BOOK REVIEW: GENESIS FLEET: VANGUARD

Genesis Fleet: Vanguard

There are worse things that can happen than losing your fleet. At least then you might be able to find it again. What happens when you never had a fleet to start with? What happens when trouble comes to your star system and all you have is a knackered freighter, two retired crewmen, and a congenital inability to let anyone push you around?

Former Fleet Lieutenant Rob Geary is about to find out.

Title: Genesis Fleet: Vanguard

Author: Jack Campbell

Publisher: Titan Books

Published: May 2017

RRP: £7.99

Earth is no longer the centre of the universe. After the invention of the faster-than-light jump drive, humanity is rapidly establishing new colonies. But the vast distances of space mean that the protection of Earth’s laws no longer exists. When a nearby world attacks, the new colony of Glenlyon turns to Robert Geary, a former junior fleet officer, and Mele Darcy, once an enlisted Marine. They must face down warships with nothing but improvised weapons and a few volunteers – or die trying.

The only hope for lasting peace lies with Carmen Ochoa, a “Red” from anarchic Mars, and Lochan Nakamura, a failed politician, and their plan for a mutual alliance. But if their efforts don’t succeed, space could become a battlefield between the first interstellar empires…

Right. This’ll be quick. Did you like Lost Fleet?  This should hit that same sweet spot. Were you not a fan? This won’t change your mind.

Hurrah. Boom. DONE.

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Sigh. FINE. The Lights of Judgement that sit at the bottom of WordPress articles are demanding I write more words for you, and I fear their wrath should I disobey.  Really, though, everyone who has read a Jack Campbell book before will know what to expect here; a swift, light and unusually upbeat tale of military action out among the stars. Campbell’s standard approach is entirely present and correct. There’s well-planned and breezily described spaceship battles stuffed with examples of astonishingly quick thinking and jaw-jutting heroism. There’s noble heroes and hissable villains, both recognisable as such within three lines of them first appearing (unless they’re politicians, who Campbell tends instead to classify as those who’ll screw you over happily and those who’ll do it with a sense of regret). And there’s that same nagging feeling that the author believes most of humanity’s problems could be easily resolved if only those damn paper-pushers would let the military do what it wanted more often.

So much for the similarities, then. What’s different? Scale. Scale, is the answer. Black Jack Geary began Lost Fleet: Dauntless with a swarm of flotillas that even the US Navy would look at and suggest some strategic scuppering in the name of sanity. Our hero here (also a Geary) starts off with an unarmed freighter. This shift to the small-bore could have resulted in this newest book feeling inconsequential. Instead, Campbell uses the new scale to produce something rather more immediate than what we’ve seen previously. Black Jack spent much of his time fretting about how to get through gigantic swirling nightmares of intersecting battlefleets without losing too many ships. If Rob Geary loses a ship, it’s the one he’s on, and most likely he’s dead. Attrition isn’t the threat here; it’s anything with a butter-knife taped to its hull.

This focus on the small and humble also fits in with Campbell’s larger theme. Genesis Fleet, as the name implies, is all about the beginnings of something, specifically the interstellar Alliance that by Black Jack’s era stretches over almost half of known space. Prequels that lay out the world-building in detail like this tend to have decidedly mixed results. Too often they feel like listening to an architect exhaustively describing the blueprints of their building that you happened to mention finding pretty. Fortunately, …Vanguard makes a decent fist of justifying itself as its own story, rather than just functioning as an extended in-joke. The writing is lightly seasoned with references to places and families from the earlier books, but these generally stay on the right side of being too cute. There’s certainly nothing to stop a reader starting with this as their introduction to Campbell’s fictional galaxy; indeed the contrast between the vigour of an expanding humanity portrayed here and the exhausted, punch-drunk Alliance Black Jack awakens to find in …Dauntless might work even better if the former is encountered first.

There’s also a complexity here that outstrips Campbell’s previous work. We’re not talking Game of Thrones, or anything, but the focus on the construction of a political entity requires the story to consider political approaches, compromises, and motivations rather more than its predecessors, which only made of use of such things when it could lead to a more tense series of explosions. Here, the reduced focus on fleet manoeuvres allows time for a more nuanced view of politics (as oppose to politicians, who Campbell still seems to have it in for), and with the narrative split between four characters who never actually all meet in the same place, he actually maintains the sense of scale that Lost Fleet offered.

It also limits the damage done by one of the books most obvious weaknesses, which is that Rob Geary is more or less indistinguishable from his descendant John, only without the latter’s interesting neuroses. The wider cast quickly overshadows him as they attempt to solve the problems of a dispersed humanity in their own individual ways. Mele Darcy is a fairly standard example of the tough-and-competent marine archetype, but it’s in Carmen Ochoa and Lochan Nakamura that we find Campbell stretching himself furthest. Again, neither character will win any awards for complexity or originality, but as a partnership they make for unusual and engaging company. It’s their efforts to figure out how to patch together a society out of people who specifically headed to the stars so they could do everything their own way that’s the most interesting aspect of the book, and which prove that Campbell has more to him than a never-ending series of action set-pieces.

In sum, then, there’s nothing game-changing here, but enough has been built on or rearranged to make this a familiar experience without a sense of repetition. Whether this something Campbell can keep up over a full series is another question. But I’m certainly interested to see where the story goes next, and in that sense Genesis Fleet has ably completed its initial mission.

Rating: 3.5/5

Reviewer: Ric Crossman

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