Pile #10 On Basilisk Station” by David Weber

28 Jan

“On Basilisk Station” http://www.amazon.com/review/R2D2NRHI1LFE6K/ref=cm_cr_rdp_perm

This is the first in the “Honor Harrington” series of novels by David Weber that follows the life and career of Honor Harrington, -a very capable female officer in the Royal Manticoran Navy of the Star Kingdom of Manticore,  located far beyond our solar system some two thousand years in the future.

A lot of people poo-poo David Weber because he hasn’t (yet) won any awards for  his science-fiction.  I think this is a shame, and those who do so without reading him are denying themselves a real pleasure, for Weber brings technology, tactics, politics and people together to provide an internally consistent and coherent story universe, within a fully realized world to enjoy.

“On Basilisk Station” is first and foremost a military tale, with clashing empires, massive navies, personal heroism and even countervailing internal political strife, even if at first glance nothing seems to happen. In fact, the first third of the book can appear deceptively slow, not to mention “dull, boring and tedious” to readers who expect action to reign in a book from start to finish without a breather, especially in a book dedicated to C.S. Forester of “Horatio Hornblower” fame. The apparent slowness, however is what sets the stage for the rest of the series.

The prologue introduces both the long range and immediate story plots: the almost certain war between the Star Kingdom of Manticore and the People’s Republic of Haven -an expansionist minded polity desperate to keep afloat a deteriorating socio-economic situation at home, and the current covert-military operation that Haven is attempting to pull off to stack the decks in its favor when the inevitable war happens.

What to do about Honor?

As the story proper opens, Honor has been given command (her second hyper-capable command slot) of the light cruiser H.M.S. Fearless. There’s just one catch: for an upcoming Fleet Exercise, her ship is tasked with field testing a new weapon system (to the detriment of its conventional armament). After demonstrating the inherent vulnerability of said system while scoring an early ‘victory’ in the Exercises, Honor is hustled off to one of the least attractive postings in the entire Navy, the backwater that is Basilisk Station. Upon arrival an even greater snub is awaiting, as the senior officer on station -an unwelcome memory from her academy days- takes the opportunity to return his ship to Manticore for a major refit, leaving Honor’s ship the sole Manticorn naval presence in-system, and responsible for the patrol of the entire star system and its habitable planet in an obvious setup to wreck her career.

Some officers might despair when confronted with such a scenario, but not our Honor Harrington. From stolid yeoman stock, all she knows is that she was given a job to do by her lawful superiors, and that she is there to see it through to completion -no matter how impossible success seems, and despite being hamstrung by the loss of half the Station’s picket strength, a demoralized crew, an uncooperative executive officer, lack of resources, and an unsettled native populace. And so she sets forth, using ingenuity, training and experience (and of course her legal regulatory authority as a naval officer) to put things to right, for the honor of Manticore, the Queen, and the Navy. And it is in the middle of all this activity that a pattern of foreign entanglement begins to show itself, such that Honor finds herself all that stands between her star nation and war. Honor, though is the kind of person who doesn’t know when to give up; she’ll give her all and then some, not shying away from the hard decisions, yet never letting them rest easily on her shoulders.

It is through the thick of battle, as well as in the carrying out of her assigned duties that forms the bulk of the novel, that we see Honor becoming an officer, a character, and a person to respect, the kind of officer that brings out the best in her crew, and a commander that you do not want to let down. Sprinkle in a little good timing, a crew (and civilian administration) that begins to believe in themselves and in her, and seat-of-your-pants missile duels and you get a book that ends with the desire for ‘more Honor, please’ as a reviewer of a later volume says.

Beginning a beautiful friendship

Most of the subsequent volumes follow the pattern set here of a gradual set up -usually with Haven initiating an action, and Manticore -until war truly breaks out- reacting- seen from multiple angles and points of view, political intrigue and the routine of naval life, that leads from to a pulse-racing crescendo of battle scenes, often against great odds, which Honor does not expect to survive, yet manages to pull victory out of desperation, but always, always she is driven by duty -to Queen and country, to her own officers and crew, and to herself. Through the pages you come to know, admire, and eventually love the characters Weber has created, including the plucky little Star Kingdom of Manticore itself.

It is true that the People’s Republic of Haven gets short shrift in this opening novel, but every story needs an obvious ‘bad guy’ for the ‘good guy’ to shine by the contrast of values, actions, and, personnel, but I can assure the interested reader that Haven does not long remain a mere ‘cookie-cutter’ evil empire.

Action?  What Action?  Oh…THAT Action!

A potential problem with On Basilisk Station is that after the Fleet Exercise and Honor’s ‘banishment’ to Basilisk Station, nothing much appears to be happening for the next third of the book (at least one co-worker attempted to read  On Basilisk Station and put it down after only 20 pages. To be far, he does this with any book that doesn’t grab him before 20 pages. I don’t think he likes The Lord of the Rings, for that matter). This is deceptive however, once you realize that what Honor is doing is building up the capabilities and resources of her patrol from scratch. She also has to build up  (or re-build) professional relationships with her crew, the Resident Commissioner, and the shipping that she is to inspect and monitor.  And that’s before trouble with the natives crop up.

From the Top, Please

One downside to the series as a whole is that attention is focused almost totally on the “movers and shakers” of society, Parliamentary intrigue, and of course the Navy. Little time is spared dealing with common life aboard ship (of ratings and NCOs) and the treatment of planet bound general populations is sparse to non-existent; and religion (apart from one obvious example from the second book) seems distant, unrelated to character motivations, and relegated to a private sphere having little or no public consequences -a trend which unfortunately is all to common in science fiction of every stripe. This can lead to the conclusion that economics is the driving force of human history in Weber’s universe.

On the other hand, space opera and naval adventure generally do not often concern themselves with showing every segment of society, so it’s not an absolute obstacle to enjoying the story, though it could possibly be why people dismiss Weber as a ‘serious’ science fiction writer.

Cookie-Cutter Heroes Need Not Apply

My final recommendation: If you are looking for a stand-alone work of military science fiction, this may not be for you, as many persons, and institutions are only briefly touched upon in this opening volume, and not all plot points are resolved.

If, however, you are craving a series that combines political intrigue, galactic panoramas, naval warfare that includes fleet actions as well as hand-to-hand combat, and personal (as well as professional) development over the course of a dozen plus novels and short story collections, and don’t mind the occasional excursus of detail minutiae  that leads to violent consequences, then Weber is your man, and Honor Harrington your woman. (And Nimitz, of course, is your treecat but that’s another story -or two).

My next scheduled Pile is The Highest Tide a fictional reminiscence of a teenage boy’s coming-of-age along the tidal shallows of the Pacific Northwest, the debut novel of Jim Lynch. So until then, keep calm, and read on.

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