John Geary, the character in whose head the story takes place, is the heroic survivor of an ancient space battle. Having stayed behind to make sure his companions could escape, and he then was frozen in a space pod for a century. He has been rescued just before the book begins. As the book progresses, he learns more and more how different he is from the space navy of his generation’s descendants. One of the great things about this book is that while it recognizes technological progress, it does not assume cultural or intellectual progress. In fact, the main problem the lead character has to deal with is the degeneration of discipline and the toll that this takes on implementing more sophisticated strategy and better tactics.
The book opens after a huge military blunder that strands Geary’s people’s fleet deep in enemy territory. Negotiations result in the treasonous death of the fleet’s admiral, who’s last act, the first sequence of the book, is to anoint Geary his heir. Geary is a legend of distorted enormity, he is senior to anyone living, and, reluctantly dutiful, takes command. He has to rescue his stranded fleet by running, fighting at opportune moments, and making sure weapons and provisions are somehow scavenged along the way.
The book is structured around three encounters with the enemy, and these are the high points of Jack Campbell’s action. Around these encounters the readers gets the revelations of the challenges, the decisions Geary is faced with, and the problems of leadership that are the author’s main concern. Geary faces a military that runs on pride, impulsive courage and aggression, rather than honor, discipline and intelligent strategy. He also faces a fiercely independent set of subordinates who (1) believe he is a legend and not a man, (2) fight on impulse rather than reflection, and (3) whose ability to follow orders needs to be coaxed, negotiated and corrected.
The strength of the book is in demonstrating how much honor counts, how discipline and careful, wise leadership are important, and why the old should be in charge of the young. In fact, it is a strange and refreshingly old school approach to science fiction that Jack Campbell gives us. It is appreciated because there are no pornographic interludes, no pathology of ideology, and it is strange because the swearing is strictly limited to the words ‘damn’, ‘hell’ and ‘ancestors’. Ancestors? Geary has some kind of American Indian cloaking device for his belief in transcendence, afterlife, prayer and guidance.
We are approaching the weaknesses of this book. A science fiction book with religion? Yes, but it is very thin. It is more sneaked in than really present, and that is a disappointment. Also, the swearing is unconvincing. So who cares that it is? Isn’t it good that there is so little you almost don’t mention it? These things have to be judged by their effects, because that is how everything in art is judged. The effect is also unconvincing, and that is more dire (in terms of poesis) than indicting him for having a foul mouth. If you are going to project American Naval officers and Marines on the future, watering them down is gratuitous. If you need a future in which obscenity and profanity are diminished, then you need to have a rationale for it: a prevailing galactic puritanism or some other plausible (!) explanation.
These two weaknesses are not unconnected to the great, main weakness: badly executed characters. We live in the head of John Geary to the point of getting explanations of confusing action supplied by internal monologue. The effect is preposterous. It is obvious that Campbell is telling because showing has not worked. It is the opposite of a good story— especially since it is done at the height of the action. People don’t calmly offer detailed explanations in clear, complete sentence dialogue with themselves in moments of intense stress. Not believably, not without irony, at least. His characters are weak because his story-telling is badly executed.
My conclusion is that Campbell has a good strategy and bad tactics. If strategy is the overall thinking and positioning, the overall plot and aims, then that is well done. If tactics is how that is carried out in the details, that is where he fails. The devil is in the details, alas! Of course, this is only the first novel, though I do not believe it is his very first altogether. He’s written many more. So I’m interested, and I hope his tactics improve. I do like his strategy.
I went to Barnes & Noble to look at James S. A. Corey’s new book, Persepolis Rising. I read only a chapter. I was engrossed. It was so much better in terms of storytelling. Much more compelling, much superior at guiding the reader, immediately creating suspense, immediacy through crucial and careful detail, everything. The character whose point of view was assumed was a homosexual sociopath who is disappointed because he can’t inject himself with some untested molecule that will turn him into superman. It was amazing! It was, alas, much better than Campbell’s honorable, upstanding captain. Not because Campbell’s person cannot be interesting, but because Corey’s persons are so much more deftly handled. The guys behind Corey are much more masters of their craft than Campbell.