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Desjani looked intrigued, checking the orders herself. “You’re sort of tacking the old Five Five onto the bottom edge of Five Four.”
“With the Seventh Battleship Division sticking below the edge of the old Five Four?” She smiled again. “I can’t wait to see it.”
As long as we’re not talking about the likes of the literature of Holocaust denial, or of paedophilic samizdats presenting Josef Fritzl as the heroic victim of an immoral and corrupt state, then there really is no such thing as a guilty pleasure where the enjoyment of a work of fiction is concerned. We know this. Certainly there’s nothing in the slightest that’s immoral about Jack Campbell’s The Lost Fleet, an apparently never-ending series of novels concerning the attempts of “a rag-tag fugitive fleet on a lonely quest” for home, as Patrick Macgee’s opening voice-over for the first series of Battlestar Galactica used to put it. In truth, these books are marked by a deliberate and principled tone which might be thought to reflect the self-restraint of a patrician cynic and his compassionate misanthropy, and Mr Campbell’s epic seems obviously meant as a cautionary tale against the tendency of human beings to fail to heed the lessons of the past, or, indeed, those of the present day either. In that, The Lost Fleet is a profoundly conservative text in terms of the need to respect authority and retain the tested values of the past, but it’s written in such a way as to also deplore such recent examples of backsliding from the principles of Western civil society such as torture, the brutalization of civilians, and the general abandonment of respect for the human rights of supposed opponents.
Beyond the central and incorruptibly heroic character of Captain “Black Jack” Geary himself, who’s both unconvincingly irresistible to women and quite incapable of slipping up in his campaign against the dastardly Syndics, the Lost Fleet is almost exclusively peopled by thinly-drawn moral idiots. This is didactic fiction of the most well-meaning and clumsy fashion. On one side, anti-democratic and glory-obsessed ship’s Captains who’d like to see Black Jack return to Earth as their tyrant, and, on the other, anti-democratic and glory-obsessed ship’s captains who’d like to dethrone our hero because, quite frankly, he keeps winning battles while denying them their chances of individual acclaim. For the military of this far future is enraptured by an individualistic fighting ethos more in keeping with Captain Bluntschli than poor noble, sensible Captain Geary, and most everyone in The Lost Fleet is at best ethically and practically short-sighted, and, at worst, some combination of mad, corrupt, confused or stupid.
I recognise this world. If the characters are so broadly drawn as to be indistinguishable from their own ignorance, well, their ignorance is at least familiar. I’m certainly not ashamed to be consuming a product with such a world-view. And in a book that’s so obviously aimed at readers who love to lose themselves in the details of how hundreds of very big and very powerful spaceships can blow each other up, and in the context of a recognisably modern-day military structure transposed to a distant tomorrow, it’s also refreshing to note that political authority is here portrayed as being by necessity superior to that of any futuristic MacArthur’s, worthy or not.
But there’s little room that’s been made in these novels for anything but space battles and the broadest politics of the fleet, and each book’s plot is soon revealed to be an over-familiar and yet rather strangely relaxing variation upon that of its predecessors. The Lost Fleet, trapped behind the lines of the Syndics and desperate to return home after a disastrous defeat, will arrive at a new enemy star system, argue among themselves about who should be in charge, learn a new lesson about how to fight as a team under the leadership of the good and decent Captain, and then head off in the direction of another such situation. The formula is never substantially challenged, and the focus of the text never concerns itself with the lot or inner life of anyone who isn’t wearing a Captain’s uniform or carrying a politician’s brief. And, similarly, each book contains pretty much exactly the same minor notes to accompany the great and very long depictions of battle and grousing senior officers; Captain Geary indulges modestly in sex and the stiffest of philosophical debates with the perplexing and very loud Co-President Rione; Captain Geary sits in his captain’s chair and guides several hundred ships in their missions; Captain Geory gathers hints as to the existence of a secret and menacing alien race; Captain Geary attempts to convince the Syndics that their mortal enemies are jolly good chaps really; Captain Geary tries to remind his women and men about the forgotten decencies of his long-dead era; the same cards fall in almost precisely the same order every time.
There’s something about this repetition which makes the many unconvincing aspects of the future of the Lost Fleet less distracting than it might otherwise be. It’s as if the form of the books has been designed to encourage us not to linger anywhere on the page, as if pausing in our skimming would be to defeat the purpose of the text in the first place. And so, the sheer implausibility of a legendary Captain freed from a hundred year’s suspended animation who’s immediately able to command a host of spacegoing warships in a superior fashion to their own crewfolk is actually quite easy to disregard. By the time the daftness of each daft premise becomes obvious, the reader has already learned not to pay too much attention to the strangely critically-applauded “realism” of these tales. If the politics of the future appear confused, as they are with the Syndics, a North Korean-like totalitarian state with relatively autonomous and affluent corporations, or if the much-praised realism of the space battles is undermined by the presence of get-out-of-jail-free cards such as jump gates, inertial dampners and an unconvincing lack of human/AI interfaces, well, we can just skip that aspect of the story and move on to another sequence which we can, similarly and in its turn, leap-frog our way across too.
Racing dreamily through the text is a process only encouraged by the fact that little on the human scale counts for anything much in these Lost Fleet novels at all. Even the extremes of wartime experience, the maiming and murdering of thousands of crew-members of the Alliance’s ships, always occur at a celestial distance and to a spectacularly deadening degree. The focus of the books is instead always upon the smallest core of cast members, who, untouched by suffering beyond angst and safely protected in the fleet’s flagship, watch on as this cruiser and that space station are bombarded and destroyed. As a reflection of the reality of war for the elite of the officer class in a technological era, it’s a choice on Mr Campbell’s part that’s hard to argue with. But as a way of helping the reader care about these terrible events, it’s problematical, because it reduces a book about war to the status of a tale about a man watching a war progress on a desk console.
With so few characters ever interacting with Captain Geary on any level beyond the giving and taking of orders, the Lost Fleet is reduced to a great convoy of ghosts. Thinly depicted Captains are summoned up now and then for plot purposes, but they never exist beyond the brief functions which they’ve been created to serve, and the reader can so easily picture them vanishing into thin air as soon as Black Jack turns his gaze elsewhere. Mr Campbell’s writing succeeds in delivering the details of his plot, but there’s no trace of individuality and character in his prose. Entire books can pass mechanically before the reader’s eyes without the flat consistency of Mr Campbell’s prose being violated by the presence of a single purposefully memorable phrase of any sort. His is writing which is utterly endearing in the lack of authorial ambition that it displays, and for all that it might be praised for a lack of pretension, it can also be damned for its lack of any quality that isn’t connected with the orderly progression of events from A to B and back to A again.
And yet, regrettably, there are moments when careless editing has allowed certain melodramatic and pseudo-poetical lines to remain in the text, a fact which destroys the flat consistency of what’s being read as well as shocking the reader into noticing how awful the writing can in places be. It’s a truth that might be illustrated with an example from “Courageous” of President Rione’s part in a private conversation with Captain Geary;
“The ancients thought the stars were gods, John Geary. So do we, though in a very different way. But we’re not so different from the ancients, who lived but a blink of an eye ago in the sight of this universe and spent their lives trying to understand why they were here and what they were supposed to do with the gifts of their lives. I try never to forget that.”
I feel confident that we might agree that this is ferociously bad writing, grandiose, stiff and quite unbelievable even as an example of a career politician’s private conversation. (Rione would surely need the lungs of a horse to get through that third sentence without beginning to collapse for air.) But it’s so typical of the books that these moments of great meaningfulness carry little that’s essential to the plot, and so they can be left behind in search of the beginning of the next space battle. Yet, the reader is advised not to race onwards and away from the purple serious-mindedness of the conversations between Rione and Geary in particular without first scanning for any heartfelt lines worth treasuring. My favourite of these conveniently follows on directly from the quote above;
“He nodded, wondering once again at the woman inside Victoria Rione.”
If only that were an acknowledgement that the Co-President was actually sharing the inside of her body with another woman, as the genre would surely allow.
Yet if The Lost Fleet clearly doesn’t work as anything other than the most reliably wooden of genre fiction, it’s certainly a well-constructed, sincere and decent-hearted example of it. And so, the reason for my feeling somewhat ashamed of being half-way through the fourth of this seemingly never-ending re-mix of the same over-familiar elements is nothing to do the books themselves. They’re not sold as high literature, they make no claims for their own poetic virtues, and they’re not designed for anyone who’s not already seriously predisposed towards “military science fiction”. They’re respectful, populist and humane. No, my shame is directed, of course, at myself, and at the fact that I’m somewhat hesitant to admit to the business of reading my way through The Lost Fleet. As I write this, with the last of the light of a English Sunday afternoon in March slanting through the window behind me, and with a blackbird starting up its twilight song, The Lost Fleet feels as if it’s got no part in my life at all, and it’s as if reading these pedestrian epics would be a serious waste of the relatively limited book-reading time that I have left to me.
It’s not that I’ve any time for the Bloomsbury stance on what is and what isn’t art, and I no more believe under typical circumstances that what we read reflects our soul and our moral worth than I accept the premise that Jeanette Winterson shouldn’t be constantly mocked for her ignorance, arrogance and pretension. It’s just that there’s so little time and so much to get done, and it’s hard at 5.30 in the afternoon to justify a standing order for each new volume of The Lost Fleet.
But when it’s gone midnight, and as I crawl as surreptitiously as I can in beside the long-since-sleeping Splendid Wife, and with just ten minutes or so to go before I too pass out beside her, The Lost Fleet will be the most appropriate read that I can imagine. Utterly undemanding in its content, I need never worry about finding precisely where I left off the night before. It just doesn’t matter at all. Wherever I am, Black Jack will be eternally tragic, misunderstood, potent and entirely wonderful. (He’s every shy boy’s dream of sexual potency; a man who can win women without ever having to woo them through nought but his gentle soul and military prowess.) The fleet will be at terrible risk, Captain Desjani will adore Black Jack and defend his back against all-comers, the battleship captains will loathe him, the Syndics will be closing, and I’ll briefly if sleepy-headedly be a boy again. Spaceships will blink out of jump points, scanners will identify enemy targets, relativistic effects will complicate communications, and while little will make much sense to my clouding mind, the genre conventions of a dozen spaceship TV shows and a childhood spent reading little but Sci-Fi will step in to carry the sense of the story forward for me.
I have the fifth volume of The Lost Fleet waiting beside my bed and the sixth on order from Amazon too. It’s not that these books will be used to send me off to sleep, but rather that they’re good and decent and kind and undemanding companions as I decline into an unconsciousness which was already rolling towards me in the first place. And even the titles themselves might inspire the most comforting of slumbers if recited over and over again in order of publication; Dauntless, Fearless, Courageous, Valiant, Relentless, Victorious…….
Colin Smith ,