Tag Archives: John G. Hemry

The Lost Fleet: Dauntless, Jack Campbell (John G. Hemry)

<em class="BookTitle">The Lost Fleet: Dauntless</em>, Jack Campbell (John G. Hemry)

Ace, 2006, 293 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 978-0-441-01418-7

It’s an uncontroversial assertion to say that an author’s name is a more reliable marker for satisfaction than a genre label, which is why savvy readers are advised to take a look at “Jack Campbell”’s The Lost Fleet: Dauntless and flip over to the copyright page, which blandly attributes the book to “John G. Hemry writing as Jack Campbell”

Hemry, of course, is the writer of the well-regarded “Paul Sinclair / JAG in Space” tetralogy. While the series obviously didn’t sell all that well (hence explaining the transparent name change), it was above-average military Science Fiction with an appealing protagonist and strong moral underpinnings that informed the content of the fiction. Those are the very same qualities that help make this first volume of The Lost Fleet series so engaging, even for those who don’t have any particular affection for military SF.

The premise has its own kick of interest: A hundred years after being cryogenically frozen following an military engagement between two splinters of humanity, Captain John “Black Jack” Geary is revived to find out that the war is still going on, and that he’s been placed in charge of a fleet far away from home. The enemy is closing in; his own troops are demoralized and his reserves are running low. That’s the first chapter.

Trying to learn as quickly as he can, Geary meets his first fans (who love the long-lost legend more than the real man), makes a few enemies and manages a few fancy military maneuvers. Then things get worse.

Unfrozen out of his time, Geary quickly realizes that some things have changed dramatically in a hundred years. His own side isn’t quite as honorable as it used to be, and the constant toll of fighting has lowered strategic standards. Some of his early victories depend on tactical knowledge forgotten during the intervening century; others depend on a willingness to take the decisions that everyone else wants to avoid. But even then, a substantial number of officers under his command think that they can do much better than a quasi-mythic war hero…

The first volume in a series with five volumes as of spring 2009, Dauntless is about setting up a rich framework for adventure. So there are plenty of expected and not-so-expected hints and portents: Geary’s mythical reputation; warring power blocks; the war’s history; hints of a third force; a quest to get back home; and Geary’s own doubts are all put on the table in this first entry. It remains to be seen whether they can sustain the series until the end, or keep it humming until it changes shape. It’s not a baseless concern: If there’s one lasting criticism about Hemry’s previous “Paul Sinclair” books, it’s that they all had the same structure, and that one book was a reliable guide to all the others.

But at the same time, “Campbell”’s prose style is just as readable as Hemry’s, which can make the difference between reading a single book and committing to an entire series. It helps that Hemry doesn’t write the kind of military SF that most people picture when they think about the subgenre. Here, the emphasis is placed on the burden of being part of a military unit, not on the glory of combat: Geary is acutely conscious that every battle means death for someone, and that his forces aren’t strong enough to sustain the kind of spectacular battle that is the staple of the sub-genre. Oh, there’s clever combat all right –but the interest of the series is just as strong in matters of logistics and politics than it is when the weapons start firing.

And that, in itself, is a good indicator of Hemry’s writing skill —no matter which name he uses on the cover. We’ll see how many volumes The Lost Fleet sustains, but if previous indicators are a reliable guide to future performance, it will be -at worst- a really entertaining series.

[June 2009: The Lost Fleet: Fearless indeed keeps things moving in the right direction.  The stakes are raised with unexpected new characters, defections, a romance and stronger suggestions of alien interference.  There are also a few more space battles, although they don’t overshadow the series’ more interesting issues about leadership and cooperation.  The prose style is a jolly good read, and the series manages to hit a sweet spot between shoot-em-up military action and more thoughtful resource-management problems.  The growing sophistication of the characters is a hallmark of addictive fiction.  In short; this is one series that’s doing everything right so far.]

[May 2010: It took six volumes, but The Lost Fleet: Victorious finally wraps things up.  The conclusion is satisfying, but the series has spent a long time doing nothing before revving into gear in the last volumes and a half.  What could have been a satisfying trilogy has become a badly-paced series.  Good characters, satisfying emphasis on the burden of leadership, but take out some scissors and snip away at the middle third of the series, because it almost overstays its welcome. There’s a reason why I haven’t even mentioned tomes 3-5.]

Burden of Proof, John G. Hemry

Ace, 2004, 293 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-441-01147-0

I really enjoy being surprised by some books, and Burden of Proof is an unusual kind of surprise: A book that shouldn’t work, but does so far better than anyone could suspect. Who could expect such an enjoyable book from a surprise-free plot, a blandly heroic protagonist, superfluous SF elements and a exposition-heavy prose style?

The lineage of the novel might have been a clue. John G. Hemry’s Burden of Proof is, after all, the second book in a series after the satisfying A Just Determination, which did similar wonders with just about the same elements. Together, the series charts the career of Paul Sinclair, junior commissioned officer in a 2100-era United States space navy. As Sinclair is tasked with shipboard judiciary duties, you can see how the series has the feel of a hybrid between legal drama, military procedural fiction and nuts-n-bolts science fiction. A number of on-line references to this series call it “JAG in space”, and while I’m not sure it’s the series’ official title, it certainly fits the plot.

The first book succeeded despite a number of elements that should have worked against it. Its earnest prose style and likable characters did much to shore up the clumsiness of some passages and the predictable nature of the plot. Those flaws and qualities are also in Burden of Proof, where they’re joined by another growing problem: self-conscious repetition.

Because structurally, A Just Determination and Burden of Proof are like twin brothers. Both see Sinclair as he progresses through the ranks, assists a captain’s mast session, witness an incident and volunteers for unpleasant court martial duties. The events are different (the accidental shooting of civilians in the first book; a shipboard accident in the second), but the formula stays the same. Even the characters comment that it’s just bad luck to be involved in two court martial procedures in such a short amount of time.

And through it all, the tone also remains the same. Hemry is not interested in juiced-up Hollywood drama, daredevil characters or extraordinary threats. His series is about people doing their jobs, and doing their best to operate within the system. Paul Sinclair tries really hard to follow the rules; it’s just bad luck that people around him can’t seem to do the same. There is a basic verisimilitude to this series that is comforting no matter how pedestrian it seems: who needs alien invasions, doomsday weapons and vast space battles when a court martial for gross dereliction of duty can be so thrilling? I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: This series should reach far more than the usual military-SF crowd in how it portrays military personnel as real people faced with real problems. Even more so here than in A Just Determination, the enemy that most directly threatens Sinclair is not another country, but the incompetents on his own ship.

Take away the almost-useless SF window-dressing, and you’ve got a tale that could be published as straight-up military fiction. The “space navy” is the sugar pill required to sell this book to SF audiences, but it holds together surprisingly well without it. Whether it’s an advantage or not is still unclear to me at this point, but I can certainly testify that the book as a whole is utterly pleasant to read regardless of genre. Despite the linear plot, the cheap twists (including an investigating officer with a huge conflict of interest) and the repeated overuse of Sinclair’s internal monologue, Burden of Proof is a smooth piece of fiction. Far smoother than anyone would expect given all of the elements running against it. And yet, despite my growing conviction that this series is going to run its concept into the ground, I’m on board for at least the next two volumes in the series.

We’ll see if the trend continues, or even improves.

[September 2007: I wasn’t so fond of Rule of Evidence, the third volume in the series, which really seemed to recycle everything all over again to little effect. Once again, the lack of basic monitoring equipment puts all characters in trouble, and good old Paul Sinclair has to rescue the situation. It’s still very readable, but the ritualized plot structure starts to grate.]

[October 2007: Interestingly enough, the fourth volume, Against all Enemies, is a neat wrap-up to this first phase of Paul Sinclair’s career as he leaves the USS Michaelson at the end of his tour of duty. The plot isn’t necessarily less of a formula, but there’s a real sense of growth and evolution here, in addition to the series’ usual strengths. There may or may not be any further volumes in the series (sales will determine that), but any fifth volume will likely be very different from the first four. In the meantime, the series as a whole is an interesting hybrid of legal/military/SF thriller, and it’s worth a look even given the third-volume ennui.]

A Just Determination, John G. Hemry

Ace, 2003, 259 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-441-01052-0

In this cheery twenty-first century where everyone’s interests are being thrown in a swirling melting pot, it may be not be a surprise to find authors attempting unusual genre combinations. Military Science-Fiction has long been a staple, but what about judicial military SF? In this first volume in the “JAG in Space” series, John G. Hemry ends up writing an unambitious, but remarkably enjoyable hybrid of three flavours that, all things considered, go well together.

A Just Determination begins in 2099, just as newly-minted Ensign Paul Sinclair steps upon the USS Michaelson, a warship (“Long Endurance Cruiser”) protecting U.S. interests in space. As you would expect from the first book in a military SF series, the narrative first dedicates itself to the introduction of the characters, from protagonist Sinclair himself, to the chain of command above him and the other members of the Michaelson. There are a lot of characters, so the time it takes to introduce them all isn’t insignificant. It takes chapters before the action properly starts, but that’s not a big problem: Hemry’s clear prose is readable enough, and Sinclair’s early trials in space are the kind of stuff that will quickly charm readers.

But the emphasis of the series is different from that of most military SF novel. This “Novel of Universal Law” is far more interested in the mechanics of a military spaceship than in big action scenes or cheap political points. Hemry is a career military officer, and it shows: His depiction of military minds and protocols is surprisingly engaging, and should appeal to readers of all political orientations. As Sinclair learns how to do his job (which includes an unwelcome judiciary dimension, as he’s designated the ship’s lone legal officer) and as the minutia of shipboard life is explained, it feels as if we’re given a tour of life in the military.

It’s no accident if the Science Fiction angle ends up being the weakest of A Just Determination‘s blending of genres. The USS Michaelson is very obviously a United States warship, which not only provides a solid grounding for readers, but also enables Hemry to use established US naval traditions and procedures as a given for his action. You could easily take the bones of this novel and re-cast them in a current-day technothriller without unduly harming it.

On the other hand, the military and legal aspects of the novel are non-removable, especially when the main plot of the novel kicks in: During patrol, the Michaelson ends up firing on an unarmed research vessel from “the other side”. The captain of the ship is soon slated for a court-martial, leaving Sinclair to contemplate whether this is a fair trial, or a simple scapegoating exercise. Despite his personal dislike of the man, will Sinclair be able to do his duty and speak the truth?

If that sounds like a dull and low-stakes plot, you’re not entirely mistaken: A Just Determination is not a novel of intricate twists and sudden revelations. The events unfold evenly, at an expected pace that will shock no one. This is a procedural novel, maybe even a didactic one: Hemry’s goal seems to be to explain why military procedures are the way they are, and find where personal responsibility lies in the grey areas where no one is a hero or a villain. Readers used to more high-octane action may balk, but they’re going themselves a disservice: Hemry’s first “JAG in Space” volume is a compulsively readable, even charming piece of pure military fiction. The characters are well handled, the prose is clean and the procedural approach to military justice leads to some terrific courtroom sequences.

While it’s true that some characters are too quickly sketched, or that Sinclair’s internal narration is often too one-the-nose, this has little impact of the novel’s overall effect. A Just Determination‘s simple plot allows Hemry to focus his message and wrap it up in a judicious amount of characterization. Readers who think they’ve given up on military fiction may want to take a look at this one: above-average verisimilitude is a welcome breath of fresh air after far too many alien-shoot’em-up tripe. Though I started the series with only the first two volumes in hand, I quickly went out and purchased the third and fourth volumes. Stay tuned for the next adventures of Paul Sinclair, military lawyer in spaaace!