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John G. Hemry's The Lost Fleet series, written pseudonymously as Jack Campbell, improves by leaps and bounds in its second volume, taking pride of place alongside his brilliant Paul Sinclair novels. Fearless has the ragtag Alliance fleet, led by the unwitting hero of the hour, Fleet Captain John Geary, desperately trying to make its way through space controlled by the hostile and totalitarian Syndics. Geary, as fans of the first volume Dauntless will recall, is a man displaced in time, rescued and revived after a century of cold sleep to find that his famous last stand against the Syndics has made him a hero of nearly messianic proportions. Now he's tasked with getting the Alliance fleet home after a scheduled diplomatic meeting turned into a trap. And he must battle not only the Syndics, but ship captains within his own fleet. Half of them revere the legend that he has become, which of course bears scant resemblance to the real man. The other half are skeptical and envious nearly to the point of mutiny.

In Fearless, that point is finally reached. When the fleet liberates a Syndic POW colony, one of the rescued Alliance sailors is the popular and charismatic Captain Francesco Falco. Falco's twenty years in captivity has not blunted his ego, nor his awareness of his own reputation — a reputation built on gladhanding and peerless networking and politicking skills far more than military genius. Falco struts back into the Alliance fleet as if he owns it. But as soon as Geary schools him a little on just how different things are since the days Falco actually had a command, the stage for a titanic power struggle is set. The crisis comes when Falco, who has been secretly making his plans with all of the captains who most dislike Geary, leads nearly 40 ships in a mutinous breakaway from the main fleet.

With no other choice, Geary leads his remaining ships on the originally planned course, while Falco's ships hare off on another course in the more-often-disastrous-as-not Alliance spirit of rushing in foolishly where angels fear to tread.

In Fearless, Campbell confidently positions this series as an appraisal of the unique moral landscape of war. In even the most ruthless conflicts, Campbell understands that one must avoid giving in to one's basest instincts, if one doesn't wish to become the enemy. There is a time for ruthlessness, and a time for mercy. There is a time for unwavering adherence to the letter of one's orders, and a time to adapt to changing circumstances. Most importantly, there is a time to admit that a particular battle may not be winnable, to cut one's losses, and live to regroup and fight again another day. There are times when courage truly is courage, and other times when it's just reactionary stupidity or, worse, narcissism.

What I've always richly admired about Campbell's work is that he can explore these kinds of ethical themes without caving into easy political drumbeating. He's almost unique in writing non-jingoist, non-partisan, non-propagandist military fiction. A Navy veteran, Campbell loves the service, but rejects the hawkish dogma that might makes right. Spider-Man fans know the drill: with power comes responsibility.

So when I say that I found distinct parallels between Campbell's portrayal of Falco and the Alliance traditions he represents — an inability to learn from mistakes; an arrogant, blustery self-assurance not backed up by actual achievement; a disconnect from the realities on the ground, or a delusion that reality will conform itself to expectations; a foolish insistence on repeating the same bad policy in the hope that one of these days it'll actually work — and the way the US launched the 2003 war in Iraq, well, that's my interpretation. Campbell does not lecture this interpretation, nor is anything in his narrative meant as an overt commentary or metaphor. (Compare Fearless to something like Orson Scott Card's simple-minded, pandering Empire, in which ideological boundaries — as well as which side is unmistakably the Bad Guys — are drawn in crayon.) Campbell's focus on his story's human center allows readers to bring their own ideas to his work, to have them confirmed or challenged as they will.

A couple of minor story quibbles. Hard SF techheads will squee over the way Campbell insists that his space battles obey the laws of physics. One of the most frustrating things Geary faces in moments of crisis is that it can take minutes or even hours for commands and information to travel from ship to ship, since the fleet is so large many ships are a few light-minutes apart. Unlike many space operas, The Lost Fleet reminds you that space is pretty bloody vast. But then, this often leads to battle scenes that are more prolix and technical than emotionally visceral.

Also, I simply cannot stand the supporting character of Co-President Rione. It's irritating enough that she casts herself in the role of Geary's conscience, smugly acting all superior while glowering like a stern parent at Geary from her chair, but not actually doing much herself. But then we're treated to an unbecoming emotional snit before she and Geary eventually fall into a sexual liaison that feels like Campbell's tacking on a romantic subplot for convention's sake. It's true that Rione and Geary do share some effective character moments together. But I see her as a self-righteous hypocrite as well as a careerist, and not a character to admire. Maybe that's the idea.

Fearless is another satisfying Jack Campbell cocktail to slake the thirst of fans who like their space operas with a refreshing moral and intellectual chaser. It's no wonder Hemry chose as his pen name for this saga that of one of SF's most renowned editors. John W. Campbell would have admired the rationalism and rigor Jack Campbell has brought to these books. The Lost Fleet deserves a berth on your bookshelf.

Followed by The Lost Fleet: Courageous.