Oh Captain, My Captain: 9 Questions With Military Sci-Fi Author Jack Campbell

Jack Campbell

Jack Campbell

By Sean Tuohy

Jack Campbell is the true commander of military science fiction with his award-winning The Lost Fleet thriller series. The interstellar series follows Alliance Captain Jack Geary, who uses his knowledge and wits to command his fleet of ships through enemy space. Using his past experience as a navel officer and his love of true adventure, Campbell takes us through the inner workings of a commanding officer's mindset during edge-of-your-seat battles.

Campbell answered a few of my questions about the fleet, his characters, and the stresses of the writing craft.

Sean Tuohy: When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

Jack Campbell: I was very young, probably about 8 years old, when I first tried writing. I covered big sheets of paper with large letters, trying to tell a story about what we had done that summer. For years after that, I kept my stories in my head, but finally began writing them down again in high school. The less said of those efforts the better. Then came the Navy, which left little time for things like writing. But as I prepared to retire from the Navy, I finally started writing seriously after decades of thinking about it.

But as long as I can remember, I wanted to write stories.

ST: You were a naval officer for many years. Did this have any effect on your writing process?

JC: Perhaps not the process so much as the content and the art. I wrote a lot during my time in the service, mostly official things like assessments and analysis and reports. I learned to edit other people's work, which taught me how to edit my own. And I experienced so many different things, and met so many different people in so many different places, all of which contributed to what I could put into stories. The experiences that I gained, the things that I learned, made my writing immensely better. I also learned to stick with something until I finished it, and to try other approaches when my first attempts failed. Perhaps most importantly, I had to do and learn a lot of things that I never would have chosen to do. It's the things I learned that I wouldn't have chosen to learn that may be the most important.

ST: What led you to writing science fiction/military science fiction?

JC: My earliest reading was in things like history and juvenile biographies and mythology. One day I stumbled across The Mastermind of Mars in the school library and was amazed that someone had created a completely new history and new people and new myths in an imagined world. This was in the days when sci-fi ruled compared to fantasy, so I started reading more and more sci-fi. There were some brilliant writers, people like Andre Norton, Poul Anderson, and Leigh Brackett, who made me want to write stories like them. I'll never be as good with words as Poul Anderson, and I can only aspire to be as good with ideas as people like Andre Norton, but I wanted to try. And since my interests in history and biography often tended to military topics, and mythology is often about battles of various kinds, that led to an interest in using sci-fi to examine how future battles might be different from now, and how some things might not change no matter how much time elapses. My own Navy career had a lot of influence on my writing about military topics. It's what I know.

ST: The Lost Fleet is one of the best science fiction series currently, where did this story come from?

JC: Thank you! In one sense, the story is the culmination of my writing to date, the end result of what I have learned about telling stories. But the two big aspects of The Lost Fleet were years in the process of development.

Some time ago, another writer who worked in the “Star Trek” universe asked some of us other writers if a long retreat scenario was possible in “Star Trek.” We all agreed that it wasn't, because of the way “Star Trek” handled things like faster-than-light travel. Someone would either get away immediately or they would be trapped. But the question got me to thinking about whether a long retreat in space could work both as a story and as something that made sense in terms of the technology and everything else. The classic example (in every sense of the word) of a long retreat story is Xenophon's March of the 10,000. Could I use that example in a new way? That idea just sat there in my head for years while I waited for some ideas to try out the concept.

Another idea had also been sitting in my mind for some time, this one concerning a common myth in human cultures. That myth is the one about the sleeping hero, some ancient champion who is not dead, but is instead sleeping, and would awaken when most needed. In the West, the most well-known example of this is King Arthur. There is general agreement that these myths are based on real people, actual champions who had done important things in life, but whose accomplishments had been greatly inflated after their deaths. I couldn't help wondering what it would be like for such a person if they somehow did awaken long after their own time, only to learn that they were now thought to be some superhero who was supposed to save the day.

At some point, I realized that the two ideas fit together perfectly. The trapped fleet and the legendary hero who could save it. The hero was not the hero of the legend, but he had to try to be that person, because if he couldn't manage it, the fleet and the people who believed in him would be destroyed. That became the saga of The Lost Fleet and Black Jack Geary.

ST: Captain "Black Jack" Geary is a fantastic hero and strong leader. Is he based on anyone from your time in military?

JC: Geary is partly a composite of some of the best leaders I worked with, commanders like Captain Richard Hayes and Admiral Cathal Flynn. But he also has characteristics drawn from some historical figures such as George Washington and Joan of Arc. He isn't superhuman, and that defines him more than anything. He is human, as flawed as anyone, but he refuses to use his authority to his personal benefit, he won't reach for the power he could easily have, he does not consider himself special, and he has a strong moral center. He also has the strength of character to act decisively, to not give up, and to not reject advice from others. I tried to have Geary embody what Clausewitz (On War) described as both the first and the second kinds of courage; the first kind to act bravely in battle, and the second kind to do the right things off of the battlefield. As Clausewitz noted, the second kind of courage can be more important than the first. 

ST: The Lost Stars is a spin-off series from The Lost Fleet but from the point of view Syndic; what lead you to write this series and what challenges did you find writing from the Syndic's point of view?

JC: Two factors led to the creation of The Lost Stars. The first was that many readers had asked to know more about the enemy in The Lost Fleet books. I had tried to make it clear that the Syndics were not evil clones, but rather people of varying quality, even though all fought for a bad cause. Readers wanted to hear more about that, about the society that spawned the bad guys. The second factor was because I had originally planned The Lost Fleet to be only six books. But as the original series wound to a conclusion, there was a lot of demand for more books. There were plenty of things to write about, but I was worried about growing stale, about becoming worn out writing about the same characters. The Lost Stars was designed to give me something fresh to work with in the same universe, and even with storylines that intertwined with the continuing The Lost Fleet stories. Very different people facing very different challenges, and all of them seeing the universe in very different ways than Geary and his companions did. That has helped me keep The Lost Fleet: Beyond the Frontier books fresh as well.

The main challenge when writing from the Syndic point of view was to keep in mind that what they believed made sense to them. What they did was either (to them) justified, or necessary to survive. These are all people who have done some terrible things, but some of them had to be characters that readers would find sympathetic. They genuinely don't know or understand other ways of doing things.

Some of them want to do things differently, but have to learn how. And they have to live with themselves for what they have done. To some, that is no problem. To others, it is a major struggle.

ST: What is your writing process? Do you have any special rituals you have to do before you begin writing?

JC: The only special ritual is probably the same one shared by most writers—procrastinate by any means possible (I knew one writer who went to the dentist rather than work on a project). Beyond that, I need to be in the right mental zone. In classical terms, I need my muse to be present and active. If that inspiration isn't present, I have to try to get it active by whatever works. Maybe music, maybe playing short games, maybe doing some unrelated research or reading, maybe watching something. My muse (like most, I guess) cannot be forced to come on command. She has to be allowed to approach on her own terms while I'm thinking about other things.

ST: What advice would you give to up-and-coming writers?

JC: First, read. Anything and everything. Second, write. Don't just think about it, don't just focus on one project. Write and write and write. Then submit what you write. Don't keep messing with it forever, changing a few words here and there or dropping a comma. Send it off to someone. Aside from that, I think it is a good idea to visit local conventions where an aspiring writer can meet established, experienced writers who are usually more than willing to offer advice and will talk on panels about various aspects of writing and publishing. But at the end of the day there is no substitute for simply writing and writing some more.

ST: Can you please tell us one random fact about yourself?

JC: I was the armorer on the U.S. Naval Academy fencing team for four years.

To learn more about Jack Campbell, visit his official website.

The Writer's Bone Interviews Archive