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On Basilisk Station by David Weber

Published by Baen Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

On Basilisk Station is the first in what has become one of the longest-running and most profitable military science fiction series Baen Books publshes Honor Harrington is a sort of far-future Horatio Hornblower in space, a naval officer in a universe where starships behave rather like sailing ships of old, where there is no single overarching Galactic Empire or United Federation of Planets, but a large number of independent star nations that bear a certain resemblance to the politics of the Napoleonic Wars. Honor Harrington is also one of the first women heroes of a military science fiction series, and as such she has to deal with the issues a woman faces in a gendered society. And the way she chose to deal with one of those problems when she was in her world's naval academy has come back to haunt her.

As a cadet she was a gangly young thing, unsure of herself, and thus seemed to be easy prey for Pavel Young, scion of a rather unsavory aristocratic family, and he decided to try to rape her in the showers one day. Already skilled in combat, she fought him off, but did not press charges, instead agreeing to pretend that he had injured himself slipping and falling on wet tiles. At the time she thought she was doing the right thing by keeping the navy's dirty laundry from being aired in public -- it's not surprising that she has given her treecat companion the name of Nimitz. But by not destroying the career of the man who assaulted her, Honor has left herself with a dangerous enemy who is now in a position to destroy her. By his connection with his influential and equally selfish father the Earl of North Hollow, he has gotten her sent to Basilisk Station, a supposedly dead-end posting that has the potential to ruin her career.

But Honor Harrington is not going to just roll over and give up. She is going to make the most of this impossible position, and actually enforce the contraband regulations that have been allowed to slide for years. Of course that's not exactly going to please the local merchants, who have been growing rich on their smuggling business. Rich and powerful men such as Klaus Hauptmann, who can afford to hire people to resolve the problem. People such as professional duellist Denver Summervale, who once was an officer in the Royal Manticoran Marines, until he was court-martialled and dismissed in disgrace, a humiliation he has neither forgotten nor forgiven.

Oh, and by the way, Honor's new command is in the middle of a major refit and not likely to be spaceworthy for a good while. Not exactly the state a good commanding officer wants to find her ship when her nation's government is in a rapidly deteriorating relationship with another great power, the People's Republic of Haven.

The PRH is one of David Weber's more interesting creations. Settled by French colonists, it would appear to represent France much as the Star Kingdom of Manticore (Honor's homeland) represents the UK. Certainly the entrenched political families and hereditary Presidency could be seen as the nobles and royal family of the Old Regime. However, the very name "people's republic" suggests a Communist regime rather than a monarchial one, and we soon learn that it is in fact a nation in which a vast part of the proletariat are in fact a perpetual welfare underclass, the Dolists. It had its beginnings in a Great Society-like attempt to ensure that everyone would have a minimum standard of living, even if work were not available -- but soon people found it easier to rely upon the Basic Living Stipend than to do unpleasant menial work, until the economy began to creak under the strain and the PRH increasingly began to rely upon external conquests to bring in the flood of money that would keep the Dolists happy. So one may wonder whether the People's Republic of Haven is as much a cautionary tale for the American welfare state as it is a sf-nal version of France just before the Revolution.

One thing about which there is no question is Honor's deep and abiding antipathy toward all things to do with the Peeps, as she refers to the PRH and its citizens. In her eyes they're a treacherous pack of good-for-nothings who will gladly stab you in the back, and the galaxy would be well rid of the lot of them. Thus she's just a little more willing to be suspicious of the odd behavior of a supposedly harmless freighter, and when it starts acting oddly, to go right into battle against it.

A lot of critics have been making the obvious comparisons with Star Wars and with C. S. Forrester's Horatio Hornblower series, not to mention Patrick O'Brien's stories of Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin. But as I was reading it, I also was reminded of Robert A. Heinlein. Not the later novels when he started getting weird and self-indulgent, but those wonderful early novels I discovered when I was in jr. high, ones like Between Planets or The Rolling Stones or especially Citizen of the Galaxy. Stories of action and adventure in space that recaptured the excitement of a time when the world was so much larger than it is today, when there were still unknown lands and peoples to be discovered out there. Not to mention Heinlein's wonderful talent for slipping in brief lectures on various subjects important to the story while making them so entertaining that you actually want to remember them instead of feeling like you're choking on an indigestible expository lump. I still remember reading with considerable fascination the discussion of oxygen supply in Have Space Suit, Will Travel, or the discussion of the dynamics of space piracy in Citizen of the Galaxy, which explained exactly why a spaceship should be vulnerable during its approach and departure from a system, making Thorby's role in missile defense so important.

And Weber has that same touch for explaining to us the ins and outs of the hyperspace bands in his fictional universe. By the time you're done reading the space battle scenes, you'll almost believe that you could really build such a ship.

Review posted March 19, 2009

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