On Basilisk Station is the first book in David Weber’s Honor Harrington series. It’s a classic space opera written in 1993 that follows the eponymous heroine, Honor Harrington, as she rises through the ranks of the Royal Manticoran Navy (RMS). The book starts off a little slow with a prologue that doesn’t click into place until more than half-way through, but picks up quickly after that. The situation that the prologue sets up is that the Manticoran Monarchy holds possession of a few key locations that bring in a lot of money from trade, and their rival political system, the Republic of Haven, has spent itself broke supporting a welfare state. What follows is an intricate political and military drama with a sprinkling of action scenes.
When we join her story, Honor Harrington is a fresh graduate of the RMS Naval Academy. Because of her good grades (except in math), she lands a coveted position as captain of a small spaceship, the HMS Fearless. Unfortunately, her ship’s missiles are disposed of so that a politician, Sonja Hemphill, can test her pet new technology—the gravlance. Hemphill thinks that the gravlance will give smaller ships an advantage against much bigger ships, but she doesn’t realize that because the gravlance is so close-range, the ship would also need its regular weapons to protect itself until it gets close enough to fire. Although handicapped with the gravlance, Honor manages to pass the first virtual test, but loses every test after that. This makes her crew resent her, even though it’s not her fault she’s been given an impossible assignment. To hide her embarrassment, Hemphill decides to send Honor to Basilisk, a station monitoring traffic near the backwater planet of Medusa. Medusa is populated by praying-mantis-like aliens who like to use a drug called mehoka which can cause them to go into a blistering rage (the mental image of praying mantises strung out on space meth is hilarious… poor Zoraks! Haha). Honor works hard to reform the dilapidated Basilisk Station, which has been under the control of Pavel Young, an old enemy of hers from the Naval Academy.
Honor Harrington is a very sympathetic protagonist (maybe a little too perfect at times, but otherwise good). She’s physically tall and strong (an effect of growing up on a planet with high gravity), intellectually developed, and also has a lot of emotional strength (though she can be a little detached at times). She does a great job managing her crew, who resent her at first because she got them sent to Basilisk Station, which is where the RMN dumps all its unwanted personnel that it can’t legally fire. Eventually, by a mix of kindness and hard-assery, she gets them to come around and start doing their jobs (except for one, Dr. Suchon, who she deals with by sending her planet-side). This is a great book to read if you’re sick of victims and anti-heroes and want to read a straight-up role-model female protagonist. Her being female is really the twist here; if she was male her character would be way too staid to work and I don’t think the series would have become as popular as it did. Her treecat named Nimitz (a breed of empathic cat… so, a cat), who sits on her shoulder and loves to eat celery, is a fun diversion from a lot of tense scenes.
This is actually the second science fiction book written by a man I’ve read in which a female protagonist gets revenge for rape. Honor beats her (potential) rapist up before he can touch her, while in Eric Brown’s Helix a side character kills her rapist almost ten years after the event. I really need to read more science fiction written by women to see if female writers also share this fantasy, because if it’s just a male writer thing, then at best it’s an attempt at empowerment, and at worst it’s a fantasy to assuage male guilt about rape or it’s putting the responsibility on women to defend themselves instead of putting the responsibility on men not to rape.
Anyway, that’s one thing I found problematic. Another is the simplistic condemnation of the “welfare state”:
“It isn’t the Fleet budget that’s breaking the bank. It’s the increases in the Basic Living Stipend. We’ve got to tell the Dolists that any trough has a bottom and get them to stop swilling long enough to get our feet back under us.”
This made sense back in ’93, but now it’s becoming dated as we’re seeing the effects of so-called “free-market” capitalism in rising inequality, longer work hours, and stagnating salaries. Weber’s morality in this book is gratingly black-and-white: those who take responsibility are the heroes, and those who don’t are the villains. That’s it. There’s no nuance, and it reminds me quite a bit of Atlas Shrugged, which was no doubt an influence on Weber in his youth.
I guess the heart of this book are the tactics and space battles, but I have a hard time getting into the complexities of strategy, so that element was a bit lost on me. I’m sure they were great, I just can’t follow them very well. The last scene, though, was much gorier than I was expecting with blood and guts and bones flying around everywhere as the enemy space ship’s missiles took huge bites out of Fearless. The book has such detail in its description of naval politics and battles that I thought for sure Weber had some military experience, but according to his Wikipedia page his experience is mostly in writing and board games. And he has an M.A. in history. That kind of explains the bombastic final scene, since his experience is with fiction and making things exciting, not the deadly seriousness of actual warfare. It does speak volumes about the power of the human imagination, though, that he can write convincingly enough to trick me into thinking he’s been in the Navy. It is heartening for someone like me who wants to write but doesn’t have a lot of life experience. :)