With a couple hours to spare on train journeys and elsewhere, I breezed through this series. Military sci-fi, I think you call it: it’s a bit of a guilty pleasure of mine. Considering that it’s basically like an action movie in book form, it’s really quite good.
I’ll give the plot only the briefest of nods here: two factions of humanity are at war, the apparently democratic Alliance and the corporatist Syndics; the Alliance are aiming a strike at the Syndics home planets to end what’s already a 100-year-war, and on their way they find John Geary in stasis in an escape pod. Geary is their greatest hero, presumed dead since he singlehandedly defeated the first Syndic attack 100 years in the past; now, as the Alliance fleet suffers defeat through treachery, he must take it back home, fighting against Syndics, internal fleet politics, and the decline of professional competency that has set in since he was lost.
It’s a little like Battlestar Galactica and it’s a little like David Weber’s increasingly turgid Honor Harrington series; but especially when compared to the latter, Campbell’s series shines. For a good long while, Weber’s plot revolved around the war between a star kingdom of impeccable morals, and a society which was essentially a weird quasi-socialist dystopia ruled over—in the wake of a revolution, no less—by a guy named Robert Stanton (?) Pierre…or Rob S. Pierre, for short. Yes, that’s the kind of cleverness you’re in for in Weber. Weber’s characters are cardboard cut outs (as E.M. Forster would say) at best; so any comparison which makes the point, as I do here, that Campbell’s series is better at that ought to take that into account. But really, he is better. His characters aren’t exactly rounded, but at least they have odd hang ups and worries; and while, yes, John “Black Jack” Geary wins (almost) every battle and makes (almost) no mistakes, at least Campbell gives that a plausible reason: the Alliance fleet has gotten used to head-on attacks, to voting on courses of action, and to promoting based on politics, not ability. Geary is old-school, by comparison: he knows tactics, knows that commanders decide, and so on. So I suppose I can buy that.
And here’s the turn to literary analysis: two things stand out to my mind in Campbell’s book. One is the enemy side, the Syndics. A society apparently based on the laws of capitalist competition in all things, the Syndics are a corporate society in which the quest for profit rules everything. It’s not investigated in any detail, but it’s a very interesting choice of opposition. The second thing is the character of John Geary, and his backstory. Essentially, he is a historical figure that intrudes into the contemporary (always understanding these times to be in the far, far future), opening up the hope for a better future through the knowledges of the past. What is interesting is that in this regard he functions very much like characters in a number of other recent novels (Upton Sinclair in Chris Bachelder’s U.S.!, the nuclear physicists of Lydia Millet’s Oh Pure and Radiant Heart, and William Howard Taft in Jason Heller’s Taft 2012–or, to go to the more classical references, Washington Irving’s Rip van Winkle or Edward Bellamy’s Julian West (from Looking Backward)). I’m not sure what (if anything) this move signifies in what’s essentially pulp fiction; but it’s an interesting thing to see, at least to me.