David Weber Archive


Book Review: The Honor of the Queen

Military science fiction is one of my guilty pleasures. Why guilty? Principally because I know the subgenre, as a whole, is often problematic and sometimes quite lazy in the way it propagates an 18th/19th century vision of empire building into a glorious vision of the future. At its worst, military science fiction can be hegemonic, often indelicate in how it handles Others, and generally predicated on a monolithic view of the future…or as you might know it, Starship Troopers.

Which brings me to the last few Sunday afternoons I’ve spent with David Weber’s The Honor of the Queen. HotQ is the second book in David Weber’s Horatio Hornblower Honor Harringtion series. Originally published in 1993, there are moments when the novel feels like a historical artefact of pre-internet science fiction. In light of the endless technobabble of the first novel, I wasn’t expecting much from the second. Yet I found myself reasonably surprised as this 22-year-old novel proved a pleasing reprieve from everyday life.

Make no mistake, The Honor of the Queen isn’t what I would call a think piece. You won’t find me attempting to peel back its layers and expose the social commentary at its core. Frankly, there isn’t one. The Star Empire of Manticore is Space England during the glory days of the British Empire; they are the good guys. The People’s Republic of Haven is a nightmare state of “dolists” existing in an economically impossible world ripped right out of Margaret Thatcher’s nightmares; they are the bad guys.

The novel focuses on these two empires waging a quiet proxy war over the planets of Grayson and Masada. Both of these planets are filled with backwards, sexist, space Mormon, assholes. As the space assholes of Grayson are slightly less offensive than the space assholes of Masada, and a potential buffer against Haven’s expanding sphere of influence, Manticore decides to pursue a military alliance with Grayson.

Many pew-pew space laser battles follow. It’s kind of like reading a Patrick O’Brien novel without all the actual naval history, and that’s pretty fun – if a little wordy at times. All things being equal, I’d say the novel does what it does quite well, independent of its age. Even by contemporary standards, I think The Honor of the Queen is at least an above average showing. This being the case, there are still some moments when the story structure struck me as being potentially clumsy.

Weber indulges in using rape as a narrative device in The Honor of the Queen, just as he did in On Basilisk Station. About half way through the novel the space assholes from Masada capture a clutch of Manticorian crewmen and officers after a battle. Being space assholes, they proceed to rape the living daylights out of the women among the group. For the record, these actions are not depicted in the novel. Within the context of Masadans being a colony of religious, misogynistic, zealots, the violation against the Manticorians makes some internal sense – offensive and “triggering” as it may be for some readers. One should also note the captured male crewmen are beaten and tortured to death, though it is torture absent sexual degradation. One can hardly expect space Mormons to indulge in some man-on-man rape for the sake of gender equity. Or can we? I don’t know. Moving on.

On this front, I suppose I could point to Alex DeWitt and chalk this up to the book being a product of its times, but that seems like a lazy thing to do on my part. Quite honestly, part of me wants to say good on Weber for portraying Mormonism as the chauvinistic religion that it is. The fact that the events of one or two pages have left me pouring over the question of empowered women in science fiction is probably an indicator of Weber doing a decent job – by the standards of early 90s SF – in navigating these waters. It doesn’t revel in the offense; it simply presents it as a way of shading the Masadans and informing how the proxy war is now personal for Honor and her crew.

Except, this might be one of those moments where a young woman reading an Honor Harrington novel would look at these events and see rape as a consequence of women serving in the military, independent of how strong they may be as people or characters. Again, I don’t know, I’m not an expert. I’m a literary critic who enjoys some mental popcorn and is desperately trying to “check my privilege” amid a much larger discussion.

Also, it’s likely I wouldn’t be stuck in this debate if the novel didn’t regularly indulge in narration about how Honor doesn’t find herself to be pretty. Does page space really need to be devoted to other officers’ appraisal of Honor’s prettiness? I’m tempted to grab a Forester novel and how much of a big deal he makes of Hornblower’s good looks or lack thereof. Perhaps Weber is writing to the convention, thus making the novel more meta than I realize.

The Honor of the Queen pans out as a novel worthy of the lazy Sunday afternoons I devoted to reading it. The pacing is much improved from the first novel, though the technobabble and reckless abandon of the rules of relativity persist. The space battles are fun, even if the novel presumes too much on my ability to recall the functioning of impeller wedges (aka space sails) and other in-universe space gadgets. I’m reticent to let the book off the hook in terms of some of its gender issues. Then again, I could probably think of some greater contemporary offenders if I set my mind to the task. Still, the book gets more right than it gets wrong and it’s nothing if not engaging. I think it’s what people call a “fun” read. It’s not challenging, mostly inoffensive, and leaves the reader satisfied with a predictably happy ending.


Podcast Episode 29: The Kaiju-sized Military SF Episode

Featuring the voices of Adam Shaftoe and K.W. Ramsey

It took a couple weeks of planning and schedule jockeying, but K.W. Ramsey and I were finally able to sit down to record an extended length podcast on military science fiction.

What could be finer than two white guys talking about the quintessential post-colonial white guy sub-genre? Am I right?

Seriously though, we begin the discussion by drawing upon Damien Walter’s Guardian piece on overly simplistic military science fiction. From there we jump back and forth between military SF on film and in literature. As with most ninety minute discussions, nothing gets resolved, but I think we come up with a few decent ideas on how military SF can evolve to reflect a slightly less antiquated world view.

Make sure to check out Mr. Ramsey’s blog at The Left Hand of Dorkness and follow him on twitter @kwramsey

Topics under discussion include,

- The ideology of the Federation and Starfleet’s role therein; also that time David Nickle trolled us on facebook about Cumberbatch’s character in STiD

- David Weber’s love affair with the 19th century and why military SF at large needs to get past the British Empire

- John Scalzi as the wild card of military SF – also included there is the story of the first time I met Scalzi and went from zero to fanboy in eight seconds.

- Mr. Ramsey’s very compelling theory on why I think Ender’s Game is a crap novel

- A discussion on how to responsibly consume art when the artist is a horrible person

- Robert Heinlein, kooky but honest

- How Pacific Rim does military SF in a slightly different sort of way

- Class and education as factors in crafting protagonists in military SF

Cold Intro Music: The Lady of Vastness by Dan-O at DanoSongs.com

Theme music: Bionic Commando stage 4 (Dale vs Wray mix) (NecroPolo) / CC BY-NC-SA 3.0


Book Review: The Warriors Anthology #2

A couple of weeks ago I came across a copy of the second Warriors anthology. George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois edited this tome, with the latter including a story within the volume. The book promises “long form stories of war and warriors from some of the most compelling storytellers now writing.” Rather than writing individual posts for each story, I thought I’d try my hand at writing an ultra-pithy review for each offering.

Seven Years from Home by Naomi Novik

One word summary judgement: Meh

Novik’s story reads like James Cameron’s Avatar. The story’s protagonist is a diplomat for a Terran based interplanetary alliance. The first person narrative sees this character correcting the history that has arisen around her due to her role in a war between an indigenous culture and an industrialized colonizing force. Naturally, the indigenous population is more advanced than anybody ever suspected. As a student of history, I couldn’t get past the clichés to really enjoy this story. Those who don’t use/hear words like “agency”, “genocide”, “biopolitics”, and “colonialism” on a regular basis are more likely to engage with this narrative.

Dirae by Peter S. Beagle

One word summary judgement: Metaphysical

Beagle’s entry begins with some free verse poetry that almost made me skip the entire story. Once he shifts into prose things get more interesting, but not necessarily more comprehensible. An entity that is corporeal but spirit-like finds herself constantly teleported to the scenes of looming tragedy. In each successive event she prevents a given horror of urban life: assault, murder, neglect, emotional abuse, et cetera. The ending is open to some speculation. However, what’s clear is that this spirit encompasses one person’s desire to do more. It’s moving if nothing else.

Ancient Ways by S.M. Stirling

One word summary judgement: Tedious

Ancient Ways is an original story set within Stirling’s “Emberverse.” The problem here is that there’s not much to enjoy in this story if, like me, you didn’t like Dies the Fire and its follow-up books. Truth be told, I find the concept of “the change” – a supernatural event that reduces modern Earth to a pre-industrial society – to be a lazy way to get around actually destroying the world. Because of that, I couldn’t engage with this story set on the Russian Steppe. To its credit, the descriptions of the ethnic groups which make up that region of the world are remarkably accurate. Likely a great read for current Stirling fans, but nothing that changed my opinion of this particular world.

The Scroll by David Ball

One word summary judgement: Ruthless

Ball’s story, set in 17th century Morocco, is one of psychological torment. The protagonist, Baptiste, is a French army engineer who is captive to a capricious Moroccan king. It is a story of determinism and cruelty as Baptiste’s fate hinges not upon the tyrant himself, but a mysterious and prophetic scroll. The events of the story orbit a single question, “Will you kill for me, Engineer?” At the crux of that question is a moral dilemma between actively killing and allowing others to die through inaction. The evocative language invites readers to measure their own moral fortitude against the horrors of Morocco’s dungeons.

Recidivist by Gardner Dozois

One word summary judgement: Incomplete

There’s an inescapable mythological allegory in play within Dozois’ story of humanity’s futile resistance against artificial intelligence. These AIs are akin to the gods of old, toying with people as objects of curiosity. The story paints an amazing canvas that elevates AIs to a point where they become extra-dimensional beings. If only the narrative were as developed as the world, then this story might have been my favourite of the anthology. So much time is given over to world building that I suspect this is simply an excerpt of a much larger work. I liked it, but the actual story is very underdeveloped.

Ninieslando by Howard Waldrop

One word summary judgement: Smart

*My favourite of the anthology*

The beauty of this story isn’t so much that it is a well crafted alternate history, but that it exists as a plausible lost chapter from the First World War. Buried under the static trench lines of the Western Front, an international resistance group plots to end the suffering that comes with nationalism and war personified. Their tools in this mission: Esperanto and the recognition that the fighting man is not an automaton. In truth, I never would have thought that a failed universal language would work as a narrative device. Waldrop’s story simultaneously embraces pre-1914 idealism while rejecting its arrogance. A  theme of war as the enemy of universality should resonate with all contemporary readers.

Out of the Dark by David Weber

One word summary judgement: Unexpected

Judge me if you will, but I liked this story. It’s not the best of the anthology, and in typical Weber fashion it says in 30,000 words what could be said in 20,000. In this particular alien invasion scenario, the entirety of the Earth becomes a Balkans. Orbital strikes destroy the planet’s major cities, but pacifying the rest of humanity proves harder than the occupying forces expected. Readers will likely find the story’s ending to be completely polarizing as it blends an effective alien invasion scenario with a deus ex machine that is lifted directly out of gothic literature. Despite being a one-off, the story possesses the exacting detail that is the hallmark of David Weber’s writing.

Final Judgement: This anthology offers more hits than misses. At a $10 price point, if you buy it new, I’d say Warriors 2 is a fine investment of time and money.


Book Review: How Firm A Foundation

Summary Judgement:  Though it might prove difficult to approach this series in medias res, the latest entry into the Safehold mythos offers an evocative political narrative set amid a world that fuses science fiction, fantasy, and history.

Written by: David Weber

Review based off the audio novel as published by Macmillan Audio.

Before writing this review I took a moment to re-read my review of the first book in the Safehold series, Off Armageddon Reef. In June of last year, when I had my introduction to planet Safehold, Merlin Athrawes, and the Kingdom of Charis, I found myself likening Weber’s novel to something out of Patrick O’Brien’s Aubrey-Maturin series.  It might technically be science fiction, but it read with all the nuance and attention to detail of good historical fiction.  Having spent the last two weeks listening to the audio book of How Firm A Foundation, I feel I must invoke another writer’s name when speaking about the latest entry into the Safehold saga: Tom Clancy.

Ostensibly, How Firm a Foundation is also a work of science fiction.  Yet, politics and intrigue drive almost everything that happens within the novel.  It seems that with each new entry, the futuristic elements of the grand narrative become further subsumed in the realpolitik of Charis’ war with Safehold’s repressive Church of God Awating and the allied nations of that church.  Though highly descriptive sea battles remain an essential part of this story, they are predicated upon and followed by explorations of the resulting political and social fallout.  Perhaps more so now than after the first book’s release, the Safehold series lives somewhere between genres, even if the division is less between sci-fi and fantasy and more between political thriller and historical fiction with only the slightest dash of things fantastic.

As was the case with the other entries into the series, the title of the novel is inexorably linked to the theme of the book.  How Firm a Foundation is not simply an arbitrary name, but the question that drives the story.  Upon how firm a foundation does the Church of God Awaiting sit as the Empire of Charis expands its benevolent yet steadfast protestant banner?  How firm is the Church’s claim to piety when it sanctions suicide bombing, torture and other acts of terror in god’s name?  How firm is the foundation upon which Charis claims both power and spiritual legitimacy?  Emperor Cayleb and Emperess Sharleyan might command the most powerful navy and technologically advanced army in all of Safehold, but what good are those weapons against Church propaganda and zealous temple loyalists still living within Charis’ borders?

In asking such deep questions, any novel, especially one in a long running series, runs the risk of becoming ponderous and dull.  Weber goes so far as to double down on that risk in marrying rigorously detailed naval scenes to the overall story.  Yet it works within this novel as Weber has a marvelous way of using world building as a tool for character development.  This tactic has the benefit of making even the most trifling red-shirt feel connected to a world beyond their scope.  When applied to major players within Safehold’s story, it’s all but impossible not to feel invested in their lives, or deaths.

Yes, I said deaths.  With this novel focusing so intently on the politics of Safehold, the stakes are necessarily increased.  As such, people die.  Naturally I won’t so much as even hint at who meets their maker except to say that one such death caught me so off guard that I found myself simultaneously saddened and also furious at Mr. Weber’s temerity to kill off a character that I perpetually enjoyed.

I mentioned earlier in this review that I had the pleasure of enjoying HFAF in audio format.  Notwithstanding the kiddie version of Star Wars that came with a 24 page illustrated book, I can’t say that I have ever listened to an audio novel.  In honesty, I didn’t think it to be a medium that I would particularly enjoy – primarily because I can read faster than the average person can speak.  Yet, Charles Keating’s flawless narration adds a heightened dimension to David Weber’s words.  In fact, I think narration is the wrong word to describe precisely what Mr. Keating does with this novel.  It’s very much a one man performance of How Firm A Foundation.  Without reducing the characters to vocal gimmicks or clichés, Keating effortlessly transitions from exposition to dialogue.  Though if I am being totally honest, the thing that sold me on Keating’s performance was his interpretation of Grand Inquistor Zhaspahr Clyntahn.  Clyntahn, the defacto ruler of the Church of God Awaiting, oozes enmity and Keating’s voice captures his personality with such precision that I when I read Safehold Book 6 it will be Keating’s voice that I hear in my head when Clyntahn speaks.

One question that comes up when approaching a novel that is part of a larger series involves the necessity of reading everything which came before it.  Should a newbie broach How Firm A Foundation without a familiarity with the previous four novels?  Should somebody watch The Empire Strikes Back without seeing A New Hope? The answer is the same for both questions: you could but you would miss out on a lot of contextual details.  Although HFAF isn’t a standalone novel, it does seem a nice bookend to numerous plot threads that began in By Heresies Distressed (Book 3) and continued through A Mighty Fortress (Book 4).  While the characterization, allegory and attention to detail are strong enough to get a newbie through the book, they would be doing themselves a disservice by not fully investing in the series as a whole.

It’s also worth noting that How Firm A Foundation is, in my estimation, the strongest of the Safehold novels to date.  That isn’t to say that anything that came before even slightly resembles a bad book.  Rather, By Schism Rent Asunder (Book 2) and By Heresies Distressed (Book 3) read more like the inaugural movements of a grand game of chess.  They are necessary, but not nearly as exciting as when the stratagems start to unfold for all to see – as was the case in A Mighty Fortress (Book 4).  How Firm a Foundation builds on that momentum but infuses a tangible sense that one game is coming to an end vis-à-vis the Church’s ability to fight Charis through conventional means, a new and more ruthless game of asynchronous warfare is beginning.

My only concern with this novel, and the Safehold series as a whole, is that it might be starting to get a little too grand.  Though Mr. Weber keeps himself to a tighter production schedule than other writers (George R.R. Martin, I’m looking at you) he has created a saga that is no less nuanced and involved than A Song of Fire and Ice. Despite the ease in comparison, the essential difference between Safehold and A Song of Fire and Ice is that I can envision an ending to the former, not so much with the latter.

I expect the very last chapter of the final Safehold book ends with the PICA that contains the consciousness of Nimue Alban standing on the bridge of a newly minted Terran Federation warship.  Crewed by the descendents of the house of Ahrmahk and accompanied by a vast armada, they square off against a Gbaba fleet in orbit of Old Terra.  But like any good road trip, knowing the destination in no way diminishes the experience of getting there.  After witnessing the events of How Firm A Foundation, I can not wait to see what comes next.

Overall Score: +3.75


Geek News: September 10, 2011

Today in Geek News:  A new space combat game, David Weber has a new book, and Fox is the only network that seems to care about science fiction on television.

Greetings programs.  Let’s do things in the reverse order of the headline, just to mix it up a bit.  This September’s television line-up doesn’t cater to fans of science fiction.  We’re coming up on seven years without a new Star Trek series, Battlestar Galactica: Blood and Chrome is still being talked about in the future conditional tense and for the first time since I was fifteen years old I find myself living in a Stargate free world.  So what’s a genre fan to do other than mine episodes of Castle for its various and sundry Firefly references?  Why watch the Fox network, of course.

I know, Fox gets a lot of hate for cancelling shows with cult followings.  There’s also no denying that particular network has pissed me off on more than one occasion.  However, it was recently pointed out to me that Fox takes chances on shows that other networks wouldn’t touch with an inanimate carbon rod: case in point Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. So while I don’t expect it to fill the Destiny sized hole that SGU’s departure left in my life, I can’t deny that Fox’s time travel-dinosaur-dystopia, Terra Nova, looks reasonably interesting.  Terra Nova sees humanity escaping from its polluted and overcrowded future into its distant past.  The idea is that the refugees will built a sustainable civilization and either escape to Mars, or die off with the ice age thus preventing any species-nullifying time paradoxes.  It’s not the worst idea I’ve ever heard.  Here’s the clip.

Anybody who knows science fiction knows that David Weber is one of the genre’s most prolific writers.  Weber’s most recognizable claim to fame is the long running Honor Harrington series of military sci-fi novels.  This coming Tuesday, September 13, 2011, sees the launch of the next entry into Weber’s “Safehold” series of novels.  How Firm a Foundation is the fifth instalment in a series of novels that chronicle the ongoing conflict between an oppressive and dogmatic church and the small empire that dares to defy the “truth” of the Church’s history.

Blending elements of science fiction, fantasy, and historical narrative, the Safehold novels are rich in detail and rife with complex characters.  Moreover, Weber’s outstanding ability to write space battles has easily translated to the sea battles of planet Safehold.   How Firm a Foundation will be released in hardcover, e-format and as an audio book which promises “to translate to die-hard fans as well as listeners looking to break into the Sci-Fi genre.”  Here’s a little taste of what’s to come in audio book format.

Finally, gamers can delight to the knowledge that a new first-person space combat game is on its way.  Back in July, indie gaming studio Seamless Entertainment announced Sol: Exodus. The good folk at Seamless are, in their own words, intent on “re-energizing a faded genre once known for legendary hits like Wing Commander and Freespace.”  It’s a gusty proposition to say the least, but one that seems to have a lot of potential.

Sol: Exodus taps directly into the fears of our time to weave its story.  When humanity discovers that it has centuries, not eons, before the sun goes nova, the Earth government sends out a fleet of starships to find a new home.  One ship, the UCS Atlas, returns to the Sol system to find the government that sent it out displaced by a doomsday cult that embraces the impending destruction.  Players will assume the role of an Atlas star fighter pilot while this lone starship attempts to save humanity from itself and its dying star.  The game promises fast-paced dog fighting, to scale capital ship battles and a gripping story.

Want to know more? Send me an email and I’ll be sure to ask your questions when I have the developers on an upcoming podcast.

And that, friends, Romans and Space Marines, is your geek news for September 10, 2011.  May the immortal Emperor’s blessings be upon you.


Podcast #12 Jamie Mason’s Return to the Podcast

Featuring the voices of: Adam Shaftoe and Jamie Mason

Topics under discussion include: Jamie’s new novel Echo, the challenges of writing for a young adult audience, creating female characters as a male writer, Margaret Atwood, David Weber and an oh so brief tangent on politics and literature.

We also announce the winner of the Echo book giveaway.