On Basilisk Station, David Weber (Baen Books, 1993)

 

(Military Science Fiction)

Grade: Δ — (Delta) A solid read, but only buy it if you like the genre.

In brief:

On Basilisk Station by David Weber, is the debut novel for his best known character: Honor Harrington. While this is not his best work, nor the best book in the series, it does introduce one of the most iconic figures in Military Science Fiction (MilFic), the world she lives in, and more importantly, the Navy she serves in.

The Honor Harrington series is often described as Horatio Hornblower in Space, but while valid, such a view is perhaps an oversimplification. Indeed, one could argue that Weber’s writing is more like that of Tom Clancy than that of C.S. Forester. Having said that, this story is clearly inspired (at least in part) by C.S. Forester’s Beat To Quarters. Even so It is a must read to anyone who count’s themselves a fan of the MilFic subgenre, and serves as an introduction to a series that get’s better the further it goes.

Setting:

A Far Future interstellar space, where Faster than Light travel is possible through hyperspace and wormholes. Earth exists, but is little more than backdrop, with the main storylines occurring on independent interstellar states primarily populated by the descendents of human colonists. The prime backdrop is clearly (and unabashedly) based on a futurized version of the Napoleonic era Naval combat.

In Depth:

Right, I said it up front: this is not Weber’s best work.  Oh, it’s more than readable, but drags in part and has some faults throughout it. Yet, despite its problems, the book has a certain appeal, and more to the point, is the starting point of a series that has had great impact on the MilFic community as a whole.

Clearly influenced and in part inspired by C.S. Forester’s Beat to Quarters, the book that introduced the world to Horatio Hornblower, On Basilisk Station in turn introduces us to Honor Harrington, a female Captain of remarkable intelligence and skill.  Indeed, here we come to the greatest complaint about the book, and the series as a whole: Honor Harrington, is too perfect.  She has effectively no faults, or perhaps more to the point, her faults are really strengths.  She’s remarkably clever, but it gets her into trouble. She is beautiful, but was a late bloomer and so doesn’t realize it.  She’s highly professional, born to an elite family line, but in an area where that is not that important. She’s athletic, she has an innate understanding of starship tactics, etc. etc. etc.

Now, for long time readers of this blog, I will note that I more or less discuss over-perfection in MilFic protagonists in two previous articles, Polyanna was a Space Marine and The Problem with Military Science Fiction Part I.  In brief, however, I will say that if Weber had given Harrington as many faults as Forester gave Hornblower, people would have accused him of being sexist.  Horatio Hornblower is such a fascinating character in part because he is so innately flawed and self-doubting, and get’s seasick.  Had Weber shown Harrington with such flaws, even in 1993, one might have assumed that he was creating a negatively stereotyped female CO. Criticisms such as “Oh, clearly all her self-doubting shows how little Weber understands women, she is written just the way a man would write a woman: an indecisive self-doubting girl… etc. etc. etc” could well have flooded him.  Instead, he chose to make her perfect.  Nowadays, I suspect that a flawed female CO might well just be viewed as a good character, but not so twenty years ago.  That change in attitude was in part due to the ground paved by Weber.[2]

Yet super-polyannism is not the only fault with the book.  Then there are some strange writing elements, most notable the pacing and the way that action is dealt with through the bulk of the story.  Structurally speaking, what occurs is: a plan is created, acted upon, and then discussed after the event.  This mimics military action reasonably well: there is a long point in which tactics are discussed outlined etc., action is taken, then a debriefing occurs.  The problem is that for most of the book, the planning and debriefing stages are shown, but that actual combat is not.  As a result we get a chapter discussing possible outcomes, then spend a chapter describing what happened, but kind of miss out the action itself.  In some circles, this bi-pass of combat would be the equivalent of a porn movie which misses out the sex.

Even so, in some ways even this works.  It does, after all, show the perspective of a ship’s captain.  Star Trek aside, the Senior Officers on board of Naval vessels don’t just go on away missions and go shooting at the enemy.  Even so, there are other perspective characters in this book, and in some instances it might have done quite well to miss out either the planning or the debrief in order to pick up the pace of action a bit.  The final battle scene does not have this problem, I should note.

Furthermore, there are some … well… shall we say interesting depictions of and approaches to dealing with indigenous populations.  Indeed, I will note that I felt more than a little uncomfortable with some of the scenes.  Of course, the natives are drug induced aliens, but even just the depiction of an entire race in that sort of manner left me with a foul taste in my mouth. It does serve a plot point, however, and perhaps I am being a wee too PC for some MilFic fans.

Even so, as a whole, On Basilisk Station is an okay book that introduces a pretty good series; one that gets better the further into it one gets.  To that end, while it is problematic, it is a good read for anyone who likes Military Science Fiction, indeed perhaps even a must read.

If, however, you don’t like the Genre, give this one a miss.


[1] And more importantly the Navy…

[2] It is, in fact, hard to believe how far we’ve come in twenty years.  Oh, we’ve still got a long way to go, but really, ten years ago a woman CO was not common in fiction.  Even Star Trek didn’t have a female CO shown on a regular basis until 2002… and that was Janeway… don’t get me started on Janeway and her forced femininity….

 

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About Thomas Evans

I'm a writer of mysteries, espionage, and speculative fiction. In my previous incarnation I was an archaeologist specializing in gender and identity in Iron and Bronze Age Europe. Mostly, however, I was known for my works with the use of geomatics, multiscalular spatial analysis and landscape theory within archaeology.
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11 Responses to On Basilisk Station, David Weber (Baen Books, 1993)

  1. jackmcdjr says:

    Hank Crumption wrote one of the best books I’ve ever read. It open my eyes and mind to a world that few understand. He was a great asset to the United State and the War on Terrorism. And I forvone am glad that wr have this man on our side. God Bless the USA. and Henry Hank Crumpton.

    • Thomas Evans says:

      I suspect you intended to comment on the “Art of Intelligence” entry, not this one, but either way, he does give a very interesting account of the CIA and the War On Terror.

      To that end, are you familiar with the “SpyCasts” from the International Spy Museum? They are fully of really interesting accounts of both intelligence work and the war on terror.

  2. Sounds an absorbing read…

  3. It wasn’t a bad start to a series which peaked about two books later and then started to go down hill. Weber isn’t a bad writer but in my opinion he isn’t great at characters, the heroes tend to make Jesus look like Hitler and the bad guys, Hitler look like Jesus, which gets a bit wearing after a while.

    • Thomas Evans says:

      Agreed… though in many cases I do feel his over attempts at perfection are due to his desire to avoid having a weak looking character Still, he is the perfect example of what I pointed out as being wrong with Military Sci Fi in my The Problem with MilFic article. I’ve only read up to the Third novel, so I will be interested to see how it evolves, but I’m sure you’re right

      • The strongest point of the book was the final battle. Battle scenes have to be exciting but it can be tricky making sure it isn’t a case of Side A fired, Side B said ouch, Side B fired back etc, etc. In fairness the book did manage to have a very good one on one running battle.

      • Thomas Evans says:

        Single running space battles of that nature are very hard sand yes weber pulled it off. I thought he was less successful in the third book, even though that was a better book overall. Mind you, I thought that battle failed because he introduced a technology in order to pull off a trick which then did what it was supposed to do.

  4. His and White’s Starfire series are also worth a look. Has quite few of the same problems through. The FTL system is sort of interesting.

  5. Pingback: ON BASILISK STATION Zone6

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