When SF fans talk about starship captains, the question of Captain Janeway from Star Trek Voyager often comes up, and whether she is a “good” captain. While I’m not here to debate the matter, I would like to point out that she’s not the only female captain you can hitch your wagon train to the stars to.
On Basilisk Station is the first of the Honor Harrington books, a popular series in Military SF. Over the last 20-odd years the “Honorverse” has grown into thirteen novels, two sub-series, and anthologies.
Obviously one of the things I like most about the book (and the series) is the protagonist, Honor Harrington. I know the term “strong female character” is overused as of late, and in fact should be unnecessary, so allow me to rephrase it this way: Honor Harrington is a cunning and resourceful captain who embodies the best of what you would want in your commanding officer, without being some two-dimensional Captain Kirk ripoff. And she happens to be a woman.
But my enjoyment of the Honorverse goes beyond that. The world building is great, and utilizes some clever tricks to deliver its desired effect. Anyone who has seen Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan will remember Khan’s fatal flaw in the final battle—he viewed starship combat in two dimensions, not three. That’s how we tend to view naval warfare, after all. Ships on the sea, hurling broadside volleys at one another.
So in the Honorverse, the physics behind advanced space travel works in such a way that space battles need to be fought in a similar fashion. For example, what pushes ships are “impeller drives” which cause a pair of stressed gravity bands above and below the vessel. These push ships through space at near-light speeds with accelerations far faster than any conventional drives.
This wedge is impenetrable to all current weaponry – nothing can breech it, but likewise nothing can shoot out, either. The physics behind it also prevent the fore and aft parts of the ship from being protected, and there is a gap between the top and bottom wedge. As a result, just like in ancient navies, you have a majority of your weaponry mounted along the broadsides for maximum effect, and familiar naval maneuvers such as “capping the T” can still be thrown around hundreds of years from now.
It’s an elegant solution, really, allowing Weber to keep a semblance of classic military strategy and lingo within a science fiction setting. The politics of the world are also a deliberate a mix of modern and ancient, with queens and kingdoms as well as democracies strangled by in-fighting and collapsing welfare states.
This is because the series itself is largely a science fiction version of Horatio Hornblower set within a futuristic version of the Napoleonic Wars (much like George RR Martin uses the War of the Roses as the basis for his series A Song of Fire and Ice).
Weber does a good job of not trying to lecture or preach about what forms are good or bad—in fact most of the problems that lead to the initial conflict can be found on both sides. It takes the more realistic approach of “when your government is stuck in X position, and you have Y objective, your options become limited.” Morality is not a deciding issue.
The story itself is fairly straightforward as a series opener—Honor has been given her first major command, captaining the HMS Fearless, but soon finds herself out of favor within the admiralty and effectively banished to their most distant outpost, Basilisk Station. Things only get worse from there, leading up to a prelude to invasion by the Republic of Haven, with Honor’s underpowered ship the only one around to stop it. It’s an underdog story, one that marks the beginning of an illustrious career.
I’ve heard criticisms of Honor being a Mary Sue wish fulfillment type of character, to which I say if she is, then so is Captain Kirk (and Kirk himself has also been compared to Horatio Hornblower). I personally found a lot of depth to her character. She isn’t a perfect or flawless person. She has doubts and concerns, but she is professional and determined. She’s certainly less cocksure about her actions than Kirk tends to be.
Likewise I’ve heard complaints of her six-legged companion Nimitz (a treecat which bonded with her and has an empathic psychic link), saying it is out of place in the setting. Personally, I see his inclusion as necessary and deliberate rather than gratuitous or self-indulging. When you’re largely dealing with bridge actions, command decisions and other forms of exposition, the occasional non-military diversion becomes welcome, and these small personal touches remind you that you’re not dealing with robots.
I will say the writing in the first book is functional rather than elegant. But then it is not meant to be poetry. It is efficiently telling you the story, and succeeds in that regard. If I have an actual complaint at all with his writing style, it’s his use of a shifting POV, without any indication a shift is taking place. He does the trick well enough, but it’s not a technique I favor and find it distracting at times.
Though I’ve only read the first four books, I only stopped because I got side-tracked into other things in Japan. Not only do I plan to revisit the main series, but I can’t help but think it would make a kickass television series (much like Game of Thrones).
Originally Published in KODT #217