Sunday, January 18, 2015

The Beginning of Honor

As an adolescent, searching to inform my sense of the right way to live, I encountered an icon in C.S. Forester’s British naval officer Horatio Hornblower. For decades, Hornblower stood as my fictional ideal of leadership, principle and stoic adherence to duty.

Then in 1993, I opened my first Honor Harrington novel, On Basilisk Station, and Horatio was unseated by Honor. The two characters share more than initials; David Weber’s Honor Harrington is, like Hornblower, an officer in a royal navy. Ms. Midshipman Harrington, like her 19th century counterpart, is a person of stellar principle and sturdy sense of duty (and is somewhat humorless and politically clueless at first, as serious, dutiful, task-focused youngsters can be). 

The likeness is no accident. Weber created Harrington as a deliberate homage to Forester’s forthright Briton.

We meet Honor and her hexapod treecat Nimitz at Saganami Island, the academy for the Royal Manticoran Navy. This navy is spaceships, and Manticore is the home world of a small empire. These two elements, along with the telepathic treecats of Honor’s homeworld, constitute the primary differences between Horatio’s navy and Honor’s. This frees Weber to tell the story—and Weber is a past master at military SF.

Honor’s days at Saganami Island as a midshipman, told in retrospect, are important to the back-story, and serve to establish her character, as well as that of her nemesis, Pavel Young. Where Honor is of yeoman stock from a “rural” world in the empire, Young comes from the nobility of Manticore. Honor’s innate honesty and courtesy are easily contrasted with Young’s bullying and his sly approach to the truth. It scarcely needs Young's attempted rape of Honor to persuade us that he is vile. Subtler differences between them become more obvious with time. (And we have time; more than fourteen novels will eventually center around Harrington.)

Due to a naively unpolitical choice made by the fresh-from-the-academy Harrington, Honor and the crew of her command are “exiled” to the unpopular backwater posting on Basilisk Station, in a light cruiser whose conventional weapons systems have been gutted and replaced by a nearly-useless experimental weapon. Worse, Pavel Young, in command of a second ship, is posted there as well—and he’s in nominal command of the picket. Honor’s distaste at taking orders from Young is carefully disguised in their interaction, however. She knows where her duty lies, even if he is preventing her from doing it. (Once again, Pavel Young is out to rape Honor.)

Despite the modern technology, the battle action from On Basilisk Station is reminiscent of that of both Hornblower’s navy and the British Army conflicts in South Africa (the Zulu Wars) and Afghanistan (the massacre of the British garrison at the Kyber Pass). This is due in large part to Weber’s constraining definition of space-flight technology in the “Honorverse”; bands of force that allow ships to traverse wormholes also prevent truly spherical battle action. Honor’s Navy, like Hornblower’s, is vulnerable in a single plane only.

This might have made the Honor Harrington novels mere space-opera echoes of the Forester classics, except that David Weber has really considered the spherical nature of a space battle. It dictates the strategy ship captains must consider in battle; if Honor cannot be killed by a hit from below, she can also turn her ship to interpose its invulnerable “belly bands” between her and incoming fire. She must maneuver her own vessel to permit shots which will penetrate her enemy’s bands of force. Further strategic advantage is gained from intelligence in a light-year wide field of battle.

The combination of thrilling battle scenes with a graceful, forceful, intelligent main character with a core of steel make the Honor Harrington novels my favorite for rereading. If you haven’t encountered On Basilisk Station yet, I envy you—you have a wonderful experience ahead of you! 

Prepare to be conquered by Honor Harrington.

On Basilisk Station is currently available for $0.00 in the Kindle edition. How can you lose?

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