Book Review: On Basilisk Station, by David Weber

On_Basilisk_StationOn Basilisk Station is the first in the sweeping Honor Harrington series.  This is space opera at it’s finest, in the tradition of earthbound classics like the Horatio Hornblower series and Master and Commander.

Honor Harrington is a Commander in the Royal Manticoran [Space] Navy.  In this series, which takes place in the far future, planets and planetary systems jockey for power in ways analogous to those of the major powers in the Regency period on Earth.  Honor is stated by the author to be inspired by Horatio Hornblower and Admiral Nelson.

In this book, the first of Honor’s many adventures, she is assigned a ship with a newfangled weapon that can’t work effectively in combat.  She makes it work anyway and is assigned to Basilisk Station as a sort of unspoken punishment.  Basilisk Station is a remote trading station where the Navy has failed to follow through on its many responsibilities.  Honor is desperately under shipped and understaffed but she goes about whipping things into shape, winning the loyalty of her crew, and becoming involved in complicated political intrigue.

This series has been running since On Basilisk was first published in 1993.  It’s easy to see how this series could run pretty much forever without ever running out of steam.  It’s created such a complex system of space travel and sweeping empires that other characters could have their own stories long after Honor retires (or gets blown up, heaven forbid).

For these same reasons, it’s easy to see why this series is beloved.  The plot is complex, the maneuvers are described in loving detail, and the Navy atmosphere is well-rendered.  It’s refreshing that in this book, Honor does not have any romantic relationships.  As an avid romance reader, I’m certainly not opposed to romance, but I get tired of the automatic assumption in many stories that if there’s a woman and there’s a man than sex is sure to follow.  I gather that Honor does get to fall in love later in the series, but it’s clear that her romantic life does not define her.

I only have one problem with this book, and it’s a big one.  In this book, one of Honor’s duties is to help protect the planet Medusa.  Medusa has an indigenous population of people who are at approximately a Bronze Age level of technology.  They are treated as people to be protected, used, manipulated, or killed.  They are discussed with a high level of casual racism.  We never meet one of these indigenous Medusans, never hear one speak for him or herself.  They are plot points – either incompetent, violent, or both.

This is ugly in any context but it’s even uglier if you consider that if Honor’s home system, Manticore, is analogous to Regency England, then Medusa is analogous to India or Africa under English colonization.  There’s no sense of awareness on either the parts of the characters or the author that this diminishment of an entire planet of people to childish, stoned killers might be bad.  This is especially sad if you reflect that even English writers during colonization, even very racist writers, sometimes gave indigenous people a voice and some compassion or understanding.  For instance, Rudyard Kipling wrote some appalling racist things (“The White Man’s Burden” for one) but he still managed to also portray an Indian water bearer as a hero in “Gunga Din” – one who is stated to be superior to the English officers he works for.

If Rudyard Kipling could manage to write about people from India with some scrap of humanity and respect, however little, than I’d expect an author from 1993 to be able to write about imperialism in a way that acknowledges the uglier aspects of imperialism.  It’s not that I think Weber owes us a utopia.  My problem is that Weber doesn’t seem to notice that one aspect of his book (the colonization of Medusa) is dystopian.

I haven’t read further into the series, but I have a sense that the problem with the portrayal of the Medusans may vanish simply because Honor and co. don’t stay at Basilisk Station.  This may be yet another case of me having picked the one book in a n otherwise inoffensive series with racist elements.  I’d say anyone who enjoyed The Master and Commander Series, by Patrick O’Brian, or The Vorksignian Saga, by Lois McMaster Bujold, will probably very much enjoy the Honor Harrington books. These books are driven less by character and relationships than by politics, world-building, strategy, and tactics so prepare to read the books with some thought and attention to detail – no skimming!

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