Tuesday, December 23, 2008

On Basilisk Station

Since this is a choice for my book group, this will be a briefer post, discussing only one facet of the work.

Admittedly, though I referenced it in an earlier post this month, my knowledge of military science fiction is somewhat thin. I've read Starship Troopers (which I think must be the archetype, if not the prototype, of military SF) many times, as well as Forever War. I've read most of the Berserker novels by Saberhagen, and a great deal of the Man-Kzin stuff from Niven and his followers. I've also read William Forstchen's Lost Regiment series. And yet they all strike me as being somewhat different from what David Weber accomplishes with this first novel in his Honor Harrington series in two important ways.

First, in the other novels I mention, there really is not a lot of detail spent in the science fictional aspects of the story-telling. Weber spends a lot of time in On Basilisk Station describing his world-building, from the political set-up of the various "star nations" (his term) surrounding the planets in question to the intricate political maneuvering of the nation whose territory Basilisk Station is. He spends numbers of pages describing the science behind not only the weapons systems but the propulsion systems of the starcraft. The setting he has created is extraordinarily and realistically deep and wide, and he does a fine job of describing it, getting us into those descriptive passages in fairly clich├ęd ways but breathing a different kind of life into them, perhaps because of their sheer magnitude. While Heinlein's Starship Troopers does similar things with the politics of the Earth, that novel does so because the military part is secondary to the political conjecture that is at the heart of the novel. Weber's work, however, piles up thins information as background to the events and decisions that its characters make. Of course, we know a great deal about the Kzin in Niven's Known Universe, but that is because so much as been written about them while Weber provides all of his depth, and a good deal of action, in a single novel.

But the Kzin and Saberhagen stories rely on their characters to drive most of their action (and in the case of the Kzin, sometimes the main characters are mankind's "enemy"). And Weber really only develops one character in the course of On Basilisk Station, and that would be the heroine's first officer, Alistair MacKeon. The heroine herself, Honor Harrington, remains a mostly flat caricature of a ship's officer throughout the novel. Even though we are allowed to see some of her thought processes, those thoughts often serve as the jumping off point for Weber's description of the setting. Her actions are predictable, and a great deal of the humanity of the novel comes from other characters' reactions to her. Even the opposing captain in the climactic space battle is given emotion that gives his character depth. Harrington, at least in this first novel, never seems to rise above the caricature of the Good Captain.

Nonetheless, On Basilisk Station is a solid read, containing suspense and action that reaches its peak in the final battle scene (which takes up a fifth of the novel). The writing style is workmanlike—nothing ground-breaking here—but enjoyable, as the story is engaging and fast-moving. But it is driven by technology and thus in some ways feels flatter than other "military SF" I know of, which rely on character development to move their stories along.

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