By Marty Mulrooney
John Hemry is a retired United States Navy officer who writes military science fiction novels. Under the name Jack Campbell, he has written six volumes of his Lost Fleet series of books and has recently launched a new spinoff series, with another in the pipeline. AMO is therefore proud to present an exclusive online interview with New York Times best-selling author John Hemry (aka Jack Campbell)!
Hi John, thank you for your time and welcome to AMO! You are a retired US Navy officer. What made you decide to become a writer?
As far back as I can recall I have read and tried to write. I got a bit more serious about it in high school (without selling any fiction), but then life intervened. My career didn’t leave much time for writing, though I did read as much as I could. I was also having a great many experiences, meeting a lot of different sorts of people, going to many places, and learning a great deal. All of that gave me a lot to work with when the time came that I decided to try writing seriously again when I retired from the Navy.
Through all of that, a major factor in my becoming a writer was probably that I had to write. Even during all of the years when I could not get fiction written I still came up with ideas in my head. That’s no substitute for actually writing, but it was a sign that I wanted to create stories. If you feel that need, it’s hard not to write. And the Navy had given me a lot of tools. Not simply an engineering background and all of the travel, ship experience, leadership and so on, but also experience with writing professionally and editing my own work and others.
The final, and maybe most important element in the decision was my wife telling me to try it now, or I might never give it a strong effort. I listen to her much more than she thinks I do.
In what ways does your experience from serving in the Navy help you to write your books?
It would be hard to list everything I derived from my service. Characters alone would fill several books (and, in fact, have). Most of my characters aren’t drawn from any single individual (though some are) but the pieces that make up my characters usually come from those I have met. I went through a very demanding profession without screwing up too badly at any point, and gaining something with every experience. I was forced to learn more about engineering than I might have on my own, and had to deal with leadership challenges of all stripes. I’ve been told that my books convey the real feeling of the actual military, and that is surely because I have been there.
As I mentioned above, I even gained writing experience in the Navy because of reports and other things I had to write, and part of one job involved editing lots of material. Although that experience also led me to be too concise. One of the things I have had to work on in writing is to add more detail and elaboration to settings and scenes.
And of course I learned hands-on about manoeuvring very large objects around each other on the surface of the water, while also dealing with the movements of aircraft and submarines. Relative motion plays a big role in space as it does on the sea, so the ability to grasp and describe how ships move compared to each other has been very valuable.
I can’t forget the importance of learning first hand that no matter how well something has been planned, no matter how ready everyone and everything is, a lot can still go wrong (and usually will as Murphy reminds us).
Unanticipated consequences and events play a big part in life and in stories.
Why do you use the pseudonym Jack Campbell when writing your Lost Fleet series of books?
That has to do with the nature of the publishing industry. In the US, the big chain bookstores use software to decide how many copies of an author’s new book to order for their shelves. The software does this by looking at prior sales, and tends to lowball what it orders. Given this, it is very easy to end up in a sort of death spiral. The software sees the chain sold five copies of the last book, so it orders three of the next. Maybe the chain only sells those three, so the software orders just one of the book after that. The author gets to the point where the pre-orders from the bookstores are so small that the book has no chance of taking off.
I get caught in that down spiral and by the end of my second series my agent and my publisher both strongly advised that I come up with a new name. The software at the bookstores would see a “new” author and order enough copies of the next books that my series would have a decent opportunity to succeed. I came up with Jack Campbell because my father and my son are named Jack, and because my family has Campbells in our ancestry.
It worked. The Lost Fleet books have done very well, and now it seems I am
going to be writing as Jack Campbell for some time to come.
Have you always been a fan of science fiction?
Maybe not always (history has long been a favourite of mine), but I was in fourth or fifth grade when I found a copy of Edgar Rice Burrough’s The Mastermind of Mars in the school library. After that there was no going back. Then in high school I read The Lord of the Rings, and fantasy joined SF as a favourite diversion. I spent many years reading the likes of Burroughs, Andre Norton, Robert Heinlein, Poul Anderson, Lord Dunsany, Leigh Brackett and countless other writers who told tales of the fantastic.
What appeals to me in SF in particular? It’s hard to say. When I was growing up, SF was one of the fields where female characters could do a lot more than they were “allowed” to do in mainstream stories. I liked women like that. I also liked the way SF had inherited the mantle once worn by the likes of Homer’s Odyssey, telling stories of sailing to unknown places, finding strange beings, and learning about ourselves in the process. If Earth has in some ways gotten smaller as we learned more, the universe has gotten larger. There’s still plenty of room out there for learning, discovery and challenges.
People have always looked up at the stars and wondered what was out there. People have always wondered what the future might hold. SF gives us a glimpse of both.
Is there ever a danger of relying on science fiction too much when writing a fictional story? Although the Lost Fleet books are set far in the future, I still feel that they manage to maintain an impressive sense of plausibility.
In SF, and even in fantasy, there have to be rules. Things have to work in certain ways. If anything can happen, if any challenge is fairly easily overcome by use of a genie (whether that genie is tech that can do anything or a mystical being), then it’s all too simple. I read once that Mark Twain described his writing style as chasing his characters up trees and throwing rocks at them. That is what we do when we write. Make it too easy for the characters, give them simple ways to get out of the tree and dodge the rocks, and there’s not much story left.
So I always set limits on what my tech can do. You can do this, but not that. Plausible limits, based on real science and engineering, because that is what the real world is like. We can’t just cobble together a teleporter using spare household appliances when we need to get to another place right away. No, we have to figure out how to do it with what we’ve got. Maybe we’ve got a horse. Maybe we’ve got a faster-than-light spacecraft. But we have to do it with what we’ve got.
Or we have to live with not being able to do it, with the consequences of having to make painful choices.
One of the rules I stuck to in the Lost Fleet books is the light speed limit for communications and sensors. Ships can travel between stars using a couple of shortcuts (jump space and the quantum-linked hypernet), but when in normal space in a star system they are limited by light. That rule plays out in many ways in the books. It clearly emphasises the sheer scale of space by such things as it taking hours for light itself to travel between one group of ships and another. The immensity of space is a fundamental aspect of space travel, yet it is hard to show in a way humans can grasp. Say that Proxima Centauri is forty two trillion kilometres from Earth and how do you bend your mind around that number? But say that it is four point two light years away, and the distance becomes a bit more understandable while remaining huge.
Sticking to the light speed limit also made my characters’ jobs harder. They can’t just pick up the phone and talk to anyone, anywhere. Just like in the eighteenth century, information takes a while to get somewhere. Decisions have to be made based on what is known to you now, while not being able to know what is actually happening at some distant location now. By the time you see an event, it is long over.
Limitations like that don’t just reflect the reality of life as we know it, they also force characters to deal with situations that we can empathise with. And they force me to write better. I can’t just say “and now someone invents a miracle device!” I have to make it work, I have to figure out how to solve everything without recourse to any dues ex machina fixing it all. And that makes for better stories, I think.
Are there any other books, films or TV shows that you would pick out as major influences within your writing?
There’s no doubt that the original Star Trek series had a strong influence on me. Well written stories, great characters, adventure among the stars. Everything I have learned since then has only reinforced how important having three strong characters and a strong supporting cast was to the stories. The spaceship is cool, but the people are what matter.
About the same time I saw Diana Rigg as Emma Peel in The Avengers. What an amazing character. Why couldn’t more stories have women like her in it? Also a well written series, with clever ideas and great dialogue.
I liked what were called juvenile books back then. Books by the likes of Andre Norton, Robert Heinlein in the middle of his career, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Leigh Brackett and similar authors. Their styles as writers varied, but they had ideas that drove stories, and they focused on the story. Brackett went on to write much of the screenplay for The Empire Strikes Back, giving that movie the power that makes it the best of the series. Then there were later authors like Zelazny and Poul Anderson who painted with words. I think I got something from all of them.
Nowadays my primary film influences are Pixar and Studio Ghibli. Those guys know how to tell a story.
The Lost Fleet series is comprised of six novels, starting with Dauntless in 2006 and ending with Victorious in 2010. How would you describe the series to readers unfamiliar with your work?
The interstellar war between the Syndicate Worlds and the Alliance has been going on for a century, bleeding both sides to the edge of collapse. A desperate Alliance attack aimed at the Syndic home star system turns into disaster when the Alliance fleet is ambushed. Battered and trapped deep in enemy space, the fleet seems doomed, and with it any chance of Alliance survival. But on its way to the battle the Alliance fleet had found a damaged survival pod, its power nearly exhausted, containing frozen in survival sleep Captain John “Black Jack” Geary. Black Jack had fought the first battle of the war, a desperate rear-guard action, and since his supposed death had been elevated to mythical status within the Alliance.
Now Geary awakens to find he has slept for a century, everyone he once knew is dead, and those around him think he is the only one who can save them. In order to do that, in order to do what Geary believes honour and duty demand, he has overcome his doubts and to try to be the hero so many believe him to be. Overcoming repeated opponents both within and outside the fleet, and fighting battle after battle, Geary leads his ships and crews on the long voyage home as supplies run low and hope seems lost.
You have previously mentioned that The Lost Fleet was partly inspired by Xenophon’s Anabasis. What parallels do the two stories share?
In the Anabasis, a large force of Greek mercenaries ends up trapped deep in the Persian empire. Their leaders are treacherously killed, and the Greeks have to march home through every danger and obstacle between them and the sea. Xenophon’s story has endured because it’s an epic tale of human endurance and success.
About ten years ago, another writer asked if there was a way to do a “long retreat” in the Star Trek universe. I didn’t think so, because the way Star Trek handles travel a ship would either get away at once or be quickly caught. But the question got me to thinking about whether it would be possible to retell Xenophon’s story in space. SF and fantasy have done long retreats, but on the surfaces of other worlds.
I eventually figured out a way to do it that made sense, partly by combining the Xenophon story with some other historically inspired events. A fleet is trapped deep within enemy territory when it is lured into what seems to be a war-winning operation but is in fact an ambush. Desperate, the leaders of the trapped fleet try to negotiate, only to be killed. Now the fleet is leaderless and far from home. Can it be saved?
The fleet’s new leader has to overcome internal dissent, the need for more fuel and other supplies, and constant pursuit by the enemy who wants to destroy the fleet before it can escape. That’s pretty much the situation of the Greeks in Xenophon’s tale, though the “march” the Alliance has to undertake is vastly longer.
What sort of protagonist is John “Black Jack” Geary?
There are a lot of legends in human history, in many cultures, of heroes from the past who are not dead, but only sleeping, to return when their people really need them. In the West, King Arthur is the most well-known example, but there are many others. I had been thinking for a while about the fact that each of those heroes of legend must have been based on an actual human being. What would it be like if that person did return, to discover what everyone thought he or she had been? What would it be like for that person to be told that he or she was being counted on to save the day?
That where Black Jack comes in. He manages an actual heroic last stand against a surprise attack, apparently dying in the process. His government, desperate for heroes and morale boosters, turns that act and Geary himself into figures of myth.
Black Jack is a man who is all too aware of his own limitations. But if the fleet is to survive he has to do his best to be the hero they expect to save them. He is a man out of time, coming from a period of peace to join people who have been scarred by a century of brutal warfare. Fortunately for him, like a Roman general awakening in the Dark Ages, he knows how to fight in ways that have been lost in the bloodbaths of the last century of war. And in believes in a real sense of honour (in the sense of commitment to others rather than his own self) and in his duty to others.
Would you describe Geary as a reluctant hero?
Extremely reluctant! He doesn’t feel up to the task he has been given by fate and by the belief of others in him. But he does feel obligated to try his best. There is no one else he can hand the task off to, though he would love to find someone else.
His reluctance plays a role in his success. He is confident of his professional skills. He knows how to command ships. But he does not feel as if he personally is a special individual. That helps keep him from overstepping, helps keep him grounded when many people are willing to almost worship him and do whatever he commands.
Beyond the Frontier: Dreadnaught is the first novel of a new series of books starring John Geary. What made you decide to create a brand new series rather than continue with the old one?
One thing I want to avoid is retelling the same stories over and over. I also want to avoid the dreaded “endless series” that sometimes plague readers. The story arc begun in Dauntless ends in Victorious, so that offers a clean break point. But Victorious left a lot of loose ends, since life and victory are never neat. That gave me room to explore some new story arcs. Anyone who wishes to continue following Black Jack and his friends can do so.
There’s also a break in the focus of the action. The main issue throughout the first six Lost Fleet books was getting the fleet home and then striking back at the Syndics to win the war. That was done. Now there are new issues. What about the aliens? What about the shaky nature of the Alliance? What about the mess in what used to be the Syndicate Worlds? It gives a lot of room for more stories and different stories. I owe my readers something new in each book.
You are also writing another Lost Fleet spin-off series entitled The Phoenix Stars. What can you tell us about this?
Quite a few readers of the Lost Fleet expressed interest in knowing more about the Syndics. We only see them from the outside, and it is obvious from those glimpses that the Syndicate Worlds is a dictatorial state, but that it contains a variety of people and doesn’t control everything as well as it would like. At the end of Victorious, the Syndicate Worlds are unravelling, with star systems breaking away and the central government trying to maintain control of as much as possible.
The Stars series is about what happens in the Midway star system and nearby star systems while the events in Dreadnaught and its sequel Invincible are underway. It is told from the viewpoint of Syndics, in particular two of the CEOs on Midway. Gwen Iceni and Artur Drakon are cynical and hard nosed after coming up through the ranks of Syndic executives, but both are painfully aware of how badly the Syndic system has failed and both have no love for that system. Just as when Rome and other empires crumbled, local leaders have to decide whether to cling to loyalty to the old order, or try to build a new order. Iceni and Drakon don’t trust each other, but they need each other as revolts, revolutions and counterattacks by the remnants of Syndic authority roll through the star systems in their region. Drakon is a ground forces commander who clashed with his superiors, while Iceni is mostly political but has a little experience commanding Syndic warships. They are both going to need those skills.
The series also lets me show how Geary’s actions look from the other side. The Syndics have a lot of trouble figuring him out. It was an interesting change for me to write about people brought up in a corrupt system who are trying to figure out different ways of doing things.
The Stark’s War trilogy is finally being released in the UK this month! How does this series differ in content, style and tone from The Lost Fleet series of books?
Stark’s War was my first published novel. I wrote it right after retiring from the Navy, and my last active duty tour had been in the Pentagon. As a result, Stark’s War contained all of my frustration at micromanagement and politics within the military. The series is what Heinlein called an “if this goes on” story. If negative trends continue, what results? In the case of Stark’s War, a military increasingly divorced from the society it serves and trapped in stalemated war, dependent on senior enlisted because the officers have been micromanaged to death.
Stark’s War is in some ways a lot darker than the Lost Fleet. It is about people striving against a system that has been corrupted so badly that it’s about to collapse. Stark’s War is also on a lot smaller scale. In the first book, Sergeant Stark commands a single small unit of infantry. Later on, he gets a lot more responsibility and has to learn fast. Stark’s War is also set in the near future, not the far future, and takes place only on a portion of Earth’s Moon. It’s almost entirely ground action, too. But it’s about overcoming the odds, and doing what’s right, so in that respect it’s very similar to the Lost Fleet… I do still somehow believe that good people can triumph over bad systems, both by their own actions and by inspiring others.
What sort of protagonist is Sergeant Ethan Stark?
I imagined a near future military in which micromanagement and politicisation have resulted in an officer corps that is barely capable at best, with most officers focused on their own careers and any officer who tries to think and act on their own driven out of the service or marginalised. In a case like that, the only way a military could function would be if the senior enlisted were extremely competent, able to do their jobs as well as a lot of what their officers should be doing. Stark is one of those senior enlisted. He knows his job, and he gets the job done. He also has an attitude, and a willingness to do whatever it takes to look out for his troops and other soldiers. He knows how to fight the enemy and how to fight the system, and he has to do both. Ultimately, Sergeant Stark has to decide whether he can live with that system any longer, or if the system has to be changed in order to save everything.
What is next for you Mr. Hemry?
More Lost Fleet, and its spin-offs, as long as readers ask for more. My next book out will be Invincible, the sequel to Dreadnaught, then Tarnished Knight, the first book in the Lost Stars/Phoenix Stars series. My agent is also shopping around a series I describe as Steampunk with Dragons. I hope a publisher bites on it so I can get it out there, as I really like the story and the two main characters. I also hope to get another book written in the Sinclair series at some point.
Thank you for your time!