Wednesday, September 2, 2009

A Tale of Honor

The Works of David Weber

My good friend John has turned me on to several authors I really enjoy. John and I met very briefly some years back at a Project Management Institute function after he had resurrected the organization’s local chapter here in Syracuse. I then had the privilege to work with him a couple of years later and our friendship sprouted, at least in part, when we discovered we shared a love of alternate history novels. We had both read Harry Turtledove extensively, enough that we could discuss his works in detail, including his often formulaic characters and his overuse of phrases such as “Can you tell me I’m wrong?” or variations thereof. Which isn’t to say we enjoy his books any less, we just recognize some of their foibles as we immerse ourselves in the author’s detailed knowledge of historical time periods and his ability to weave a story around real events and characters as they might have been had things worked out just a bit differently. I’ll likely blog about Turtledove at some point in the future.

John also clued me in to S.M. Stirling, whose fictional world revolves around a pivotal event centered on the New England island of Nantucket. In one series, we get the story of the people of Nantucket, and a nearby Coast Guard ship, who find themselves magically transported back in time some 2,000 years. In a second series, he tells the tale of the rest of the world after modern Nantucket is sucked away – a world where all forms of man-made fire are rendered inert. This leaves them without electricity, gunpowder, explosives, and virtually all forms of complex machinery beyond about the mid-1800s. While I think the latest novels in this ongoing series are getting a bit carried away with the inexplicable introduction of magic, I’d still say I’ve enjoyed Stirling’s books very much and am indebted to John for introducing me to them. Once more, I expect I’ll blog just about Stirling’s books sometime down the road.

But after a couple of years of urging on John’s part, including a free-to-copy CD-ROM he lent me some time back, I finally decided to give Weber’s Honor Harrington books a spin. And I’m very glad that I did. I’m halfway through the third book in a series of about a dozen novels and several spin-offs and collaborative novels set in the same universe, all of them essentially “military sci-fi.”

Honor Harrington is an officer in the Royal Manticoran Navy, a space fleet built in support of an “Empire” of three worlds settled by colonists from Earth hundreds of years in the future. She excels at pitting her usually out-gunned and out-classed ships against superior enemy forces and scraping out narrow victories by being smart, cunning, and scrupulously “heroic” in a way that encompasses bravery, faithfulness, loyalty and a tenacity to do what’s got to be done because it’s the right thing to do.

In his works, Weber does quite a number of things extremely well. First, he creates very solid characters and describes them in detail without weighing down the narrative. He’s extremely adept at building “people” who feel like more than just words on a page. He then puts those people into very credible situations and challenges them to make choices that the reader can readily identify with. Often, they involve a choice between doing what’s right and doing what’s easy. One of the most brilliant things I think I’ve seen Weber do was in his second novel, wherein a major character chooses to do what’s easy and suffers terribly for it.

Another thing Weber does well is to create a universe that feels like a living, breathing community – including government and military officials who sometimes act in opposition to their own peoples’ best interests. Sound familiar? He usually has at least three major “sides” in his stories and deftly juggles his characters as they, in turn, juggle the needs, desires and self-interest of the different factions.

One thing Weber struggles with, and I don’t especially blame him, is the technology of future science. Faster-than-light travel is, as far as anybody knows, bullshit. But space-based sci-fi is pretty dull without it – all of that hibernating and floating for decade after decade to get where you’re going slows the narrative down considerably. Weber has created a detailed methodology for both inter-system and cross-system FTL travel and it works, but it also involves a lot of math and a lot of details that can bog the story down at times. My biggest gripe, and I’ve mentioned it before, is when he stops the action in the middle of a final, climactic space-battle, to explain over several pages the history and science around FTL travel. It was necessary because the battle involved a lot of FTL maneuvering that was dependent on, and limited by, those details, but I thought his timing was lousy.

Also, while a high body count in military sci-fi is certainly understandable, I think Weber’s a bit guilty of the old practice of “introduce character… make us like him/her… blow him/her away.” I suppose it’s preferable to only offing a bunch of characters that the reader is indifferent to, but it sometimes seems like I’m having my heartstrings tugged at artificially rather than sincerely.

But with that said, I’m pretty well hooked on these books. When I finish this one, I’m likely going to get my hands on the next couple and proceed until I’ve read them all or the quality deteriorates. I’d certainly recommend them to lovers of military sci-fi, right along with William C. Dietz, Orson Scott Card, and the often-overlooked John G. Hemry (whose Stark books really deserve more attention). I also recommend the Strange Horizons article Wordcraft and War Fiction: An Interview with David Weber. Strange Horizons is a nifty little online Sci-fi magazine that I’m finding I like a lot. The interview really goes into detail about how Weber does his work.

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