by Kyt Dotson
When I first encountered On Basilisk Station by David Weber, I found it for 99¢ at my college bookstore. A science fiction novel with a real thickness being sold for so cheap? How could I resist! Better yet, the publisher must have known they were selling a drug in paperback form because shortly after I started flipping through the pages I found myself hooked.
Some book series are simply destined to generate a giant fanbase and grow far beyond the confines of their original universe with living, breathing world building, interesting characters, and a thoughtful plot. On Basilisk Station has introduced many readers to David Weber’s character Honor Harrington and the universe named after her, the Honorverse. As books of political and military science fiction, it provides an interesting cross-section of what usually only receives a scrim of attention in most popular series.
In the usual book, the military and political aspects of the universe serve as a backdrop. Certainly, the characters rub up against it time-to-time in order to raise moral and ethical questions or to use as a sort of political geography to navigate for a particular issue. Books like On Basilisk Station, however, take the military-political complex to a whole new level by thrusting the main character into the midst of biased maneuvering. Not a conspiracy as one would see in many modern-day novels about similar issues, but instead real gum-in-the-gears bureaucracy giving a woman-against-the-machine atmosphere across a well developed tapestry of military thought, political actions, and a living, breathing universe.
In the novel, Honor Harrington is a wunderkind character, a brilliant commander, with a shining career. Certainly, she’s a bit of the shining-star type character who stomps down every obstacle in her path. Some readers find this sort of character unbelievable, but Honor is very much a human being who needs to cope with problems thrown at her. She may have a stellar naval career and have lots of external responsibilities thrown at her; but each time they stack up they stack up. As she gains more responsibility, wealth, reputation, and the like through the series it weighs on her and makes the plot and her narrative more complex.
David Weber isn’t known for deus ex machina to save his favorite heroine from the strange vicissitudes of fate.
The Honorverse also employs a whole series of interesting technologies that define the very way that humans interact across the universe and also generate distinct military tactics and forays. Battles are fought mostly at extreme range between capital ships with missiles before attempting to close in and shoot each other down with beam weapons. The ship propulsion systems themselves provide gravity bands that extend along the sides of the ships making them impossible to hit with anything along a particular axis; but the remaining sides must be protected by extending the gravity bands (or sidewalls) that can be weakened. Missiles with warheads that fire grazers (gamma ray lasers) can sometimes get up next to a ship and pump lethal radiation through a sidewall and render into luminous wreckage.
As a result, capital ship battles in the Honorverse involve a lot of statistics involving missiles, firing solutions, and careful tactics before the actual engagement. After that, it’s all about letting go and watching whose solution proves superior. Naval officers of Honor’s caliber need calculating and tactical minds to put them in the best position for the best effect.
In On Basilisk Station, in her glowing career, Honor accidentally annoys the wrong person and is shuffled off into the arse-end of space on a strategically useful but otherwise backwater space station to act as a military picket commander. Since nothing has happened here in a long time, it seems like the perfect place to put her (with an experimental ship) to see how she deals with her newly granted command. Of course, nobody puts much stock in anything happening, but they still expect her to show off the new experimental design—a design which her engineering crew and herself find extremely disappointing.
Needless to say, the picket post manages to put Honor in a position to uncover a military coup by a neighboring stellar empire: The People’s Republic of Haven (who become the Big Bad for much of the series.)
If you’re familiar with the Horatio Hornblower novels by C. S. Forester, you’ll probably recognize a lot of the writing style and the presentation of the military and political landscape. (Note, she has a the same initials as HH.) Although, Honor Harrington novels are more than just Hornblower in space, it’s also an adventure, the triumph of a military spirit over bureaucracy, and…a cat.
Did I mention that she has a six-legged, telepathic cat?
If you’re looking for a novel that won’t bog you down with too much high science fiction, rhetoric and hard-thinking about technology and how it affects society, but like an action-packed, military-political thriller designed to keep you reading, you’ll find a friend in Honor Harrington.