God Save the Space Queen! David Weber’s On Basilisk Station
Baen Books is a lot like Fox News.
One caters to a loyal fanbase by providing farfetched, right-wing-flavored fiction, and the other publishes books with spaceships on the cover.
I should note, I’ve gotten a lot more enjoyment from Baen Books’ output than from Fox News. Legitimate enjoyment, even, not the “lol this is so bad,” kind. Usually. Baen really stands out amongst contemporary SF/F publishers, as a lot of its releases have a conservative slant to them. Given their stable of authors, this can range from the merely eyebrow-quirking to straight up “DER MURZLIMS IS COMING FOR YOUR WHITE WIMMINZ THANKS OBAMA!!!1!1!11oneoneone”
Thankfully, David Weber’s On Basilisk Station doesn’t go nearly that far.
This is the first novel in the Honor Harrington series- one of the more popular works to come out of Baen. The high concept premise is simple: “Horatio Hornblower INNNN SPAAAAACE.” For those of you who aren’t literary nerds for whatever reason, just think back to that “Master and Commander,” movie with Russell Crowe in it. It wasn’t based on Horatio Hornblower directly, but it was definitely influenced by the series, and gets you the general idea of “dutiful English officer sails around and shoots cannons” genre.
Weber really plays up the Napoleonic aspect of it- the spaceships have energy sails, and they even have a kinda contrived reason to operate on mostly a 2-D plane, as the space-drive thingies that make the ships go also create invincible forcefields above and below a spaceship, forcing them to exchange broadsides the old-fashioned way. Of course, that in turn makes me wonder why nobody in the Honorverse thought to put, you know, turrets on their spaceships, but there’s probably contrived reasons behind that, as well. Basically, Weber wanted to write about ships-of-the-line IN SPACE, and that’s what he did, dammit.
Honor Harrington is exactly what would expect from a character who literally has “Honor” as her first name. She’s a model officer, an excellent leader, and should be voiced by Jennifer Hale if they ever get around to making a video game out of the series. She also has a six-legged semi-telepathic fuzzy cat-creature that perches on her shoulder- better than a parrot, I guess. Still, points to Weber for having a completely professional female protagonist. As a character, she’s a little bit dull- but that’s just because she’s a fairly straightforward “lawful good,” archetype, not because she’s not fleshed out. Captain Harrington literally wears a White Hat.
While Weber’s progressive on that respect, there are still some eyebrow-quirk-worthy aspects to it. For one, Honor is loyal to a space-monarchy- because you can’t be Napoleonic without The Queen to rally behind, or something. There’s a chunk of exposition explaining the foundation of the space-monarchy, but it really kind of boils down to “some guy decided it’d be awesome to be the King of Space.” This is pitched as a Good Thing. It’s just one of many contrivances throughout the novel where Weber is fitting the tech and the culture to fit his setting, rather than vice versa.
On top of that, Harrington is assigned to watch over the ass-end of the Space British Empire, complete with a primitive backwater world, with its primitive backwater natives. The book’s plot revolves around a scheme by a bunch of Space-Communists to arm the alien natives with flintlocks, get them hopped up on drugs, and send them off to create havoc. Fair enough. There was even an old Star Trek episode with a similar plot, so there’s the basis for a good story there.
However, Honor & co. have the tendency to refer to the aliens as “Aboriginals,” or just “Abos” for short, which I found more than a little colonialist. What really struck me was a realization I had some ways into the novel: there are no named alien characters. Not even as antagonists. They’re just this generic horde of monsters who exist solely to be manipulated by the bad guys and subsequently gunned down by the good guys. Considering we get brief chapters from the perspective of the bad guy humans, this discrepancy struck me as a bit off.
So yeah. The first three quarters of the novel meander from one point to another. Harrington gets assigned to the ass-end of the galaxy, sets up patrols, does customs inspections, and slowly uncovers the aforementioned conspiracy to create a native rebellion. It’s a lot of set up, and it’s rather…dry, to put it politely. To be fair, some of the Horatio Hornblower books can be just as dry in parts, so maybe Weber’s just being faithful to the source material.
Thing is, while the book takes 300 pages to build up steam, once things get going, the book really kicks into gear. For all the unfortunate colonialism and dry passages about duty and stuff, Weber has a talent for writing rollicking action. Once things get down to spaceships chasing each other around, Weber really manages to capture the excitement- not to mention the carnage and chaos that come from a military engagement.
And y’know what? Based on those last 100 pages, I’m kind of curious about the next novel. And that’s pretty indicative of the better Baen novels. As on the one hand, you’ve got the unfortunate political slant…but on the other, the actual shooty adventure parts are really readable. Not bad for a slow afternoon’s reading, so long as you don’t start basing your personal philosophy on it.
Cover’s still hideous, though.