  His is a world where ships spend weeks and months traversing star systems at less than three tenths of light speed, relativistic speeds attained only by massive expenditures of fuel accelerating and decelerating.  Not only that but the principle that objects in motion stay in motion actually applies, so once they reach that speed the only thrust needed is for maneuvering and course changes.  Of course this renders all ‘dog-fighting’ out, as two objects approaching each other at even .10 light speed pass by each other in a minute fraction of a second, meaning the firing pass is over even as the crew is registering the ship firing.  Interestingly enough this isn’t too far from how real naval/aerial combat happens now.  Dog-fighting largely ended with WWII.  With missiles and other weapons accurate some times more than 100 miles away many if not most fights are over even before one vessel can see the other. (Helicopters being one notable exception) There are advantages to fighting as such high velocities as well.  Computers capable of targeting objects moving at .2 light speed have no problem at all with targeting fixed objects (space stations and such) or objects on a planet whose velocity it known from half a system away.  At such speeds even a solid slug (Rocks to the Marines, the official acronym of the projectile if BFR) can do devastating damage to anything it hits.

Why all this attention to the physics of space flight?  Star Wars’ appeal certainly isn’t harmed any by its inaccuracies and impossibilities, (and if the problem I pointed out above really bothers you, you might just love the series a tad too much) so why does it matter here?  It matters because this isn’t a space opera, its military sci-fi.  Campbell himself is a former naval officer, intimately familiar with real-world methods and traditions of our modern military.  This is a series as much concerned with the maneuvers and feints, the tactics and strategies of combat as the outcome.  Sure Star Wars has moving battles, but no one would argue they measure up against the campaigns of Alexander the Great or Napoleon, the Battle of Agincourt or Thermopylae.  Make no mistake, the Lost Fleet delivers riveting battles with brilliant tactics as well as a genuine feeling of realism in the military decorum and tradition.  There is even a fair smattering of humor, for example the ongoing ‘joke’ of the slow and unwieldy nature of the ‘fast fleet auxiliaries’ tasked with repair and manufacturing ammunition and fuel cells, and again the odd relationship between Naval officers, Marines, and Engineers, each group bewildered by the others seemingly insane mindset.

As satisfying as the technical side of the series is, it would be nothing without an engaging story.  As the tale opens the two immense human governments (sentient aliens never having been encountered) have been at war for an entire century.  One hundred years of total war, devastating both sides to the point that ships rarely survive five years (and remember, just getting from point A to B takes weeks, even months) and officers are young and poorly trained.  The bulk of the Alliance fleet has been drawn into a trap in the Syndic capital system, given a ‘key’ to use the Syndic hypernet gate system by a supposed traitor.  Worse than the fleets decimation is the loss of the entire flag staff. (All the senior captains and all the admirals) Their only hope, trapped so far behind enemy lines, is Captain ‘Black Jack’ Geary, a legendary hero thought killed in the very first battle of the war, found by the fleet in a damaged life pod as it headed towards ambush.

Interwoven with the desperate flight to simply get the fleet home Captain Geary also must deal with the deterioration of military discipline and knowledge after so long fighting, as well as war crimes committed by both sides in the increasingly hate driven conflict.  Even being a hero becomes a problem, as people who have spent their entire lives looking up to ‘Black Jack’ Geary must come to terms with the reality of a man far removed from legend.  Some accept him for who he is, others who they think he is.  Some however reject him, a hidden group of dissent from within the ranks more dangerous to Geary than the entire Syndic fleet.

Each book in the series has successfully built on the tension and conflict of the series, as problems mount for a fleet with increasingly less options and fewer ships even as they get nearer to Alliance space. Book five, Relentless, comes out tomorrow, promising more tantalizing battles and greater risks as the fleet nears its objective. (The author has been quoted as saying that while he has no plans for the series to end soon, this portion of the tale will end with book six)

I can’t recommend this series highly enough for any fan of science fiction or military narrative, fiction or not.  The Lost Fleet will not disappoint.

[tags]The Lost Fleet, Jack Campbell, Military Science Fiction, Science Fiction[/tags]


I'm a Trekker, a Brown-coat, a bibliophile, a Star Wars nut. Fantasy, Sci-Fi, Steampunk, mythology, anime, noir, detective stories it doesn't matter. I'm into pen and paper rpgs, console and pc games, board games. Want to argue for hours over who would win were the Enterprise-E and a Star Destroyer fight? Sure. Want to debate the advantages of the Way of the Open Palm or the Light Side? Definitely.

  4 Responses to “Don’t Lose Out on the Lost Fleet: Military Sci-Fi at its Finest”

  1. […] Don't Lose Out on the Lost Fleet: Military Sci-Fi at its Finest … […]

  2. I haven’t seen this series, but will check them out. Thanks for the in-depth article on it.

  3. I really like the Lost Fleet Series (and if you like the hyper-realistic aspects of life in space, and you’re not put off by his focus on naval military life, you should check out his other series written under his real name — John Hemry — starting with _A Just Determination_), and it’s definitely true that Military SF tends to be more realistic, though not so much as “Hard” SF, since he really doesn’t focus on the science behind his tech, nor the social ramifications of it. The realism for Hemry/Campbell is in his approach to physics and naval supply, with a little bit of command doctrine thrown in. Other Military SF books seem to focus their realism on the particular interest of the author (authors who have been in ground forces tend to focus on ground battles, naval types like Hemry tend to go into fleet operations, etc). Anyway, I’m getting off-topic, I really just wanted to quibble minorly in that I don’t believe “BFR” is the official designation for the solid bombardment projectiles, since it likely stands for “Big Effin’ Rock” unless I have completely misread the humor of the interactions between the naval officers and their marine counter-parts! (that scene is one of the more subtle, but still has good interplay in the — paraphrased — “we could just stand off and throw big rocks at it” “You mean solid projectiles?” “Yeah, what I said, BFRs.”) Now that I think about it, BF_blank_ may be a common Marine shorthand, since it showed up in Quake, which is also about future Marines. Maybe I should do more info-gathering, hm?

  4. You might be right about the BFR bit. I remember it having the acronym BRF for the navy, the marines just substituting big f*** rock for what it really stands for, but I could be wrong. I tried to find that passage when I wrote the article, but couldn’t find it within the time constraints.
    As for his other series (Nicknamed JAG in space btw)it is very enjoyable too, though it has a very different focus than the Lost Fleet. I actually read those before discovering the Lost Fleet, starting with book two. There is a funny story in that actually. I picked up book two on a whim, enjoying it enough to go back for book one after. I was annoyed to find that my library didn’t carry book one, having sold it due to age and condition in the 25 cent book sale, but it wasn’t that big a deal as I just requested it from another branch. A couple weeks later I got around to organizing my purchases from the library -something close to two thousand books after three years working there- only to discover that the library had sold the book. To me.

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