I seem to be coming over all full-circle. I once made a contribution to a book club, my two cents on the book On Basilisk Station by David Weber. Of course, look far enough and you’ll notice this became a prototype for my posts here on the Library of Alexander. Now that I’ve finally laid hands on the latest book, A Rising Thunder, I’d like to expand on it and summarize the series so far.
Weber’s books belong in the genre known as ‘Space Opera’ science fiction. Like Star Wars, it features cool ships, large fleets and empires, high romance, melodrama, archetypal characters and grandiose action.
On Basilisk Station and Rising Thunder form (for now) opposite ends of Weber’s Honor Harrington series. The core of the “Honorverse” is Weber’s currently-thirteen-book-long series about the title character. In addition, there are a number of spinoffs, often written by or co-written with other authors like Eric Flint, Timothy Zahn and John Ringo.
Most of the latter involve important characters in the Honorverse in their own adventures. But the main books themselves have a single character at their heart: Honor Harrington, an officer in the space navy in the Star Kingdom of Manticore.
In the Honorverse, it is two thousand years in the future, humanity has spread across the galaxy and a number of powerful ’Star Nations’ exist. Honor Harrington is expressly based on Horatio Hornblower and Lord Nelson, and her universe reflects that: the Star Kingdom has three planets, analogues to the three British Isles (one of them, Gryphon, even has ‘highlands’) and its economy is based on its merchant navy. The People’s Republic of Haven has elements of Revolutionary France and Leninist/Stalinist Russia, the Andermani Empire is disciplined and expansionist Prussia. Honor’s career also shows the Nelson connection; she’s a rising star in the navy and earns high rank and peerage titles, and she loses an eye and an arm over the course of her career. Fan outcry caused her to survive her Trafalgar, though, and the series’ Napoleon counterpart fails to come to power, and these mark part of the transition the series has made stylistically.
Against this setting, most of the series is like Hornblower or Cornwell’s Sharpe novels: it’s a story following our protagonist’s military career and all the tactical, political and personal challenges that it brings. Through the escalating war with Haven and, most recently, the entry of a third-party conspiracy and their puppets, the bloated and arrogant Solarian League (a bit of a vision of a possible future for the USA), Honor has risen, and occasionally fallen too, as the fate of her Star Nation and, these days, civilization itself rest in her hands and those of her friends.
Weber is also an historian of naval strategy and politics, and his world building is meticulous and rich.
The greatest triumph of the books is the space combat. One of my least favourite things about Star Trek is that battles between ships had ill-defined rules and how effective or, indeed, intelligent our heroes’ actions were was mostly defined by who the plot needed to win. Honor Harrington, however, has very clear rules, and cooler still, the combat is based on the broadside-against-broadside combat of Napoleonic ships of the line. Weber has taken that as a starting point and then bent it around the real laws of physics. Battles between capital ships take place at enormous speeds and distances. I also love that Weber remembers that space is three-dimensional, so that instead of ships of the line, you have ships of the wall. These are massive warships that fire broadsides of missiles and lasers at one another, and ‘sail’ the gravity waves of hyperspace.
As a onetime history student, I can see Weber’s understanding of political plots, military force and technology and how they would work. The origins, disposition and character of each country is equal parts historically resonant and appropriate to a setting with 2000 years of futuristic tech behind it. A particularly delightful aspect is the way people’s ethnicity has become so jumbled up that people’s appearance or culture and their name can have no connection whatever. I especially treasure the brief appearance in Rising Thunder of a Rabbi O’Reilly.
He populates this world with colorful if basically archetypal characters. Honor herself, a hot-tempered, principled but privately shy woman; the mismatched brothers-in-arms Scotty Tremaine and Horace Harkness; the officer and gentleman Earl White Haven, Manticore’s Queen Elizabeth III and Honor’s bonded animal companion, a Sphinxian ‘treecat’ named Nimitz to name a few.
I usually don’t go in for long-running series, unless they’re light enough you can read them in any sequence. Up to about the Short Victorious War, that’s true of the the Honorverse. I’d read the second through tenth books before the first. However, as the series has progressed, this has become a lot less practical, for two reasons. One: the spinoff novels have begun to inform the plot and Weber seems to be assuming his fans have read those too, so events that didn’t happen in the main series are mentioned and form part of the plot, but aren‘t explained very clearly.
Two: Weber’s love of political intrigue. He has been expanding the scope of his stories, linking their plots together and creating the need for a lot more background knowledge from one book to the next. And it’s reached the point of getting unfocused.
See, in the early books, Honor would be in command, and dealing directly with a tense political/military situation. As she’s risen through the ranks from Commander to Fleet Admiral, the scale of problems and responsibilities she faces has increased apace. But Weber’s style of cutting away to characters also involved in the situation – the enemy, related fronts, Honor’s deputies and friends and so on – now encompasses so many people that in Rising Thunder, Honor herself barely appears.
The books have increasingly featured lots of people talking at the expense of character and pacing. Weber also loves asides to explain how, say, the tactics of the current battle are working against how standard thinking says they should work. Apparently, he has this in common with Tom Clancy and definitely with Herman Melville.
For a geeky sci-fi fan and world building enthusiast like me, it’s actually pretty neat, and considering the distance and timescale of combat in the Honorverse, he can usually weave it in artfully. Unfortunately, Weber has the most maddeningly pedantic writing style I’ve ever seen. Everything is an info dump. His characters always speak in extremely precise terms about anything from affairs of state to the quality of the coffee and he’ll never use a sentence to say something when he can use a paragraph. For more, see the parody “David Weber Orders a Pizza,” but to give a snippet, this is an excerpt from Rising Thunder from the POV of the Solarians facing an incoming Manticoran missile volley – I repeat, they are currently under enemy fire:
“In theory, a purely ballistic missile with the standoff range of a modern laser head was just as accurate as one which could still maneuver. Even an impeller-drive starship couldn’t produce enough Delta V to change its predicted position sufficiently to get out of the laser head’s effective range basket during the three min…”
Okay, okay, you get the picture. I sometimes think he forgets he‘s writing novels about these ships, not the instruction manuals. Part of the reason Rising Thunder seems to just fluff about is that it’s actually part one of a sub-duology because this book had to be split in two to prevent it collapsing under its own weight.
For all that, though, I keep reading the darn things. It’s a bit like hacking through the jungle to find lost treasure. Despite his excesses, Weber has a Phillip Pullman-esque talent for making even one-shot characters remarkably vivid and interesting. His depiction of the horrors of war and his policy of all characters standing a chance of dying give the books unexpected emotional punch, and his willingness to put antagonists of all political stripes in different factions is very intelligent and interesting.
Honor herself, as I said way back when, can seem a trifle over-idealized. The fact that she’s always, always at the heart of the action is part of this. She’s never quite as believably flawed as I’d like, and the scale and number of her achievements and honours against her shrinking violet personality is a little hard to take seriously. Still, as a classic Luke Skywalker or Katniss Everdeen-type hero she’s still captivating. To his credit, Weber doesn’t make a big thing over her being a woman, unless there’s a good reason to do so.
The battles, when they happen, are well worth waiting for. The personal drama is cheesy but in a cute kind of way. I usually hate love triangles but [SPOILERS] Honor’s with Earl White Haven and his wife of many years is gratifyingly solved the ElfQuest way of just marrying both of them.
The Honor Harrington novels are intricate, imaginative and richly detailed. Excitement, melodrama and intrigue are the orders of the day, but you have to be prepared to tackle or tune out the technical jargon and Weber’s keenness to show off his efforts. His collaborators in the spinoffs do rein him in a bit, too. Still, if you’ve got the energy to see past its faults, the world and the characters in it are well worth it.
“Let’s be about it!”