David Weber's On Basilisk Station
Once again, I'm late to the party but I just finished reading On Basilisk Station, the first book in David Weber's "Honorverse" series of military scifi books and stories. I had conflicting reactions to the story so I'm wavering between giving it a C- or a D+. You make the call.
The Good Things
Captain Honor Harrington, our protagonist, is noble, good, and true. When I say it like that it sounds like I'm making fun of her but I'm not; she's a fictional hero from a simpler time and I can thoroughly enjoy dropping out of post-modern cynicism for awhile and coming along while a good person does the right thing under difficult and even dangerous circumstances just because it's the right thing. That's a good story. Weber states somewhere that he was inspired by Forester's Horatio Hornblower series and he does a good job of capturing the virtues of those books.
Weber has also done a great job of world-building and it's fun to see how he has shifted a fairly complex model of the early 19th century British Empire and it's wind-powered Royal Navy into an interstellar setting. Nothing earthshaking but he's put in the work to get it done right. Weber's world is complete, from his interstellar ships and their weaponry down to lots of details about the politics and bureaucratic machinations in the Kingdom of Manticore and its Royal Navy. Good stuff.
And the fiendish plot by the evil People's Republic of Haven is diabolical and mysterious enough to carry you through most of the book wondering what those rotten so-and-sos are up too. Captain Harrington finally pierces the conspiracy through intelligence, hard work and just doing her duty where others before her hadn't. Go get 'em, Cap.
Also, we have an action-packed conclusion where Harrington's discovery of the Havenite scheme lands her in a violent confrontation that she is in no way prepared for with a bigger and better armed Havenite ship that's out to destroy her in order to cover Haven's tracks. Only Harrington's skill as a starship commander manages to barely save her and her crew from destruction and give the Havenites what they so richly derserve. (I don't think I'm giving anything serious away here. It's pretty clear from the get-go that Harrington is going to triumph rather than die. It's just not that kind of book.)
The Bad Stuff
Sounds good, right? Okay, so let's look at the bad stuff.
The politics of this book are best described as "knuckle-dragging reactionary" and this book was written more than twenty years before Trump.
The plot revolves around the planet Medusa which has been occupied by the freedom-loving Kingdom of Manticore for strategic geopolitical reasons. The Medusans got no say in that but what the hell, they're completely primitive and incapable of social progress without the firm and beneficent guidance of the Kingdom so who cares what they think about it. More, the plot also revolves around the susceptibility of the Medusans (also known as "abos" and "wogs") to drug addiction; they just can't lay off the stuff even when they know that it's going to destroy them. Their drug of choice turns them into murdering, berserker animals and any sane sentient being would steer way clear of it but the childish Medusans just don't have that kind of self-control. The plot also depends on the fact that the mewling Liberals back in Manticore's parliament have prevented the Royal Manticore Navy from just completely taking Medusa over; the current treaty imposed on Medusa by Manticore includes some recognition of Medusan rights and autonomy. These rights and recognitions were imposed by the Liberals, who have no idea what the real situation is out here on the frontier and who have unwittingly opened a door for the Havenites to insert themselves.
This contempt for the rights and even the lives of the Medusans reaches its peak in a scene where a portion of the Medusan population has risen in revolt against the off-world occupiers, armed by the Havenites and spurred on by drugs. The noble Manticoran military responds with a massacre of enormous proportions. Which is bad enough but what's really bad is the joy and excitement shining through the description of this one-sided slaughter. Weber lingers over the details for paragraph after paragraph, page after page, bragging that the Manticorans left Medusan bodies piled six deep across a broad, wide valley. When he isn't relishing the sensory details of mass killing he's gloating over the one-sidedness of the fight, since the Manticoran's advanced weapons technology allows them to kill tens of thousands of Medusans with complete impunity. How one-sided was the fight? At one point the Manticorans actually had to back up as as they continued firing and called for support from heavy artillery. Close call, there.
It's instructive to contrast the massacre of the Medusans with an earlier, unrelated scene where criminal treachery causes the death of a couple of dozen Manticoran soldiers. In that case, it takes Weber a chapter or two to get over the righteous rage of the Manticorans at the deaths of their noble comrages. But a valley full of dead Medusans? The biggest emotional response Weber can muster is "Whoa! These advanced Manticoran weapons are awesome!" As I sit here and recall this chapter, I'm surprised that I kept reading because, seriously, it is creepy. Creepy to a level where you can't hide from the fact that Weber enjoys genocidal fantasies. Wait, that's not fair to Weber. Genocide implies a conscious decision to exterminate some species or other. Weber shows no sign of that. But I'm blanking on the word that means you really enjoy slaughtering some other kind of people by the thousands even though you don't intend to actually exterminate them. I'm surprised the editors at Baen didn't step in and cut this. I think it's telling that Weber keeps our hero, Captain Harrington, well clear of the massacre. As fate would have it, she's tending to other matters up in space. That's real writing savvy there: don't let your protagonist show herself as a psychotic butcher. It could reduce audience identification with the protagonist.
Moving on, Manticore itself is a hereditary monarchy supported by a full-fledged, hereditary aristocracy. Weber does a nice job of explaining how a hereditary monarchy arose on a space colony whose colonists did not originally intend to start one. (It's noteworthy that whenever the Manticorians do something morally questionable or flatly evil it's never something they started out intending to do but something that was forced on them.) But having explained how the hereditary aristocracy came about, Weber has no criticism to make of this arrangement. We are supposed to just accept that aristocratic kingdoms work perfectly well as bastions of liberty. Nothing to puzzle over here, just move on.
The People's Republic of Haven, however, is just pure evil. You know they're evil because they have implemented socialist measures like a Basic Income Stipend. Scum who would do that are capable of anything. In fact, the economic burden placed on the Havenite economy by paying people not to work is the primary motive for Haven's imperialist expansion. Haven needs to conquer other planets and loot them in order to prop up its failing socialist economy that can't even pay for endless expansion of the military (I'm not exaggerating here; see the prologue).
If Weber had given us this political perspective once and then let it alone you might be able to ignore it but he keeps up his whining about the Manticoran Liberals all through the book. He's concerned for us to know that, unlike the real world, in his fictional world all true and noble military personnel have nothing but contempt for Liberals and their damned foolishness that's going to get us all killed. After awhile this endless petulance about Liberals interfering with the military just starts to grate on you.
So that's it. If you are, yourself, a knuckle-dragging reactionary (and ideally a racist in the bargain) then I can recommend this book without reservation. You're going to have a good time. But if you aren't a knuckle-dragging reactionary then there are probably other space navy book series that don't rub reactionary politics and barely-concealed racism in your face so continuously. Seriously, I have major issues with the kind of social justice warriors who are endlessly going on about post-colonialism and cultural appropriation and white privilege. But after a couple hundred pages or so of On Basilisk Station I was thinking that I should really give the SJWs another chance to make their case. Thoughts like "Marxist sociology professors aren't wrong about everything" were starting to cross my mind. This book is so utterly lacking in the slightest awareness that there might be something wrong with more powerful nations taking over weaker ones that it's kind of breathtaking. And when I say "more powerful nations" you should understand that that's my term. Weber uses "advanced societies" or "civilized nations" because it weakens the story's appeal if he just out and says the quasi-fascist thing he's saying. Anyway, Weber sees absolutely no problem with it and even presents the conquest of weaker planets ("primitive" "uncivilized") as a virtue. Well, it's a virtue when Manticore does it. When socialist creeps like the People's Republic of Haven do it then it's just obviously wrong.
I think I'm done with the series. Too bad. There were some fun things to it.