Here I was all prepared to give Dauntless a 2.5, possibly a 3 rating. I was feeling all high and mighty about military science fiction, how the genre as a whole shows a lack of imagination by depicting future national/planetary relationships as if the wars of today are inevitable parts of tomorrow. But then I decided to shut up and read. What Jack Campbell's given us in Dauntless is a debate about military ethics, proper governance, leadership tactics, collectivism versus individualism, with a critique of messianic expectations in faith traditions thrown into the mix - all in a Battlestar Galactica-like pressure cooker of a slaughter-or-be-slaughtered environment.
Campbell has Jack Geary spend a significant amount of time calling fleet members to honor the "Laws of War" - easier said than done when his charges in the fleet have experienced a century of war with no endpoint in sight. As a theology and ethics nerd, I kept thinking of St. Augustine's Just War theory which goes something like: Christians can go to war only if it's declared by a legitimate authority (no personal vengeance or private mercenary armies allowed); Christians can fight a war only if there's just cause (their country has been attacked or helping a weaker neighbor under attack); a clear sense of moderation and proportion must be maintained (no excessive violence or killing of noncombatants); and to honor Jesus' teaching to love enemies, Christians must kill combatants with love in their hearts (um, whatevs). I found Geary's struggles to uphold the Laws of War to be interesting.
Alongside this ethical debate, Campbell explores the ups and downs of being a messianic figure. The "second coming" of Black Jack Geary has the advantage that some soldiers will follow his "fore-ordained" leadership to the bitter end. But a number of fleet captains find the real Geary lacking in comparison to the myth-distorted character of fleet textbooks. My clergy context automatically made me wonder - what if the man Jesus came back and encountered the mythology that has built up surrounding his life, ministry and death? More than likely, he'd encounter massive disappointment, and give more than a few eye rolls when adoring Christians fell at his feet in worship. Campbell plays with the ups and downs of messiahship, having Geary make choices of when to utilize his perceived divinity to his and the fleet's advantage.
Another debate waged within the pages of Dauntless is the preferability of collective or individual action. Geary hopes to whip the fleet into shape by teaching them to fight as a unit rather than as individual vessels. Co-President Rione, an experienced politician and diplomat, cautions against the military approach, seeking assurance that Geary will not utilize his military legend to seize power from the democratically elected leadership of the Alliance in the name of greater efficiency and military might. After all, Mussolini's fascism did make the trains run on time, but at what cost to the Italian people? Rione prefers ancient Athens over Sparta, Caesar's Rome or Mussolini's Italy. Rione's presence ensures that counsel for Geary comes from a diverse set of advisors with oft competing ideologies. Campbell refuses to glorify war, choosing instead to allow for complexity in the discussions of conflict and peace.
While I enjoyed these ethical, messianic and political components of Dauntless, the book is not without it's flaws. At times, Campbell's comparisons of effective leadership tactics begin to feel like a case study from Drucker's Management. Campbell's descriptions of time lags associated with space travel at light speeds become more than a little redundant. And the bordering-on-the-obsessive descriptions of war prep and fleet maneuvering sapped some of the energy of the story. Instead of shifting closer to the edge of my seat as the ultimate battle approached, I sighed in relief that the scene setting was finally over. But for me, these weaknesses did not overwhelm the strengths of this cerebral take on military science fiction.
Will Geary come to believe the mythological hype surrounding his reawakening after 100 years of hibernation? Will he become an unbearable rogue or maintain his relative humility? What role, if any, will Geary play in bringing the century-long war between Syndicate and Alliance to an end? Will the lost fleet ever get home? There's much left to learn about Campbell's world of The Lost Fleet. I'm looking forward to continuing with the series.