John G Hemry (Jack Campbell) interview, October 2011
John G Hemry (who also writes under the pen name of Jack Campbell) is a retired U.S. Navy officer and author of military science fiction novels. He is best known for his Lost Fleet series, set one-hundred-plus years into an interstellar war. Hemry’s latest work, the Stark’s War series is soon to be read, reviewed and featured on Fantasy Book Review so we thought it would be a good time to catch up with John, who kindly took the time to speak to Daniel Cann in October 2011.
‘Black Jack’ Geary and Ethan Stark are exceptionally well drawn characters, are they a composite of real people you have met in life or entirely from your own imagination?
I often use characters who are composites, and who I know are composites. Sometimes, though rarely, I will use a complete person as a character. But other times characters don’t seem to be anyone but themselves. With those characters, I never think “what would someone else I know do right now?” In writing them, I am describing what they would do as if they were someone else I knew even though they don’t actually exist. (I think they don’t actually exist, anyway…)
Stark came into being as a fully-formed character, as if born of my frustrations with things I had encountered in the service. I don’t know why he is named Ethan. That’s the name he gave me. In the same way, Geary appeared with his last name and then added the Black Jack nickname that he personally dislikes. I got to know more about both of them as I wrote about them, but it was a process of learning rather than adding on aspects from other people.
Fans of science-fiction often say that it reflects what is happening today as much as it does the future. To what extent does this apply to your own novels?
I don’t write things directly drawn from today, with events corresponding to current events and personalities corresponding to people living right now. What I often do instead is consider what Heinlein called “if this goes on.” Take something occurring today, and imagine where it might lead. Orwell’s 1984 is probably the most well known of the “if this goes on” stories, imagining what would happen if the totalitarian trends that Orwell saw in 1949 continued, but there are countless other examples.
The Stark series is very much that sort of story. I wrote it coming off of my last active duty tour, which was in the Pentagon. I was pretty unhappy with the micromanagement and politicking that I had seen. One of the factors I noticed in particular was that modern command and control systems were more and more allowing someone far from the scene of action to call the shots for those on the front line. What if that continued? What would be the impact on the officer corps if junior officers were taught that a senior officer was always watching them and telling them exactly what to do? How would the same thing impact the enlisted members of the military? Along with that, I looked at the trends which have a smaller and smaller proportion of society serving in the military. Does that in time turn the military into a culture that is increasingly alien to the society it serves? I ran with those “if this goes on” concepts and came up with a pretty bleak picture. I do believe that good people can triumph over bad systems, though, so that gives hope even when the options seem pretty grim.
The Lost Fleet included some of “if this goes on” as well. In that case, part of the storyline is that the war has been going on for a century. At the time I wrote Dauntless, many people were talking about a “war on terror” which could last for several decades or indefinitely. What would be the impact on a military force, and on the society it serves, of decade after decade of war? What would happen if the concept that morally repugnant actions are necessary to win was also carried through for decades on end? Those are factors in the situation that Geary faces when he reawakens after a century.
I think it is important to consider consequences of actions and decisions, both long term and short term. SF offers a unique way of doing that by offering different perspectives. In that sense, my stories are about “now,” but now in the sense of where now could take us in the future.
Do you plan a series of novels in advance or is it more of a case of a natural story arc as you write?
It depends upon what you mean by “plan.”
I use two factors to form the story. In a series or a single novel or a short story, I have a story arc in mind. The story will begin here and end there. Along the way, these sorts of things will be encountered (people, events, challenges, etc.). That supplies the basic framework. But I also create the characters who will follow that framework, and frankly it often seems as if I don’t really create them so much as visualize people who already exist somewhere. Sometimes a character will appear fully formed, complete with name, personality and personal history. Sometimes I don’t even know they will be part of the story until a character suddenly shows up in the story. These characters are individuals. They want to act in certain ways, and as they interact with each other and deal with what they encounter within the framework of the story arc, the full story is woven together to form the complete picture. There is room for the characters to modify what I had expected to happen, as they make the decisions I realize each one would make. Much like real life, the characters encounter situations and then decide what to do based on who they are. That can take the story in unanticipated directions which still flow toward the final ending.
I like writing in that way because it mimics reality as I see it. We encounter people and situations whether we like it or not. How we react to those is up to us, and the choices we make influence later choices. Maybe our destination is predetermined, but we choose the path that gets us there. I let my characters do the same, and sometimes they end up somewhere I hadn’t anticipated. The end may not be exactly what I expected.
Your novels are works of fiction but do you see humankind’s potential future and the survival of the species as a fleet, or armada, searching for a new home and colonising outer space?
I think we will go to the other planets, and eventually to the stars, because that’s what we do. For every human who is happy to stay at a familiar home, there is another who yearns to know what lies beyond the next hill and is not just willing but eager to pull up stakes and go there. We are a restless species, a curious species, and we rarely if ever let little things like “that’s impossible” prevent us from trying anyway.
There is some disillusionment now, because the leap into space wasn’t nearly as fast and easy as once imagined. It was assumed that space programs would advance as rapidly as aviation did, from the first controlled, powered flight to jet aircraft in half a century. But space proved to be a much harder problem than expected. (I read a quote from one early rocket scientist commenting that “on paper it all looked easy.”) We have in about half a century so far barely dipped our toes into the vastness of space. It took many centuries for ocean-going ships to be able to cross bodies of water out of sight of land, and centuries more before they could cross open water like the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans with much chance of surviving. It took a lot of different advances before ships could do that. It will take many different advances before spacecraft can easily swing between planets, or go to other stars for amounts of money and in amounts of time that make it all viable. But we’ll get there. You could say that’s because it’s our destiny or because that’s how we act, but perhaps those are parts of the same thing.
Unfortunately, another aspect of humanity is our tendency to do stupid things even when we can tell that they’re stupid. That usually involves a member of the opposite sex, but sometimes we do that when much larger issues are involved. Hopefully we won’t do anything so stupid that it robs us of our chance to reach the stars.
How much does naval history influence the conflict and battles in your books?
Not too much in terms of actual battles. I do draw heavily on traditions and patterns of behaviour. A ship’s captain is someone special, with huge responsibilities and a tremendous amount of power over those under his or her command. I maintain that status, because it is one that developed over thousands of years in which ships operated on seas and oceans often far from home for long periods of time. That way of handling the demands of such duty should work in the same fashion in space. So that is the sort of naval history I draw on pretty heavily. These are things that would translate into the new environment.
I have also looked at how battles were influenced by technology. For example, in the era of oar-powered warships, momentum played a huge role. It took a while to pick up speed, and once you had it you couldn’t spin on a dime or come screeching to a halt. Movements had to be planned out. Ships in space are also heavily influenced by momentum. In the age of sail, it could be very hard to bring another force to battle if it didn’t want to fight and instead just headed away from contact. This also seems likely to be replicated in space because of the immense distances involved. The technology available to you both gives you capabilities and limits what you can do.
But I do not think I have copied any actual naval engagements in history. They just don’t apply in such a different environment. I visualize ships in space as having some characteristics of Earth aircraft and some characteristics of Earth ships, but without being either of those things. Tactics suitable for aircraft, or ships on the water, simply don’t translate into an environment of immense distances without limits, without any up or down, and with few obstacles or features. Consider how much difference it makes that in space there are no fixed locations. No matter where you are going, no matter what your objective, it is moving through space. Getting to a friendly “port” or approaching a target means intercepting it along its orbit, which isn’t the sort of problem ships face when navigating on the Earth’s surface. So I had to step outside history when envisioning the battles, and instead think about what tactics would make sense given the situation in the space and the technology available to my characters.
I would hope it is anyone who likes a good story. I do put a positive spin on things no matter how many trials I subject my characters to, so I suppose those who enjoy the darkest of hopeless tales wouldn’t be drawn to what I write. My goal is to entertain and maybe bring in a few things that make people think. I also aim the books at any reader, as opposed to certain age groups or other sub-groups. I could, for example, use a lot of profanity and obscenity in my stories. That’s a fact of military conversations. But it’s also pretty boring when presented in written form. So I mostly leave it out, trying to convey the feel of conversations in other ways. That makes the stories accessible to anyone. By the same token, I don’t bother much with portraying sex. It happens, but anyone who wants the details either already knows what’s going on and doesn’t need me to tell them, or else doesn’t know the details and doesn’t need me to be the one to tell them. I put in what’s necessary for the story, and no more.
I also freely admit to caring about my characters and writing about people who are a mix of traits. Some are bad, some are good, most are just doing their best to weave a path through the minefield of choices that life gives us.
One other thing relates to an earlier point above, that a smaller and smaller proportion of the population now has military experience. I want to convey to those who haven’t served the reality of what it is like, in both the big things and the small things. At the same time, I want those who have served to recognize that their experiences have been faithfully portrayed.
What can your fans expect from you in the future?
That depends partly on publishers (as always). Certainly there will be more books in the Beyond the Frontier series, with Invincible (the sequel to Dreadnaught) coming out next year. Also next year will be the first in the Lost Stars series, Tarnished Knight. That book takes place in the Syndic Midway star system and features Syndic characters dealing with the ongoing collapse of the Syndic empire. The events in Tarnished Knight take place at the same time as the events in Dreadnaught and Invincible. I am looking now at what happens after Invincible and the sequel to Tarnished Knight.
I’m also still shopping around a series I call “steampunk with dragons.” I like it a lot. It’s SF with a feel of fantasy, and features a couple of younger characters. If I can get a publisher to buy off on The Dragons of Dorcastle and its sequels, I think people will be pleased with them.
For more information on John and his work, visit http://www.johnghemry.com/