Monday, October 12, 2015

Down the Stacks #15: Honor Harrington

This week’s Down the Stacks has been a long time in coming.  The Honor Harrington series by David Weber is one I’ve wanted to talk about since I started this blog series, but the sheer size of the series means it’s not something I could consume in the course of a single week.  I still haven’t read all the main-line Harrington books, let alone the various side-series and short story anthologies set in the same universe, but I think I’ve finally come far enough that I can introduce you to the Honorverse and all its wonderful, deep, and detailed complexities.
This promises to be a long one, so let’s be about it.

Often compared to the classic historical fiction series Horatio Hornblower, Honor Harrington is an space-navy series of epic proportions following the titular woman’s career from the rank of Commander to one of the highest-ranking admirals as her home Star Kingdom of Manticore contends with the People’s Republic of Haven and other star-nations.  In the Honorverse, as the setting is commonly called, mankind has conquered the stars on the order of having settled several hundred thousand planets, and in the typical nature of men expanding into new territory those planets are divided into innumerable star-nations ranging in size from one to dozens of star systems.  The Star Kingdom of Manticore is on the smaller size, with only four planets or so within two systems under their direct governance, but aside from being the home of our protagonist the Manticore system also contains the termini of six different wormholes and the Kingdom has the massive merchant marine and powerful space navy necessary to ensure complete control over the use of those wormholes.  Politically, Manticore is modeled after Great Britain: they have a Parliament made up of a House of Lords and a House of Commons, and they are ruled by a hereditary monarch (Queen Elizabeth III currently) who wields a great degree of executive power in the government.  Culturally, Manticore is more or less British at the core but is heavily influenced by the mixture of just about every ethnic group imaginable, the advanced technology of the setting, and of course the environments of the Kingdom’s central three planets is influential on their inhabitants.  Honor Harrington herself hails from Sphinx, a planet with higher gravity than Earth, seasons each as long as one Earth year, the majority of its surface still unsettled wilderness, and home to one of the very few non-human sentient races humanity has ever encountered: the treecats.  More on those lovable, furry buzzsaws later.
The primary enemy of the Star Kingdom of Manticore throughout the series is the People’s Republic of Haven, which is a bloated, economically bankrupt cesspool of political corruption on its best days.  At it’s worst, under the control of a “Committee of Public Safety” led by one Rob S. Pierre, the PRH is an unholy mixture of the French Revolution and Stalinist Russia.  Haven’s threat to Manticore stems from Haven’s questionable choices regarding guaranteeing every citizen a minimum standard of living for free.  It’s an admirable idea on paper, but in practise it has created a massive class of people who simply live off the government’s dole and contribute nothing to Haven’s economy.  Haven has only remained solvent through a policy of conquering their single-system neighbors and glutting their economies.  Manticore is a few systems removed from Haven’s frontier, but that frontier keeps moving closer.
Since the Honor Harrington books are about space-navies, the military maneuvers and space battles between Manticore and Haven are obviously the heart and soul of each book, and David Weber brings a lot of experience as a naval historian and attention to detail to make those space battles as exciting, and as similar to the naval battles of the 18th century, as possible.  Weber goes to extreme length to explain why the spaceships in his setting have to engage in broadside combat with one another.  I’ll try to simplify those explanations as much as possible.  To start with, a great deal of technology in the Honorverse centers around gravity manipulation: counter-gravity units are ubiquitous in construction, vehicles, transportation of goods, and even in personal counter-grav units to permit unmodified humans to visit heavy-g planets comfortably.  That gravity manipulation is also used to create the two primary modes of propulsion in starships: the impeller wedge and the Warshawski sail.  Warshawski sails are simply used to ride “grav waves” for hyperspace travel between star systems and utilize the rare and carefully controlled wormholes.  Impeller wedges can bring a ship into hyperspace, but they’re slower and too dangerous to bring into contact with grav-waves, so wedges are mostly used for intra-system travel and combat.  The planes of increased gravity that form impeller wedges render any weapon aimed at (or fired from) a ship’s top or bottom utterly useless, and warships tend to be built as long tubes, so when fights break out the combatants end up relatively side-to-side with one another to maximize weapon output efficiency.  The weapons utilized by space navies add extra layers of complexity to battles, so suffice it to say that when the fighting breaks out, there will be a lot of missiles flying around across astronomical distances.

I think that covers the basics of the setting, so let’s get into characters.

Our heroine, Honor, lives up to the name her parents gave her.  She has an unbreakable sense of duty and patriotism toward the Kingdom of Manticore as well as a keen tactical mind and a natural charisma that makes her crews more inclined toward loyalty than average.  Honor is equally dangerous in person as she is a skilled starship commander, both because her genetically-modified heavy-worlder heritage makes her stronger than she looks and because she’s a master of a martial art called coup de vitesse.  Her strengths are balanced by both a great deal of humility regarding her accomplishments and deep-seated doubts about her inner strength.  Honor is quite comfortable in a captain’s chair, but she can turn into a self-effacing shrinking violet when facing attacks on her character, assuming she doesn’t explode into a berserk fury instead (the gene mods she inherited have the tendency to produce short tempers).  Honor has little patience for fools and short-sighted politicians, but she keeps herself in check through her own personal code and with help from her treecat partner, Nimitz.
No character in the Honor Harrington books better embodies the rapidly expanding scope of the series better than Nimitz.  In the first book, On Basilisk Station, Nimitz is little more than a living prop that hangs around on Honor’s shoulder, but from the second book on he becomes increasingly involved in the plot and the depths of his character and those of his species are revealed.  Treecats are a species of six-limbed, vaguely felinoid telepaths and empaths from the planet Sphinx, where six limbs is the norm for animals.  On occasion, a treecat will “adopt” a human, forming a deep and unbreakable empathic bond between them.  This bond doesn’t exactly permit communication between humans and ‘cats, but bonded ‘cats can share their person’s emotional burdens and give them mental proddings away from things like self-loathing.  When I referred to treecats as “furry buzzsaws” earlier, I wasn’t exaggerating; anyone who tries to kill a ‘cat’s human, or someone that human cares about, will find themselves the victim of six sets of razor-sharp claws and one set of nasty predator fangs, usually applied quickly and liberally to the neck and face.
As for Nimitz himself, he’s an inveterate joker who serves as a counterpoint to Honor’s frequent worryings about the future.  Nimitz’s eternal quest is to add levity to almost any moment by inviting himself onto any available lap, begging shamelessly for celery, and generally acting in cat-like manner to prompt mock-scolding and laughter from Honor.  When things are truly serious, however, Nimitz cuts the clowning and sticks loyally by his person.
Due to the nature of space warfare and Honor’s own tendency to wind up in the hottest and most hopeless of situations, she never has the exact same crew twice, but within only a few books she collects a core of individuals who not only survive but comport themselves in ways that grant them the skills and promotions needed to return to Honor’s orbit again and again.  Some, such as Scotty Tremaine and Rafe Cardones, come into the first book fairly green to ship service and take notes from Honor’s leadership style.  Others, like Horace Harkness and Alistair McKeon, are old hands with personal issues to work out but become just as admiring of Honor.  Honor’s heroic exploits even end up bringing her into close, frequent contact with politically important people including Queen Elizabeth and Protector Benjamin Mayhew of Grayson, a planet settled by a fundamentalist religious group that becomes on of Manticore’s strongest allies against Haven.
As royally broken and corrupt as the People’s Republic of Haven is compared to Manticore, David Weber goes to great length to show that the conflict isn’t pure black and white and that war can force good people into bad situations.  For every two or three true heroes in Manticore’s navy and government, there’s one scumbag or know-nothing know-it-all who’s more than willing to give Honor grief for their own selfish ends.  And while the PRH’s naval leadership is mostly comprised of talentless careerists or zealous ideologues, there are some shining examples of honorable, intelligent humanity among them caught between a rock and hard place.

The Honorverse is a vast and exciting universe, and Weber has clearly put a lot of effort into making feel as plausibly realistic as possible.  The existence of side novels such as Crown of Slaves and Shadow of Saganami as well as anthologies of short stories lends strong support to the feeling main novels give that there are many more exciting and important events going on besides the ones Honor is involved in.  Even with side stories, there are corners of the Star Kingdom’s sphere of alliances I’m not sure we’ll ever get more than a passing look at simply because neither Honor nor her fellow viewpoint characters ever travel there.  You could spend a lifetime - even a lifetime extended to multiple centuries by the ubiquitous prolong treatment most of the Honorverse’s worlds have access to - just traveling the explored regions of space and never run out of new experiences.

Of course, even a series as well-written as Honor Harrington isn’t without its flaws.  It’s glaringly obvious that Weber puts a lot of work into the science half of his science fiction because he has a hard time shutting up about it and getting on with the plot.  For a bit of an extreme example, in the middle of the climatic final battle of On Basilisk Station, Weber interrupts the narrative for a ten page lecture on the history and mechanics of impeller wedges and Warshawski sails - something which is worthwhile information to have but could have been integrated into the book much earlier when it wouldn’t distract from the tension as much.  Weber also has an addiction to absolute precision in regards to distances, velocities, accelerations, and other such data related to starships maneuvering toward or away from another important object.  This makes a little sense considering the military atmosphere of the series, but I find myself glossing over the numbers more often than not as I read.
Weber’s verbosity in narration is also shared by every single character, particularly during planning sessions and casual get-togethers.  Nobody speaks in short, general terms when the opportunity for full-blown essays on recent fleet actions, new technology, or discoveries about treecat culture presents itself, and even in the heat of the moment people tend toward the verbose.
The result of all this long-windedness is novels averaging between 600 and 700 pages, each covering events which another author might be able to accomplish effectively with one-half to two-thirds the paper and ink.  The characters are usually complex and likeable enough to pull the wordiness off without becoming boring, but the sheer weight of words combined with the fact that the main series alone is at fourteen books with no signs of stopping soon means reading Honor Harrington will be a long-term investment.  It’s well worth the time if you’re amenable to relatively hard science fiction with heavy doses of action and politics mixed with intelligent humor.

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