Thursday, July 31, 2014

The Lost Fleet: Dauntless

The Lost Fleet: Dauntless 

tLFD by Jack Campbell is a retired navy officer (bloody hell this is going to turn into a theme isn't it?) who turned his hand to writing Space Opera books. For those of you who don't know, Space Opera is a sub set of science fiction, focusing on dramatic adventures in space often on a grand scale.  Basically, think stuff like Star Wars (or for my truly nerdy brothers and sisters Farscape) and you're pretty much in the right ballpark. Space Opera tends towards the soft side of science fiction (soft vs hard is the scale to determine how much the story conforms to our modern understanding of physics vs how much magic pretending to be technology is in the story) but there are examples of Hard Sci-Fi Space Opera, they're just rare.

Lost Fleet isn't Hard Sci-Fi but it brings a bit of hardness to the table so to speak.  But I should actually get to the damn book right?

The Lost Fleet is about Captain John Geary, a man out of time.  See 100 years ago, the convoy he was escorting was ambushed.  Captain Geary turned and to buy the rest of the ships under his command time to escape, attacked his enemies (a rival human space power known as the Syndics) and went down fighting saving everyone else in the process.  Well, actually he survived, in a damaged escape pod that held him stasis for 100 years.  100 years where his own state The Alliance remained locked in a war to the death with the Syndicates.  Captain Geary is rescued by an Alliance fleet about to launch a crippling surprise attack on the enemy capital and end the war!  Huhhhh Expect not.  The fleet has walked into an ambush, the Admiral is dead and the last thing he did was give Captain Geary command of the fleet and ask him to get everyone home.   And that's when the story starts.

Geary soon learns that fighting the enemy is the (ridiculously) easy part.  The Alliance navy taken by surprise and starting the war on the back foot was desperate for ways to keep up morale.  They needed heroes, legends, tales to inspire and examples to follow.  So they took the missing Captain John Geary and turned him into "Black" Jack Geary, SuperCaptain!  Hero!  Demigod! Pinnacle of Virtue!  Conveniently not here to disagree with Command!  That legend would take on a life on it's own and become practically a religious belief.  A religious belief that Captain John Geary doesn't and in fact can't share.  A religious belief that haunts him and is at time his strongest asset and at others the heaviest mill stone around his neck.

Worse is the changes to his fleet in the century since his *cough* glorious charge.  The war has turned into a devouring maelstrom of combat on a scale not possible for people who only live on one planet to grasp.  As such both sides are short of everything.  Short of ships, short of training, short of experienced officers and NCOs who could fix that problem.  Basically the only things they seem to have a lot of are weapons and men and women willing to charge at the enemy no matter the odds for a slim chance of killing someone before being blown out of the void.  Geary has to convince these men and women that fighting as disciplined unit in a formation isn't some strange coward way of war but is in fact the key to victory.  He also has to do this while convincing a head of an allied state (who is also a Senator in his own state which honestly seems strange to me, this like having the Prime Minister of Holland be a US Senator) that he's not some kind of
demagogue out to win more glory on a quest for personal power.  Because his life was complicated enough simply being trapped behind enemy lines with a military unit that has turned into a professional soldiers nightmare of a how a military unit works.

Now, like I mentioned, I served 4 years in the United States Marine Corps but I'm hardly God's gift to warfare.  But even I can see the problem with the idea that the Captains of the fleet are all suppose to vote on their course of action and the majority rules (Why even have admirals anymore?).  Staff officers don't exist, the manpower needs of the war have sucked them all away to line officers positions.  No one really knows how to fight in a formation, which is harder then you might think because Campbell did decide to interject some realism here.  While FTL is a thing, all combat takes place at Slower then Light Speed because FLT combat is impossible.  Additionally there are no FTL sensors.  You have to depend on light speed sensors.  This might not sound like problem... Until you realize that in such an environment if an enemy fleet (oh for example) were to drop into orbit around Neptune... We wouldn't see the event until 4 hours later.  4 hours in which that enemy fleet is moving in an unknown direction and speed.  This makes space combat somewhat problematic. Fighting in formations that are light minutes across (Oh did I mention there are no FTL comms either?  So it might take 15 or 20 minutes for your orders to reach someone... In the middle of a shooting match.  This is hell for any officer who wants to retain direct control).  Now it's certainly possible, but it takes very specialized training to do (which makes sense) and the skill was lost given the heavy causalities of war.  In short, these people fight like Hollywood knights only they're using weapons that could vaporize entire cities.

Luckly Geary was trained before the war.

Geary is a wonderfully done character, he doubts and worries enough to seem human but resists those doubts and fears enough that you're rolling your eyes at Emo McAngst Broodypants.  He's confident and capable in his skills but victory is more a result of him being the only one with those skills.  Captain Geary is not presented as a tactical or strategic genius.  He's just a professional in an environment where no one else has had the training and education he has had.  I really like him.  Which is a good thing because the book is relentlessly in first person and the only view point we get is Geary's.  Which does help increase the uncertainly but I do wish I could have see inside some of the other character's heads.  I also like Co-President Rione, the allied head of state accompanying the fleet (which is a multi-national unit now) who is both ally and problem for Geary.  As she doesn't trust him and worries about him overthrowing the Republican government of the Alliance and installing himself as a dictator.   Rione comes off as clever and capable in her own right, a person who is against our main character but with good reason.  Which keeps this book from devolving into Geary is always right and everyone who doesn't like him is a moronic asshole (although we have plenty of those, there's always at least one in every group right?).

I do have problems with this book though.  First off, I have problems buying the idea of a industrial Total War that lasted 100 years with no long term truces or cease fires.  Even pre-industrial conflicts like the 30 years war or the famed 100 year war itself had long stretches of time (decades for the 100 year war) where both sides maintained truces and such.  That you can maintain a stalemate for a 100 years while pouring continents worth of metal and men into the fire with no break seems... Well impossible to me.  Additionally at some point you would think someone would break down and just start talking or that in a century of constant conflict to the point where there's not even enough time to fully train your officer corps, one side would seize the advantage by accident at least!  The story and the characters are good enough to carry me through that, but it still detracts from my enjoyment.

Another problem is the combat.  Which is to easy and well... Kinda slow and a bit boring.  It's very realistic given that Campbell has refused to use Star Trek style FTL comms and sensors  but it doesn't really make for pulse pounding combat.  It kinda makes me wish we could drag Myke Cole in here because the combat scenes were one part of his book that were fairly well done.  This means if you aren't interested in politics, character relationships or in John Geary... You won't like this book.  On one hand, I like Campbell's grasp of what the technology actually means on the other hand, I really wish for some actual excitement in the battle scences, which play out as Geary watching things that happened minutes to hours ago and waiting for other things to happen, while radioing in orders that most of us aren't going to really understand.  For example:

"Formation Fox Five Five, increase down angle at two zero at time three eight."

I have no clue what is being said here, other then Formation so and so, do something else in 38 minutes. Which isn't really pulse pounding is it?  All well.  Despite that I enjoyed the book very much and it is currently the best fiction book to show up in this review (I hope it doesn't hold the title long, I'd really like to see more awesome fiction show up here).

The Lost Fleet Dauntless gets a B-  A good book, but combat and the problems buying the setting are holding it down.  Still I enjoyed it enough to get the sequel Lost Fleet Fearless, which I will be reviewing next!  Breaking the fiction-non fiction pattern because you should learn to expect the unexpected.

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