With his new sci-fi novel Ascendant (hardcover, Kindle), writer Jack Campbell is continuing the prequel trilogy to a series that he’s already spun off of twice. Or something. Which is why, in the following email interview, I not only asked him to explain what Ascendant is about and what inspired it, but also how it fits into the fictional universe of his Lost Fleet series as well.
I’d like to start with some background. Ascendant is the second book in The Genesis Fleet trilogy, which is itself a prequel to The Lost Fleet series, which also spawned the spin-offs in the Beyond The Frontier novels and The Lost Stars books. For those unfamiliar with these books, what, in a general sense, is the setting and set-up of this series?
Genesis Fleet is the story of how the Alliance in The Lost Fleet series came to be. It tells what happens when a faster-than-light means of travel is discovered, which allows humanity to rapidly plant new settlements on many worlds far from Earth. Most of those new settlements are the work of people who want freedom, and desire nothing more than to be left alone. But some of the new worlds are controlled by leaders who see opportunity in the lack of central authority or shared defenses. When some of the newly-settled worlds come under attack by those warlords, they have to hastily improvise defenses. Faced with united foes who want to control others, the free worlds have to not only fight back individually but also decide how much of their own freedom they’re willing to compromise to save themselves and to help others.
And more specifically, what is Ascendant about, what is The Genesis Fleet trilogy about, and how does Ascendant connect, both narratively and chronologically, to the previous book in the trilogy, Vanguard?
Ascendant takes place three years after Vanguard, picking up the same characters, and some new ones, as in the previous book. Once again, things go from bad to worse in both space and on the surface of worlds. Once again, difficult decisions must be made. And once again the free people who can’t be compelled to fight have to decide whether or not to do so in order to protect the freedom of others. As has happened recently in places such as the Ukraine, attacks against free people come in a variety of ways designed to disguise outright aggression. Rob Geary not only has to face bad odds, but also decide to take actions that if wrong might expose his world to great danger. Mele Darcy finds herself in an apparently hopeless battle. Carmen Ochoa has to not only help rally her world to defend itself, but also help fight the invasion designed to rob her people of freedom and hope. And Lochan Nakamura has to navigate through repeated threats and dangers as he tries to find the allies his world will need to ensure its freedom.
Ascendant, like all of these books, has been identified as a military sci-fi story. Do you agree with this assessment?
You could call it that because there are battles, but I think of them more as simply science fiction or perhaps space opera. Too often specific sub-genres are used as labels to pigeonhole and stereotype stories, I think. If stories are any good, they’re stories about people. People facing challenges, having to make hard choices, and sometimes suffering personal loss.
If I had to compare Ascendant to a type of sci-fi, I’d probably say it resembles the original Star Trek. Not that any of my characters are Kirk — or Spock or McCoy, etc. — but that it has that character focus in the midst of adventure and difficult trials that the characters must overcome.
Of course, some of the military aspects of your stories obvious come from your background as a retired naval officer. But how deep into the military aspects do these books go? Like how often, in writing Ascendant, did you have to dial back on the military protocol or jargon, or make some change to the plot because a naval officer wouldn’t do something, even if it is in the space navy?
It’s not something that only someone who’s served can understand. I try very hard to make it accessible, but also to show the military as it really is. I do that for those who’ve haven’t served so they can see the realities of the organization and the men and women in it, and I do it for those who have served so they can recognize things and feel they’re seeing a real depiction of what they experienced. It’s as real as I can make it. The protocol is there, but shown and explained why it’s that way, and the jargon is understandable, with some terms thrown in as inside jokes that don’t slow down the story. And the frustrating things, and the absurd things, and the many things that seem designed to keep anyone from getting anything done, but that men and women somehow surmount to win when they have to. My heroes don’t always follow the rules, but they always think of the team, not themselves, and they stick to moral codes that they think matter even more when the stakes are the highest.
Are there are writers or specific stories that were a big influence on Ascendant but not on Vanguard or any of the other books in The Lost Fleet?
That would be very hard to sort out. I suppose you could say that aspects of Ascendantdraw from scenes in Andre Norton’s The Stars Are Ours! and some from Walter Lord’s non-fiction Incredible Victory. Mele Darcy’s battle might have also been partly inspired by parts of the movie Dunkirk. But writers such as Leigh Brackett, Heinlein, Andre Norton, Poul Anderson, C.J. Cherryh, Hal Clement, and Elizabeth Moon influence all of my work by their examples and their ideas. So do first-hand accounts like Russell Davis’Marine At War and Saburo Sakai’s Samurai.
You mentioned Dunkirk. Are there any other movies — or TV shows or video games for that matter — that had a big impact on Ascendant as well?
As far as TV shows, my heroes all owe debts to Emma Peel of The Avengers, the 1960s TV series completely unrelated to Marvel’s Avengers. Emma Peel is, I think, still the greatest sci-fi character of all time.
In general, I’m sure some anime series have had an impact as well. Someone has noted that every anime story is driven by the relationships between the characters. That’s probably why I like a lot of anime, because I think relationships between people are the most important aspect of any story.
And, of course, Star Trek, which is where I first saw that what mattered in science fiction wasn’t the special effects and the sets or the makeup, but the characters and the stories.
As we mentioned, Ascendant is the second book in The Genesis Fleet trilogy. But given how you’ve expandedThe Lost Fleet series, is the plan that The Genesis Fleet series will really end with the third book, or are you planning a spin-off series or maybe a second prequel trilogy?
At this point, The Genesis Fleet will end at the third book. I might go back to it later, because there’ll be a lot more to explore. Right now a lot of readers want to know what happens next for the Lost Fleet, so I’ll head back that way again for my next series.
Short stories in The Genesis Fleet part of The Lost Fleet universe are always possible, of course.
So without spoiling anything, what can you tell us about the third book.
The third book in the series is called Triumphant, and should come out in May, 2019. The crises of the earlier books are coming to a head, and decisions will have to be made that will decide the fate of many worlds. But while the peoples of free worlds debate what to do, those worlds already facing direct threats have to hold out a little longer in the face of renewed attacks.
I’m also wondering if, by being a prequel, The Genesis Fleet is a good place to start reading these books, or do you think people would be better off reading them in the order they were published?
The Genesis Fleet lays the groundwork for the universe and shows how the universe of The Lost Fleet came to be. Starting with them wouldn’t steer anyone wrong. But it’s not necessary to read those three books first. Simply starting with Dauntless will carry any reader through. I think many readers of The Lost Fleethave enjoyed seeing the ancestors of some familiar characters making their appearances in the earlier story. You can do it either way and it works.
Now, along with Ascendant, you also recently released Lost Fleet: Corsair, which is the first volume of your Lost Fleetcomic. But is Corsair a straight adaptation of The Lost Fleet or did you change or condense things?
Corsairis a stand-alone story rather than an adaption of any existing Lost Fleetwork. The publisher wanted to do a new story that was a real part of that universe that hadn’t yet been told. And I had an enduring question from The Lost Fleet series — about the fate of a certain character important to Black Jack Geary — that hadn’t been answered. The comic offered a different way of showing what happened, and how that tied in with the later Beyond The Frontier and Lost Stars spin offs of The Lost Fleet. With the comic, I was able to pull in a lot of different story threads and spin them in a new way, since telling a showing in graphic format is a bit different from a written book or short story. Of course, it also required showing combat in space and on a personal level in a different way while also keeping it consistent with the books.
So are there more volumes of The Lost Fleet comic in the works?
That’s going to be up to the publisher. There is plenty of room in the existing comic for a lead-in to a second series, but the publisher has to commit first.
We talked earlier about Dunkirk and other movies and TV shows that influenced these books. But has there also been interest in adapting either The Lost Fleet novels or maybe just The Genesis Fleet trilogy into a movie, a TV series, or a video game?
Yes! And that’s about all I can say at this point, unfortunately. I’d personally prefer a TV series, becauseThe Lost Fleet universe has so much room in it and such a big story that a series could tell it better than a movie.
If it does get made into a TV series, who would you like to see them cast in the main roles?
I only know a few of the main roles. I think Katee Sackhoff [Battlestar Galactica] would be great as either Mele Darcy or Tanya Desjani. Elena Anaya [Wonder Woman] or Rosario Dawson [Luke Cage] for Carmen Ochoa, I think. Lochan Nakamura could be played by Jackie Chan [Rush Hour 3]. That’s a bit against type, but I think Chan — in addition to being perhaps the greatest stunt actor of all time — is very good at playing the world-weary man who isn’t quite ready to give up yet, and still wants to make a difference. Tadanobu Asano [Thor: Ragnarok] could also play Lochan. The most difficult one to cast would be Rob Geary or his descendant Black Jack Geary, both of them an everyman who has to face extraordinary challenges. Josh Hutcherson [The Hunger Games] is the only one who comes to mind as able to play an average person who has to rise to remarkable demands.
Finally, if someone enjoys Vanguard and Ascendant, what military sci-fi novel of someone else’s would you suggest they read while waiting for the third book?
You can’t go wrong with Elizabeth Moon, or Tanya Huff, or William Dietz. I’ve been impressed by new authors Michael Mammay and Kacey Ezell, both veterans of Iraq.