Retro Review: On Basilisk Station by David Weber
The maiden voyage of David Weber’s space opera series featuring officer and gentlewoman Honor Harrington of the Royal Manticoran Navy is the science fiction counterpart to military-career-novel series in the tradition of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin novels, Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe series, and in particular C.S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower saga.Forester is obviously the most prominent influence here – Honor’s initials being the first clue. Her characterization also owes a fair bit to Hornblower; they share a strict sense of duty, a chronic conflict between doing the logical thing and doing the right thing, a tendency to be the victim of higher-up officers who have assorted unjust reasons to hate her guts, and a diverse array of self-esteem issues.
Harrington definitely comes across as an over-idealized character. I can just about sense Weber desperately trying to contrive some flaws to make her more realistic – as it is her biggest ‘flaws’ are that she’s not very good at astro-navigation, some rather minor and shallow body image issues, and that she hates the sound of her own laugh. This is most obvious with Honor but not exclusive to her: Horace Harkness and Alistair McKeon’s characters are the only ones who really demonstrate any ability to be good people with unpleasant qualities. Although the Havenite officers do get some limited portrayal as just-doing-their-job, merely amoral people. Other than that, you basically have your pick of positive, if sometimes snarky or short-fused characters like Honor, Hamish Alexander or Dame Estelle, or unscrupulous, egotistical, spiteful over-the-top gutter trash you love to hate like Admiral Hemphill, Doctor Suchon or Pavel Young.
Having said that, when the plot really gets rolling I can’t help but get pulled in. Weber and Cornwell share a skill at being even-handed in characterizing their secondary characters, with the result that when it’s time to take HMS Fearless into battle, I do sit on edge waiting to see where the hammer falls. This isn’t like Star Trek, where secondary characters might as well be introduced as, “This is Lieutenant So-and-So. They’ll be dying in our climactic battle today.” You have no idea who is going to die, and every death does feel like a punch in the stomach – especially since we also spend some time with the POV of the medical officer doing triage, so even the ones who weren’t killed outright by the last missile might or might not still make it.
Credit has to go to Weber in the area of world-building. This vision of how the future could play out is not at all hard to believe (I particularly like the fact that the Star Kingdom’s monarchs started out as commercial entrepreneurs, showing the continuity from what we are now to what we’ve become in the series), and for my money he’s done a really nice job of reconciling a classic style of ship-to-ship combat with the speeds, distances and physics of outer space, and he didn’t make up anything he didn’t have to. The random suddenness and gruesomeness of casualties in the climactic battle is genuinely horrifying, and gets a massive emotional payoff when the battle is over. Related to my remarks above, one benefit of Honor’s self-castigation is that through her, the human cost of space combat really hits home, where in other stories ‘one third of the crew lost’ would be merely a statistic.
I also like the moral about the tightrope of ethical relations with less-advanced civilizations – which, moreover, dodges the eternal defect of Star Trek planets all apparently being represented by the same half-dozen people in the same town, whatever their level of development. The fact that the aliens are less advanced than humans and actually look genuinely alien is merely icing on the science fiction cake.
In general, then, I like On Basilisk Station. The characters are pretty much pure archetype and the prose are a little on the purple side, but the setting is magnificent, the action is thrilling, the story has classic themes, and the melodramatic style and character arcs are the kind of pulp-fiction indulgence that everyone needs once in a while.