We have made it to the end of our science fiction author interview series. We are lucky to have John Hemry, who you might better know as Jack Campbell, with us for our final entry.
Zen: After writing mainly science fiction, you busted out and wrote a fantasy series that you call “steampunk with dragons.” Did you find it refreshing to work in a universe with such different rules, or was it a challenge?
John: The Dragons of Dorcastle was actually the first book I wrote. (It needed a lot of work, naturally, before it finally did come out.) But I did set it and the idea of the series aside for more than a decade because the Lost Fleet universe took off and did so well, and because there were some basic problems with the original work that I had to figure out how to fix.
It’s always both refreshing and a challenge to tackle something new after spending a while in familiar writing/reading territory. Especially after doing so many books in the Lost Fleet universe in a fairly short amount of time, it was great to be able to work with different characters in a different place. And I’ve always thought of the Pillars of Reality series as a labor of love, always enjoying writing about Mari and Alain, so that was fun as well.
But there are challenges in remaining immersed in a new universe, making sure the characters and events don’t end up echoing the older series. I didn’t have too much trouble with Alain’s “magic” because I had given it pretty clear rules to follow as part of the story, and Mari’s steam technology I already knew from my time in the US Navy. But I did have to keep straight the characters and the other people they encountered, and the events that propelled the plot.
Zen: Childhood is a very impressionable time. What books or movies most influenced you as a kid?
John: The first SF book I read was The Mastermind of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs. ERB wasn’t the greatest writer in terms of following rules about writing, but he was an amazing storyteller, and I remember to this day how much I was impacted by the vividness of the story and the world of Barsoom.
A lot of what I read as a kid was history, mythology, and biographies. I was looking for heroes. But I kept being disappointed because the more you learn about anyone the sooner you discover that the hero was very human and had their share of flaws. It took me a few years to finally realize that what made people heroes wasn’t that they were perfect or flawless, but what they were able to accomplish despite their human flaws. Ever since then I have looked for that, and the “heroes” of my stories are very human people who struggle with their own limitations, but never stop struggling and manage to prevail.
In the late 1960s, my father was stationed on Midway Island. We had only one TV station on the island broadcasting old programs a few hours a day, so on weekends the base theater showed a couple of one-hour TV shows as a matinee. One of those shows was always Star Trek TOS, so I saw Kirk, Spock, and McCoy on the big screen long before the first Star Trek movies. The special effects and cheap sets on Star Trek TOS didn’t always hold up well on the big screen, but that only emphasized for me that Star Trek wasn’t about special effects. It was about the characters, about how Kirk, Spock, and McCoy handled the challenges they faced and worked together despite their differences. I’ve never forgotten that.
Then there was The Planet of the Apes. The original. The ending, with the lost astronaut discovering the crumbling wreckage of the Statue of Liberty, is now a cliché that people make fun of. But back then? When you weren’t expecting it? It hit like a punch in the gut.
Finally, the Avengers. No, not Cap and Iron Man and Thor and all. A SF sort of spy TV show whose co-star was Diana Rigg as Emma Peel. Emma Peel is still, I think, the best female SF character ever. Strong and smart and tough. She blew me away, and helped me realize how much good female characters can contribute as equal players in any story.
Zen: Did you imagine being a writer when you were a child?
John: A bit. I still remember a big project as a little kid trying to write up an account of my summer in big letters on large-lined paper. I even tried a little serious writing when in high school. But I never really thought I could be good enough to stand with the great writers I read. It was during my career in the Navy, tackling lots of challenges I had to overcome and gaining experience in writing official reports and things, that I began to seriously consider trying it. I needed to gain enough confidence in myself to think I could do it, and then I listened to the dream.
Zen: If you could blink a few more seasons of any sci-fi tv series into existence, which would you choose?
John: The Avengers with Diana Rigg, of course. I’m hesitant to say Star Trek TOS because I’m not sure if they could have sustained the best of that series for a couple of more years. Kim Possible, definitely. And it would have been great to see where Firefly would have gone, given time.
Zen: Military science fiction seems to be a genre that remains relevant, regardless of how much it’s written, or for how many decades. Why do you think that is?
John: That may in part be because the military remains relevant. It’s part of our world. Extrapolating military actions into the future doesn’t take much suspension of disbelief, because humans tend to take it wherever we go. And of course it inherently includes a lot of action.
I suspect two interrelated reasons may lie at the core of it, though. On the one hand you have those men and women who have served in the military, and want to reexperience aspects of that. It’s a hard world, a demanding world, but one that shapes those in it and creates long-standing relationships. Those people want a chance to be in that world again to some extent. On the other hand are the increasingly large percentage of men and women who have never served in the military, but want to know what it is like and get a sense of the sacrifices and dangers involved.
On top of that is that military SF has generations of writers. The first ones we recall in modern times are those with experience in WW II or before (like Robert Heinlein, who served in the Navy before the war). Then came the post-WW II writers, influenced by the different struggles in places like Korea and Vietnam. That gave us writers like Joe Haldeman and David Drake. Then there are the Cold War vets like me. And most recently the veterans of the military in the times of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. All bring their own particular experiences and perspectives to the field, so that military SF is constantly reinventing itself, remaining relevant because its writers reflect both the most recent military environments and the older, long-standing aspects of military action
Zen: Are there any genres that you think aren’t standing the test of time quite so well and could use some innovation?
John: That’s the sort of question that could get me in a lot of trouble! I think at one time SF became obsessed with experimental, “literary” fiction that was mostly about the writer and not very much about the reader. Since then, SF has rediscovered the virtues of a good story. That’s not to say that other forms of SF are “wrong.” Rather that SF should accept many different forms rather than trying to insist that only one kind of SF is right or respectable. Hard SF is one form, not the only form. Science fantasy, the sort of thing I did with my “steampunk with dragons” series, used to be
common. Why not again?
I think there’s tremendous innovation going on right now, as writers cross genre boundaries, mixing things up to see how it works. Anime is sort of the epitome of that, mashing wildly different things together and seeing what happens. Sometimes, it’s a disaster. Other times it works really well. But we’re doing it, ignoring artificial genre boundaries, and I think that’s all to the good.
Zombie stories, though. Done to death, if you’ll pardon the expression.
Zen: Is there a genre you haven’t written yet, that you’d like to?
John: A pure historical novel, I guess. I’ve done alt-history. Doing a western would be a fun challenge. Though I did write my novella Swords and Saddles because I realized that few SF stories featured the US mounted cavalry and few SF stories were set in Kansas (except for The Gods Hate Kansas, of course). So I wrote one, ending up with a half-western, half-alt history story. So much of what people think happened in history didn’t happen the way most people think, so often simply writing what really happened comes across as alt history.
Zen: Of course, everyone wants to know what you’re working on now. Please fill us in on what we can expect to see from you in the near future.
John: I have two trilogies in the works plus a standalone short novel. While I think about where to go next with the Lost Fleet and Lost Stars, I’m doing a trilogy called The Genesis Fleet set centuries earlier, covering the period when that part of space was being settled. It’s the Lost Fleet universe with sort of a wild west aspect to it, showing the Alliance came into existence and its first clashes with the Syndicate Worlds. The ancestors of some major Lost Fleet characters make their appearances. The first volume in that is Vanguard and should come out in May.
The other trilogy is a follow-on the Pillars of Reality series. I can’t say too much about it without giving spoilers about the end of the series, but the plot is “foretold” in a scene at the very end of The Wrath of the Great Guilds. More stories in that world, with familiar characters and some new ones. The first volume is currently titled Blood of Dragons.
And then there’s the short novel, which is a fun bit of YA called The Sister Paradox. Liam is a 16 year old, neither of whose parents have ever had any https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/e-specbooks/new-original-novels-by-jack-campbell-and-brenda-co?token=0754281eother kids, and he likes being the center of both his family universe and his own personal universe. Until the day the sister he doesn’t have shows up at his school. She has her sword, and tells him there is an important quest they have to complete, and his day sort of goes downhill from there. eSpec is going to be having a Kickstarter soon for that book.
Let’s finish up with some either-or
Tolkien or Asimov? –Tolkien!
Jeep or convertible? – Jeep
Type-A or procrastinator? – I’m going to answer that question right now, or whenever I can get around to it
International travel or staycation? – Travel
Iced tea or lemonade? – Arnold Palmer
Ferengi or Cardassians? – Ensign Ro Laren
Jack Campbell is the pen name of John G. Hemry, a retired U.S. Navy officer. His father (LCDR Jack M. Hemry, USN ret.) is a mustang (an officer who was promoted through the enlisted ranks), so John grew up living everywhere from Pensacola, Florida to San Diego, California, including an especially memorable few year on Midway Island.
John graduated from Lyons High School in Lyons, Kansas in 1974, then attended the U.S. Naval Academy (Class of ’78), where he was labeled “the un-Midshipman” by his roommates.
John speaks the remnants of Russian painstakingly pounded into him by Professor Vladimir Tolstoy (yes, he was related to that Tolstoy).
He lives in Maryland with a wife who is too good for him and three great kids. The two eldest children are diagnosed as autistic but are slowly improving with therapies, education and medications.
The motto of the SFWA Musketeers reads – The Pen is Mightier Than the Sword, but the Wise Person Carries Both
Visit John at his website http://www.johnghemry.com