Vanguard Is a Military Space Opera Shot Through with Realism

Jack Campbell’s space sagas—of which Vanguard is the latest—may well be the most realistic military-oriented books I’ve ever read.

“But, wait,” you say. “They’re military space opera, and deal with all sorts of impossible things, like spaceships and interstellar travel. How can you call them realistic?”

True enough, the spaceships and interstellar travel and energy weapons are, this far, impossible.

And yet.

I spent two years in the military, as a cadet at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy. I was an epically lousy cadet, but the experience provided me with a lifelong appreciation for how military structures operate. And Campbell nails it, time and time again. If you’re looking for gung-ho military heroes who charge forward against orders to save the day, you won’t find them in Vanguard.

What you’ll find instead are human heroes doing the best they can in a bad situation.

Not only is Vanguard concerned with command structure, why and how militaries answer to civilian control, and how commanders learn to effectively lead, it also questions the political structures that will eventually result in an alliance between worlds. There’s also a subplot concerning the effectiveness and limits of terrorism.

That’s a lot for an “unrealistic” space tale.

Vanguard is a prequel to Campbell’s bestselling Lost Fleet series and its myriad sequels, the story set hundreds of years earlier, at the dawn of the Alliance. As it begins, a pirate ship appears in not-yet-named Glenlyon space to extort ransom for the planet, and young Lieutenant Robert Geary is tabbed by the governing council to help solve the problem. Why him? Why a junior officer with no command experience? Because this is a small colony with no space fleet and ever fewer people with military experience. There is only Geary and former enlisted officers Lyn “Ninja” Meltzer and Corbin Torres.

Three officers is a small number to deal with better armed,  ruthless pirates. All they have is Ninja’s skill with software, the reluctant Torres’s engineering knowledge, and a small group of volunteers.

Geary is akin to many of Campbell’s heroes: unassuming, smart, and principled. Watching him grow into a leader is one of the joys of Vanguard. But Geary isn’t alone. Campbell also explores the civilian side of the Alliance being born, first with the politics of the local planetary council, wary of creating a full military—and for valid reasons. A fully autonomous military is not always a good thing.

There is the friendship and teamwork of recent immigrants Carmen Ochoa, a resolution specialist, and Lochlan Nakamura, a failed politician who wants a second chance to do better. Both their skills are needed, as their planet of choice is also attacked by those who seem to be in league with the pirates. One cannot create the beginning of an alliance and political structure with military victories alone.

My favorite character is former Marine Mele Darcy, who arrives on GlenLyon and is instantly put in charge of ground forces for the same reason Geary has control of the infant fleet: there is no one else to do it. She has a chip on her shoulder and is wary of those in authority, but she’s dedicated to completing her mission with as few casualties as possible.

GlenLyon and the other nearby planets are alone in distant space, with no hope of help from Earth authorities, who seem to have washed their hands of the colonies. Indeed, before arriving at his new port of call, Lochlan has to escape an attempt by slavers to kidnap a shipload of people, a sequence that makes clear how lawless this section of space could become if people cannot protect themselves, and emphasizes ineffectiveness of Earth’s hidebound military.

It’s the Wild West out there, and to the strongest goes the spoils. And it appears the strongest will win—unless our collection of ordinary people caught in extraordinary circumstances step up to help. They’ll need to to outthink and outmaneuver their foes.

Yes, you will find space battles in this book—the first one and the last are particularly nail-biting—along with a terrific assault sequence that takes place around an enemy base, but it’s the quiet integrity of Campbell’s cast that will have you cheering…and waiting impatiently for a sequel.

Vanguard is available May 16.

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