Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Guilty Pleasures: Honor Harrington

My entry in the January 2010 Blog Chain "Guilty Pleasures".

I enjoy science fiction. More, I have a fondness for the subgenre of 'space opera' which includes such luminaries as Star Wars, Babylon 5, Farscape, Revelation Space, and the Vorkosigan Saga. So I'm just a bit guilty at admitting to enjoying the Honor Harrington novels by David Weber.

Notice the verb. "Enjoy" not "admire." Virtually all the elements of this particular space opera have, at least in my eyes, been done before and better. For those who don't know, Honor Harrington was a more-or-less conscious effort to create a female Horatio Hornblower in outer space. England in this case is the Star Kingdom of Manticore, an unusually rich system of three Earth-like planets (each named after a mythological creature, a conceit containing a certain charm of its own). Opposed to it is the People's Republic of Haven, a vast empire devoted (in theory) to the most egalitarian of ideals while in practice ruled by an imperialistic oligarchy terrified of the proles to whom they must keep giving bread and circuses. As the series begins in On Basilisk Station, some factions of the Star Kingdom have realized for decades it is only a matter of time until Haven sets its sights upon them. So they've been trying to arm themselves for the conflict-to-come, against the fierce opposition of Liberals who regard Haven as no threat and allocations to any defense budget as pure barbarism. Haven eventually even gets its own Committee for Public Safety headed by Robert S. Pierre no less, while the Star Kingdom has two brothers--one a career politician and the other one of the most brilliant military commanders of the age (at least neither is named Wellington).

Fair is fair, other historical parallels abound. The most obvious is the whole problem of appeasement vis-a-vis WWII, and then there's the fact that Manticore's reigning queen is named Elizabeth, as far a cry from Prince Regent as one can imagine. As the seemingly never-ending series progresses, Honor Harrington herself becomes less Hornblower-esque and more clearly Nelsonian. At this point she's even lost an eye and an arm! Both were replaced with cybernetic versions, natch.

If all this sounds like fun, you're right. But let us examine the other side of it. The politics of this universe began as extremely simplistic and frankly not-a-little right wing (and more than one fan of the series all-but-spouts Rush Limbaugh as a fount of all wisdom). Haven, it turns out, is pretty clearly the United States but with the welfare state taken to a dystopian extreme. The biggest ally of Manticore sure bears a startling resemblance to some kind of futuristic Utah, semi-Mormons with polygamy and all. The Solarian League is presented as a complacent version of Western Europe writ titanic, while the wise autocrats of the Andermani Empire can be seen as authoritarian regimes once viewed as our bosom buddies during the Cold War.

You know, like Saddam Hussein and the Shah of Iran. Or August Pinochet.

But Weber seems to have realized the (I believe inadvertent) message he might have been sending and so the series has veered into other directions. By now the economic-political landscape of the War (note the capital) has grown more complex, and yet paradoxically more simplistic by introducing an unequivocal example of evil. This is Manpower Inc., a corporate group that practices actual slavery, combining all the virtues of organized crime with that of pure fascism. Haven itself, like Manticore, is now more a prisoner of historical conflicts as well as manipulation by the evil masterminds of Manpower.

More objectionable, at least in my mind, is how the books are loaded with datadumps, often in as crude a manner as possible (and sometimes for subjects nearly too boring for words--like the differences in calendars between planets). At least the battle scenes (told in ofttimes excruciating detail) make some sense of using these as part of the reason why events play out as they do.

But the real problem? The characters. I don't believe in most of them, and those I do still come across as at best two-dimensional. Honor falls in love fairly early in the series, and even now years later I remain puzzled about who this person was and why anyone would fall for him. Other than a certain degree on almost-Boy Scout integrity (not at all an uncommon feature in these books) he had no personality I could discern. Pages and pages are given to describing support officers on Honor's various ships, pretty much every one remaining as nothing more than a list of character traits rather than people. The stories themselves are deliberately melodramatic, with complex plotting and situations substituting for depth or irony.

And yet...

They are really are fun to read if you're in the mood. Like the literary equivalent of kettlecorn, they hit the spot sometimes when tired or just have a yet for a ripping yard that takes itself not-too-seriously while not straying into parody.

Behold the participants in the "Guilty Pleasures Blog Chain"
Claire Crossdale -
Fresh Hell -
shethinkstoomuch - -
Lindzy1954 -
RavenCorrinnCarluk -
Forbidden Snowflake -
AuburnAssassin -

DavidZahir -
NEXT: Charlotte49ers -
Fokker Aeroplanbau -
laharrison -
collectonian -
capes&corsets -
vfury -
Bsolah -
JackieA -
LadyCat -
AimeeLaine -


Lost Wanderer said...

While I am not tempted to read this, I do admire your review skills. Seriously, you do it so well giving just enough information in an objective manner, yet giving us your views and opinion at the same time. Very good.

C R Ward said...

Sometimes a good space opera just hits the spot. I've read some of David Webber's books - you can download several of his titles for free off the Baen Books website.

Aimee Laine said...

So good to have a "something" that doesn't make you think hard -- can just be your destressor! Good for you for finding that in these books! :)

The romantic query letter and the happy-ever-after said...

I've never had the chance to read anything by Mr. Weber. Now I don't know if that's because I'm too romantic or because I'm one those Doctor Who, Douglas Adams and Lois Lowry kids of the late 80's but I'm sorry I missed out for he seems great.
Every happiness in 2010 it will be a great year for you, I can tell.

Anonymous said...

Not a sci/fi fan here so I've never heard of these. I do like your "literary equivalent of kettlecorn" phrase.

Sherry Gloag said...

I am not a sci/fi fan either but I did find your list an interesting read.

Anonymous said...

I have just finished my second Honorverse book and decided to use my Google-Fu to see if any others had drawn the same conclusions about them as me. In this blog you have totally nailed it. You feelings about this series are pretty much identical to my own! It's Junk food that just keeps ending up in my mouth.