Wednesday, August 18, 2010

David Weber: On Basilisk Station

Another one borrowed from my sister of the eclectic reading taste. She mentioned reading these weird space opera sci-fi novels a while ago, and upon my interest offered to lend me one, which happened when she came by last. And I have never read anything like this in my entire life. It is the oddest idea.

It’s set in a future where humans have colonised space and formed several different space nations. The Kingdom of Manticore, ruled by Elizabeth III, controls some sort of wormhole junction. At the end of one of the wormhole passages lies a small planet called Medusa, covered with moss and inhabited by lanky multi-jointed Bronze-age-level aliens known as Stilties by the politically correct humans. To prevent rivalling nations, especially the Republic of Haven, from claiming Medusa and gaining control of the wormhole entrance, Manticore has annexed Medusa and established Basilisk station, to “protect the natives” from off-world corruption. Out of the way, tiny, and subject to political compromises, Basilisk station has become a looked-down upon dumping-ground for officers who want to be shoved out of the way.

Enter Honor Harrington, the most perfect officer in space. Her original excitement over becoming captain of the Fearless has been tarred by experimenting superiors who have tampered with the lay-out of the ship’s armaments. When combat exercises don’t show the expected results Honor is packed off to Basilisk. But, Honor is a woman of duty and, well, honour. She is going mould her crew and bring out the best of them, and despite being only one tiny ship, vastly inadequate to the task at hand, they are going to police Basilisk station and do it well, dammit. Honor says nothing any way other than calmly and coolly. She is distanced but involved, demanding yet courteous, and her crew loves her. One of the reviewers on Amazon calls her a “litmus Mary Sue test”. Snerk.

Okay, sorry about all the info. This is just the background really, now comes the storyline, but it’s not necessary to get into that. Obviously the station has been mismanaged, obviously Honor and her crew work together with the civilian staff on the planet (unlike previous Navy officers), obviously they discover smugglers and a sinister plot, and possibly less obviously (but it is obvious if you know from whence Weber draws his ideas) it ends in a loooong drawn-out battle between Honor’s tiny ship and a huge Haven vessel, ending with stupendous loss of life but victory and promotion. For Honor. Because Weber, I see from reading online, Weber draws his inspiration from actual historical battles, from the great sea-faring eras. Reading that mai brainz went ooohhhhh! So instead of Manticore and Haven, read England and France. See? They even get bounties if they catch loads of smugglers. If he hadn’t set it in space and thus created a science-fiction frame, it’d be one of those slightly fictionalised historical books about some battle or other. What it reminded me of was those “little did Hitler realise” documentaries that breed on Discovery channel. You know: “ Little did Hitler (/Stalin/Churchill/whomever) realise that the XYZ tank, despite being phenomenally strong, had one weakness that would prove fatal. As [officer victim] found out when mechanical failure caused an explosion onboard, frying his eye-balls and leaving him dying in a gurgling stream of his own blood.” My point being that the blood and gore of Officer Victim here is less important than the power of the tank and the strategy of war and battle. We know nothing of Officer Victim except that he did his duty to the end. To the end, dammit! Let us fold a flag on his coffin. That’s what he would have wanted most.

There is no character development. The dialogue is pretty much orders, analysis, discussions of technical/strategical problems. There is no feeling of being transferred into an alien world – because it’s not an alien world, it’s our world, two hundred years ago, but in the future. There’s masses of tech talk, describing exactly how the ship travels in hyperspace or what have you. In utter seriousness. Sometimes to add background to a plot issue – this is why help won’t arrive in time – but sometimes just because. Because if I was writing a book on the battle of Waterloo I’d write about how the boats were built, wouldn’t I? The natives are dismissed. When they turn on the off-worlders, doped to their scalps on a mind-altering substance, they are all massacred. Granted, a short bit from the point of view of one of the soldiers in charge of shooting them describes it as horrible and extremely brutal, so that he just has to shut his mind to and get on with it. But there will be no repercussions and there is never any moral discussion about the rights and wrongs of colonising primitive alien worlds. Oh, there are politicians who think it is. They are naïve morons who don’t understand the Havenite threat.

What my sister found interesting about Honorverse (and why she recommended it to me) is how women and men serve under absolute equality. Gender is not an issue, it’s hardly even mentioned. All that matters is being a good officer, and there are no prejudices about whether women are men will be better at that task. It is in fairness very well done, creating a sort of ideal military/naval world where competence comes first.

Now, this type of literature has never been my thing. After slogging my way through the endless end battle, in which EVERYONE DIES that I had, well, not gotten to know per se (see “no character development”), but gotten used to and almost started to hope that I would get to know, after slogging through all that and reading the Honorific end (she is calm and cool, despite mourning her brave navy folks) I did try to read the exerpt from a later Honor novel that was tacked on to the end. But God help me, I couldn’t stand any more. That one had Honor’s adoring little relations gathering around her chair to hear her read stories from an antique book, while the other relations tried to impress upon her her need for an heir.

Frighteningly, I can see myself succumbing to another Honor novel some time in the future. “Oh, surely it wasn’t as dull and flat as I remember it?” Kick me then, or watch me kick myself (because I won’t be able to put it down until I’ve finished it anyway, I suspect). Because see how much I’ve found to say about it! I hate that it may have made more of an impression on me than I’d like. Arse arse arse.


li'l sis said...

Muwhahahaha! I shall now lay in wait for a few months before nonchalantly going, "O hai! You wantz next Honor Harrington book ya?"
*more evil laughter here*

But yeah, the other books are basically the same; Honor is awesome, everyone else suxxors.

bani said...

Shut uuuuup. There are good books I have to read you know! Good ones!