Interview: Jack Campbell

Tell us a bit about your story. What’s it about?

It’s about the ways that tech can help get the job done, the ways that tech can hinder getting the job done, and the many ways that tech doesn’t change important aspects of life for those on the tip of the spear. That means the tech, the power armor, is important, but not as important as the men and women wearing it.

What was the genesis of the story–what was the inspiration for it, or what prompted you to write it?

The primary inspirations for the story were the way we interact with technology in practice, and the reality of life for a grunt facing the enemy. Neither of those things really changes, but the way they’re portrayed is often idealized. How many people love the cell phone that their boss uses to track where they are and make frequent demands? How many people love the computers that do some great things but are also prone to be infuriatingly balky and often require treading a laybrinth of commands to do simple things?

Why should a grunt’s armor in the future be any different? You need it, it does amazing things, but that doesn’t mean you love it.

And life in the field, unable to figure out whether the enemy or your own chain of command is trying harder to kill you, has probably not changed much since the rulers of Sumer mustered their first units. Sumer certainly had senior enlisted, too, the people who keep the wheels working, and the junior officers then most likely faced the same steep learning curves. Micromanagement has always been a problem, but modern command and communications systems make it ever easier for somebody a hundred kilometers away to tell the person facing the enemy exactly what they should do.

There was also a third factor tied to those first two, a single word used by the Germans. Kadavergehorsam. It literally means “corpse-like obedience,” referring to soldiers who are expected to do exactly what they are told, and expected to do nothing but exactly what they are told.

Was this story a particularly challenging one to write? If so, how?

This story came together fairly easily once I saw the characters of Private London and Sergeant Hel. They drive the story even though they are also driven by events.

Most authors say all their stories are personal. If that’s true for you, in what way was this story personal to you?

One of the constant thorns you deal with in military life is being subject to every whim and directive your superiors can dream up. It doesn’t have to make sense, it doesn’t have to be right, it can often be counter-productive and a total waste of time, but you still have to do it. Or try to do it. You can’t push a rope, but that doesn’t stop some higher-ranking officer from telling you to do it anyway. I can’t recall every case of orders I got that seemed aimed at wasting time and effort or perhaps causing disaster, but there were plenty. If the order is legal you have to obey it even if it’s also stupid. That can be frustrating.

What kind of research did you have to do for the story?

A career in the Navy, interacting with the other services extensively, trying to make equipment work as advertised, dealing with the chain of command, and trying to get the job done while looking out for my people. It was a job, it was an important job, and I paid attention to the people I worked for and the people who worked for me. The other research takes the form of the history I like to read, usually first person accounts though I also enjoy works like Geoffrey Reagan’s military blunders books. The blunders tend to have a certain consistency throughout the history of warfare.

What is the appeal of power armor/mecha? Why do so many writers–or you yourself–write about it? Why do you think readers/viewers/gamers love it so much?

Power armor is cool. It’s big and powerful, with the same allure as a massive battleship or a jet aircraft or a tank. Yet it is also a personal bit of tech, responding to only one individual, mimicking the overall shape and movement of a human, so it is like your own personal supersuit. Iron Man’s power suit is just another form of mecha. Humans are fragile. Take a hit and it hurts. Inside your power armor, you’re superhuman. Bullets bounce off, you can leap tall buildings, be more powerful than a locomotive…the whole fantasy dream of power and strength. Of course, like anything else the reality might not be as cool as the fantasy, but that’s life.

Many stories about mecha also assume a very high degree of personal autonomy. That goes back at least as far as Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, where a single enlisted soldier gets to run around the battlefield and launch his own nuke at whatever looks like it needs to be nuked. You’re not only superhuman, you also get to do whatever you want to do! That makes the stories more appealing, but it’s also another aspect of the fantasy. The cool armor and weapons and stuff? That might happen some day. Not having anyone telling you what to do when you’re inside that mecha? Good luck with that.

It comes down to those two fantasies, I think. Great personal, physical power and abilities, and the freedom to use it as you see fit. What’s not to like?

What are some of your favorite examples of power armor/mecha (in any media), and what makes them your favorites?

Heinlein’s Starship Troopers remains a benchmark for power armor stories. It still stands out because Heinlein treated the whole thing as real. If individual soldiers had power armor, how would it really work in practice? It doesn’t feel like fiction. Instead, it feels like a documentary or non-fiction account of a grunt’s experience using power armor.

Aliens isn’t about mecha, but at the end when Ripley gets into that cargo handling exo-skeleton and goes hand-to-hand against the Alien queen it also has that feeling of “this is how it really would be.” The exo-skeleton lets Ripley face off against her nightmare and defeat it.
I also like the use of power armor in the Ghost in the Shell animes, especially in the Stand-Alone-Complex (SAC) series. This is cool stuff, and it is handled well within the stories. In SAC in particular, the mecha are repeatedly worn by the guys trying to kill the Major and her partners, and the ways the good guys deal with that is always done with great feel for the action and the characters.