Dauntless is the first in Jack Campbell’s Lost Fleet series. It’s billed as military SF, filled with epic space combat, lots of life-and death situations, honour, heroism, and so on. Given that basis, I’d say that it lives up to the billing.
The world of Dauntless is one of marvellous contrasts. There’s star-spanning governments, with opposing political philosophies; the corporate Syndics, and the more democratic Alliance. There’s not one, but two means of interstellar travel. And the ships that we see using those means are clearly the product of an advanced industrial base. But this is a humanity which, we quickly become aware, has been at war for a century. Whilst the social structures put in place in peacetime are still holding – at least those we learn about – they’re under constant pressure from the people within them, struggling to match ideals with the exigencies of war. What the author does well is present to us a universe whose military is broken. They’re the product of a century of constant warfare, and it shows.
There’s discussion of the necessity of eliminating prisoners, for example, and the desirability of bombing populated enemy planets into powder. Fleet decisions are made by committee, and the committee harbours a poisonous resentment of their enemy, and a sort of blind pride, a will to take apart the enemy at any cost.
Into this world walks Black Jack Geary, our protagonist. He’s rescued from suspended animation at the start if the novel, coming back to life a hundred years in his future – and as an officer at the start of the war, he doesn’t like what it’s become, at all. Geary is a perhaps slightly idealised version of an officer – he’s honourable, steadfast, rewards loyalty, requires discipline, and gives occasional second chances. His opponents in the fleet that he ends up commanding believe him to be dangerous, weak, or sometimes both. It’s not entirely Geary’s fault – he’s been built up as a legend during his time in hibernation, and people don’t always find what they expected and what they see in front of them matching up. This struggle with hero worship is one of the book’s better character moments. Geary is caught between needing to use individual’s view of him to get things done, and the knowledge that if he makes mistakes, that will erode the image he needs to project – he doesn’t want to be the hero of legend, but finds he has to both fill the role and find ways to adapt it, to make it work for him, rather than acting as a constraint.
There’s also some excellent exchanges between Geary and the surviving civilian representative, in a similar vein. She’s wary of accepting Geary, firstly because she suspects he’ll eventually do something in search of glory (despite his protestations to the contrary), but also because she fears what will happen if he succeeds – a hero of legend returning home with a fleet thought to have been annihilated, might be enough to overthrow a stricken government and replace them with an autocracy. It’s a clever push back by the author against the hero myth, and the sparring exchanges here were well reasoned, well written, and a thoroughly enjoyable read.
Some of the other characters don’t fare as well; they don’t really have the room they require to grow. Geary’s detractors in the fleet, for example, start off believably enough, but seem to descend into plotting against him largely out of spite. There’s a few lines around the failure to shift away from a culture that rewards aggression and has allowed lapses of discipline, but it’s not enough. I’d like to see Geary’s more fervent antagonists given a bit more room for growth – explaining and perhaps modifying their views. Instead, the antagonistic ones are also the incompetent ones – it makes for a decent read, still, as Geary struggles against these millstones around his neck, but I’d like to see a few more complex characterisations here, in line with those from the other side.
Then there’s the plot. Not to get into it in details (though it’s actually rather straightforward), but it’s reasonably paced stuff. There’s a fairly clear distinction between the combat sequences and the character pieces (as referenced above). The latter, since we’ve not mentioned them before, are very well done. The logic associated with combat at approximations of lightspeed is impeccable, and the tactics employed are both logical and dramatic. Though they sometimes felt a bit sterile, the author can certainly write a compelling combat moment, to put it mildly.
Is it worth reading? If you have a hankering for military SF, quite probably. The characters are decent enough, with the promise of more, the plot has enough impetus to keep you turning pages and the combat sequences are excellent. Certainly worth giving it a try if you’re in the mood.