Thursday, 4 June 2009

On Basilisk Station, by David Weber

Honor Harrington is given a new ship and assigned to Basilisk Station. It’s a poisoned chalice, but she’s going to do her duty, whatever it costs her.

Anyone who enjoyed Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, especially the cat-and-mouse battle at its conclusion – and who didn’t? – will thoroughly enjoy this; it’s very much more of the same. Later Trek series were probably influenced in turn by this book.

This is old-fashioned stuff in some ways. The idea of villains being motivated by a desire to pay unemployment benefits is almost charming in its 1980s-style silliness. The set-up is rather like Thatcherite Britain at threat from a European Union gone bad. Or are the aggressors more like Argentina, trying to relieve internal pressures with expansionist policies, making a quick grab for territory? Basilisk Station is as distant from its owners as the Falklands, but much more strategically important.

Less charming is the unreconstructed colonialism that sees the heroes threatened by a native uprising… The conclusion of that storyline is especially stomach-churning, and not quite in the way the author intended. It’s notable that not one of the natives gets a speaking role in the book (unless I missed it), but by gum we get to see their blood.

But though it can be criticised for being old-fashioned in that way, it can also be praised for its progressive feminism. Here we have a female captain who can hold her own with the best of them, and what’s more a crew evenly divided between men and women. To a degree critics could argue that this isn’t true feminism: being a woman is to some extent still a handicap she has to surmount. It’s not something that simply goes unmentioned, or that’s considered irrelevant to the performance of her duties, it’s a problem that’s there to create drama. But I think in the end such considerations are outweighed by her repeated demonstrations of utmost competence.

The influence of Hornblower is acknowledged by the author in an afterword, and readers of C.S. Forester and Patrick O’Brian may see this as a shallow, clumsily-written imitation. However, I only got through those books by pretending the ships were flying around in space, so that was fine by me. Weber shows particular ingenuity in finding ways to make naval-style tactics relevant to space battles. And where the battles here score above any iteration of Star Trek, for example, is that anything can happen: nobody, except Honor herself, is safe. None of the actors have got a contract in hand for series two…

One of the other pleasures of the book is a simple one: someone doing their job really well. Watching how Honor manages to handle everything thrown at her is very enjoyable, and you can’t help but root for her to come through. She’s an expert in man-management: she displays exceptional tact and understanding to gain the trust of her crew. The way she slowly wins them over is nothing we haven’t seen before, but it never gets old. (Season one of The Closer, for example, featured an almost identical plotline.)

So: highly recommended for anyone who ever wished Patrick O’Brian was a science fiction writer. Note that On Basilisk Station (what a great title, by the way) is available to read for free in a variety of formats from the Baen Books free library, which has definitely done its job here: there’s no doubt that I’ll be reading further volumes in the series.

On Basilisk Station, by David Weber, Baen, pb, 464pp

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