Military science-fiction is a genre that I enjoy when it’s written well. I love intricate strategies and tactical based battles when I read from this specific genre. It has been very difficult to find books that fit this concept, so I have avoided military SF for quite a long time. Yet, a couple months ago I came across a massive book sale where Dauntless written by Jack Campbell caught my eye. After checking out the synopsis, and a few online reviews, I figured, “Why the hell not?” The fact that it only cost me about four to five dollars also really helped nudge me towards a purchase.
Best fucking decision I’ve made all season.
Dauntless is the first book in a six-instalment series called The Lost Fleet. Approximately one-hundred years ago, a war hero known as Captain John “Black Jack” Geary was presumed dead after fighting a great battle in the far reaches of space, deep in Syndic territory. When the Alliance Fleet discovers his body in a state of cryogenic sleep, shock and awe flow through the fleet. People who have been in a prolonged war, on the edge of despair, finally have some semblance of hope. Then in the wake of a terrible tragedy, Black Jack Geary is assigned as commander of the Alliance Fleet, and the fate of the Alliance is drastically altered. Will Geary be enough to help the Alliance defeat their long-time nemesis, The Syndicates?
First impression upon reading the first ten pages: “Holy shit, this is written really well!” The entire novel takes place from Geary’s perspective, which sets the tone for everything that is to come. It’s very personal and candid. All of the internal strife that the newly appointed Commander is feeling is laid out before the reader, unhindered and completely exposed. This immediately created a connection between me and Geary. Most of the time, I believed I was reading from a personal collection of journal entries, that’s how private the raw nature of his contemplations felt. I also the loved first-person exploration of the many psychological facets that Geary struggles with upon learning that every person he has ever known or cared for is dead, as well as how he adjusts to realising the military traditions and values he’s so familiar with are devastatingly different.
When you are so completely comfortable with a very specific set of rules, practises, and customs, it can be overwhelming to adapt to changes, particularly if you weren’t around to witness the evolution of culture that led to all of the changes. It can feel like you’re stepping into a whole other dimension. It’s alien and foreign, causing horrible anxiety and panic. Witnessing this with a person who is tasked with protecting the fate of humanity was stressful, but so fucking stupefying at the same time. There were moments in the novel where I didn’t think Geary would last much longer, or that he would have a terrible breakdown. Shit, I almost had a couple myself just empathising with his situation.
I’ve read books where I can feel for the characters’ plights, and most of the time I can imagine their negative feelings rather superbly, but this was the first time in a long time where I was taking on qualities of anxiety and panic attacks, where my claustrophobia and fear of the future (as well as the past) began to mimic the main character’s. That level of escapism, that ingrained sense of atmosphere building, was bloody brilliant.
Another supremely fascinating part of the novel consists of the many situations where it examines morals and ethics in a time of war, as well as its intense effects on the human psyche. Protracted eras of fighting is unhealthy, not only economically and politically speaking, but also individualistically. Most people are not built or prepared to be creatures of constant bloodshed. When faced with immense violence that is never-ending, it can really fuck a person up. This is wonderfully depicted in Battle Royale, and it’s superbly depicted here in Dauntless, just on a different scale. When all you see at the end of your barrel is the same enemy, you lose your ability to feel any kind of empathy for them. It’s an auto-pilot response to kill them on sight because to some degree you hold them responsible for all of the despair and death.
Dauntless does a great job of illustrating this to the reader, specifically using combat and close-encounters to do so. Geary is a man who believes in the honour of war: you don’t kill people who are unharmed, or folks who have no choice but to follow orders. They are people first and foremost. The conflict of his ideals and the new “shoot the enemy no matter what” notion arise a lot. It’s remarkably thought-provoking, and (for me at least) perfectly allegorical to current world events.
Science-fiction that can be related to reality in a visceral means is the best sort of science-fiction. The stories that get deep inside of your brains and make you think about all kinds of different things, outside of those specific narratives: it’s why I bloody love this genre.
Aside from all of the psychological elements of the novel, the most important parts of military SF are the battles! They are fantastic. The tactics that Geary brings to the table are ridiculously different than what the modern-Alliance folks are used to. Most of the them have difficulties entrusting their lives to the strange nature of what Geary commands. It causes interesting discord between the captains of individual fleets, and plays out in unexpected ways when the fighting starts to ensue. You have people who listen to him, without question. Then you have the rebels who do what they personally feel is the best course of action. The encounters are methodical and rely heavily on classic military strategies that have been used in actual fighting during both World Wars as well as a few wars in the Eastern parts of the world. Because they are inspired from pre-existing campaigns, the added galactic touches, along with lots of technical sciencey babbles, complement their believability rather nicely.
If there is anything to complain about in Dauntless, it would have to be the slow pacing of it. The fastidious prose can make it a bit difficult to get absorbed into the book, at least initially. But once things are positioned appropriately, its fluid and the sluggish nature becomes barely noticeable. Since the book is intense, I believe the gradual unfolding of the plot helps build and maintain suspense, really cranks up the anxiety, however, I may be alone with that belief.
All in all, Dauntless is a very promising start to what I hope becomes a mighty fine military science-fiction series. I have very high hopes for it, and I’m superbly interested in seeing how our Commander Geary will fare as the war with the Syndicates continues onwards.
4.5 torpedoes outta 5!