First things first: I bought an e-reader! Specifically, I got B&N’s Nook, original black and white flavor. Technically, I bought it back in November, and Ash was the first book I read on it, but I bring it up now because once I had it, I checked out the Baen Free Library. The library offers some of their books as free e-books, and I noticed On Basilisk Station among them. I decided to give it a try because one of my good friends loves the Honor Harrington series, and hey, it was free.
I let her know I’d downloaded it, and she said, essentially, “Great! Uh, there’s a lot of technobabble in it, FYI.”
And oh boy, was she right.
The thing is, I really wanted to enjoy the book, and there were pieces I really did. As a character, Honor was fine — heck, a determined young leader who’s going to do what’s right no matter how much pressure there is to give in to corruption? Who wins the respect of her crew that way, and turns a rag-tag bunch into an elite force to be reckoned with? Those are all things I love. And make it a space opera? Heck yes!
Unfortunately, all the things I liked about the book were buried. This got a little long, so have a cut:
The biggest problem was the technobabble and, with it, the world building. Now, I love world building — when it’s done well. Honor’s galaxy, while thorough, could have been great, but the way it was presented was kind of a mess. There were pages and pages and pages about the development of the political situation, including the family histories of the politicians involved — the most egregious example, I think, was an antagonist who appeared in one scene, but was preceded by about five pages worth of history. All I needed to know was that he was arrogant, rich, and used to getting his way — and Honor wouldn’t buckle under pressure from him — but instead all of that was wrapped up in his family’s history, dating back generations, and why they weren’t nobility, but how they’d gotten so rich, the inner workings of their business, and on and on and on. For one scene in which he blusters, gets shot down, and then leaves.
The technobabble probably comes down to where you stand on the “hard” vs. “soft” science fiction debate. I didn’t know I had an opinion until I read this, but it turns out, I’ll take soft. I think taking real scientific concepts and playing them out as part of a story is a great idea, but I’m way, way more invested in story and character than I am in the science. The book featured technical explanations for every aspect of the ship: its engines, its weapons, its gravity, and so on. I can see where this would could interest people! I can! I wouldn’t say that it was bad; as a whole, I don’t think the book was bad. But I do think the way detail was presented (again, we’re talking about five to ten pages at a time) seriously slowed things down. Through the first two thirds of the book, there were frequent pauses and asides for all of this. Stopping the story for that long, that often, really kills any momentum. And while there wasn’t as much of this in the last section of the book (presumably, everything had already been explained), there was, again, a huge problem for me: in the middle of the climactic space battle scene, everything stops to explain the physics of space battle, including the math behind the maneuvers.
In the middle of a battle scene. If there’s ever a time you don’t want to kill your story momentum, that’s it! That’s the place! So again, maybe this works for people who are into harder scifi than I am, but for me, it was a huge letdown when I’d finally begun to enjoy things.1
So for me, those were the major issues. There were others,2 but if there had been less of all that, I would have liked the book immensely more. The other major issue, though, was the colonialism.
I suppose that isn’t a shock. It’s acknowledged that Honor is basically Horatio Hornblower in space, which means imperial British navy in space. It made me really uncomfortable, though. The book takes place around and partially on a planet, which, from the get-go, is acknowledged to have an indigenous population that’s only reached its bronze age. Apparently, Honor’s space navy has no Prime Directive, so while the goodguys pay lip service to the idea that they probably should try not to interfere too much with the natives, they do anyway because the planet happens to be near the area of space they want to control. I don’t think there was a single native character with a name in the whole book; they were consistently referred to as barbarians and savages; they were universally easily manipulated by villains; and oh yeah, hundreds (maybe thousands) were slaughtered by the end, with a “Gee, too bad, oh well,” attitude by even the goodguys. That’s really just not okay.
So overall? There were things to like about this book. But between the technical aspects that didn’t work for me personally, and the skin-crawling-inducing attitude towards indigenous people that I think are problematic in general, I ended up not caring for it very much. I can see why my friend likes it — if you particularly enjoy the set up I mentioned before the cut, or really love hard scifi, it might work for you — but I think I’ll pass on the rest of the series. But on the plus side, it was a free read, so all I spent on it was time, and despite my frustrations, I don’t think that was a waste, either.
- Though I won’t lie: all those sections of exposition and technobabble? I skimmed. I tried to keep track of things at first, but it bored the crap out of me, so I decided I’d either have to skim or give up entirely. Also, the e-reader makes skimming really easy. ↩
- Like how every problem seemed set up so there was a clever solution just waiting to be discovered, instead of actually feeling like an insurmountable issue so when Honor found a way out, it really was genius. ↩