A Rising Thunder by David Weber
Cover art by David Mattingly
Published by Baen Books
Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel
This novel is the latest installment in the Honor Harrington universe, taking up pretty much immediately after the ending of Mission of Honor. However, as I read it, I felt that it was all middle, with neither beginning nor end. Quite honestly, I cannot imagine a reader coming to the Honorverse for the first time being able to pick up this novel and enjoy it. The first several chapters assume a considerable amount of familiarity with the Honorverse, -- we're dropped straight into a space battle without any introduction to help us get our bearings as to who's who and what they're fighting about. Unless you've been following the storyline through several previous books, you're going to be lost and floundering.
This seems to be a problem inherent to long-running series. Once there are a certain number of volumes, the author has to deal with the accumulation of information about past events in the fictional world that may well be essential for the reader to understand the circumstances of the current novel, resulting in the need to balance the desires of new readers to be brought up to speed on what's going on with the desire of established readers to not be bored with a whole lot of repetition of material they've already read in previous books. Some authors try to weave the backfill into the first several chapters of the latest novel, perhaps by trying to engineer ways for characters to need to be informed of past history, or to demonstrate their knowledge of those events. For instance, in one of the later novellas that would become part of the Foundation Trilogy, Isaac Asimov had a character writing an essay for class, using a futuristic device that transcribed her spoken words into script, but was as normal as pen and ink would be to a reader of the time, or a keyboard to a contemporary reader.
It appears that David Weber was trying to dispense with the necessity of giving all that background information by beginning the story with a scene of such immediacy that even a brand-new reader would be able to start caring about the characters and their situations in isolation, and not worry about how they fit into the larger corpus of established literature that long-term fans would be expected to know. However, I'm not entirely sure it works as well as it seems to have been intended. I've been reading the Honor Harrington universe for years, and I have to confess that I had a little trouble getting my bearings when I started reading it. On the other hand, the very fact that I have read the previous novels (if not necessarily with the level of attention as the hard-core fans, many of whom like to periodically re-read the entire series to refresh their memories) may mean that the sense that I ought to know the certain characters and their relationships as soon as I met them could have actually made me feel more lost than a first-time reader.
Another thing on which I am ambivalent is just how long it was before Honor Harrington herself actually appeared on camera. This novel is supposed to be part of the main sequence of the series, not one of the various side sequences that have developed over the years, so the assumption is that she is going to be the principal character around whom the storyline is built. Instead, it feels almost as if she's become peripheral to her own story, and instead interstellar politics has taken over the storyline so that the characters become little more than representatives for their polities, rather than individuals in their own rights with motives and intentions of their own.
At the same time, I'm almost as glad to move beyond the focus on Honor herself, for the simple reason that the three-way marriage with Hamish and Emily Alexander continues to grate on my nerves every time I see even the slightest reference to it. For some people the non-standard nature of a triple marriage would be objectionable, but what I hate about it is the feeling that it's a cop-out, and resulted in the destruction of what had been a wonderfully poignant source of tension in the storyline. Here we had three very ethical characters who care deeply about one another and respect each other a great deal, so when we have the rules suddenly changed so they can get what they want and still be doing the right thing, it really feels like the author's cheating.
On the other hand, it does appear that David Weber has avoided another pitfall that has beset a number of other long-running series; namely, the volume that has a lot of stuff happening to it that is interesting to long-term fans who love the immersive experience of living in their imagined universe, but which doesn't advance the story for those readers who are reading the novel for more typical reasons of getting a story that moves forward to a goal. In this novel we see some major social changes that have resulted from the intersection of several different threads developing over the past several books, most importantly the treecats' having learned sign language and the growing threat of Mesa and its manipulations of the Solarian League.
Treecats have always been one of the more interesting elements of the Honorverse. Unlike Asimov's Foundation universe or Frank Herbert's Dune universe, the Honorverse has never been a humans-only universe. Even in the very first novel, On Basilisk Station, there were intelligent, tool-using non-humans, including a species with a non-symmetrical body plan very alien from that of Terrestrial tetrapod vertebrates. Several other alien species have been mentioned, both extant ones and the ruins of star-spanning civilizations that appear to have been destroyed thousands or millions of years before humanity became a technological, spacefaring race. However, the aliens were always peripheral to the stories, either being pre-Industrial and confined to a single planet, or living in such distant parts of the galaxy that they had little or no contact with humanity. Aliens never had the sort of presence we see in the Star Wars universe, where humanity shares its worlds with a vast diversity of sapient species whose body plans are widely in divergence from humanity.
However, that rule had one rather ambiguous exception in the treecats, who had a very definite place in the lives of Manticorean humans. Even from the very beginning, there were definite hints to the alert that they were not the cute, cuddly pets they appeared to be. We needed only look at the way in which Honor related to her treecat companion Nimitz to know there was some very complex and flexible behavioral patterns at work, far more than a simple alien analog to a terrestrial house cat. As the novels progressed and Honor's latent empathic abilities, the result of long-ago genetic modifications for increased intelligence without compromising the moral compass, began to mesh more and more with his mind, it became clear that there was actual abstract intelligence and self-awareness at work, that inside that furry skull was a mind that could contemplate its own consciousness and use memories of the past to plan for the future and act upon those plans in the present. However, the treecats' inability to speak or otherwise produce human language made their status extremely problematical. The Star Kingdom of Manticore had always erred on the safe side and treated them as a protected species in case they were sapient, but could not extend them civil rights or make them full partners with humanity in the absence of the ability to communicate in language.
The question of how to recognize an alien sophont has been a theme of science fiction for decades. H. Beam Piper's classic Little Fuzzy centered on that question, with the adorable little creatures initially appearing to lack language in spite of their complex and flexible behavior patterns, until the protagonists discover that they in fact communicate at frequencies too high for human hearing, rather like the vocalizations of mice and bats, but with the features of true language. In the case of the treecats, the Star Kingdom of Manticore had been playing it safe for generations, ever since Honor Harrington's ancestor Stephanie Harrington had first discovered them and befriended one, who'd become her lifelong companion. It was only during Honor's ordeal on the Havenite prison planet known as Hell, when Nimitz was injured by a brutal security goon, that things changed. When he got back, something was terribly wrong. He and his mate Samantha began what should've been a joyous reunion only to recoil in horror. It took a fair amount of work with Honor and the other humans to sort out what was wrong -- his telepathic "transmitter" had been broken, and while he could still receive other treecats' sendings, he could no longer send properly. He still broadcast emotions, but the more specific communications that corresponded to human language weren't going through.
This discovery led to the breakthrough by which treecats began to communicate with humans through a form of sign language. At once it became clear they were sapient, with a complex neolithic culture they'd kept entirely hidden from the human settlers of their homeward. Furthermore, their long history of empathic bonds and partnerships with humans had made them see the Manticorean humans on their world not as intruders and thieves, but as partners on an even grander scale.
Even as this was going on, a Manticorean envoy on Old Earth ran afoul of the machinations of the genetic slavers of Mesa, and gave them a thorough drubbing. (This event was presented in Eric Flint's novella "From the Highlands," which can be found in the anthology Changer of Worlds). Although the Star Kingdom had long opposed the institution of genetic slavery, not the least because the Royal Family and many of the leadership class of Manticore had genetic modifications of their own, it had generally been limited to funding organizations to protest the practice, and some covert aid to the Audobon Ballroom, done through cutouts to maintain plausible deniability. But once Helen Zilwicki the Younger and her father Anton became involved in the matter, one thing led to another until Mesa's notorious hell-world of Congo became Torch, a Promised Land for genetic slaves, where they would no longer be a stigmatized outgroup, but an independent star nation in their own right (the obvious comparison is Liberia, done right instead of half-heartedly, but one could also make a comparison with the Old Testament narrative of the Children of Israel leaving slavery in Egypt to take their Promised Land). As a result, Mesa became far more open in their hostility, and began to use a new and insidious system of nanotech mind control to turn unsuspecting people into living weapons of mass destruction.
One of those attacks was detected by a security team that consisted of a former Sphynxian Forest Service officer and his treecat partner, albeit at the cost of their own lives. But it was just enough to suggest that the empathic and telepathic abilities of the treecats might help create some kind of defense -- but how to approach the treecats so that they understand exactly what they're being asked to undertake? And then the Mesans attack the Manticorean binary system's orbital assets, in the process destroying the home of an entire treecat clan with reentering debris, and give the treecats their own causus belli.
Treecats have a very simple philosophy with regards to enemies: there are two kinds, those who have been properly dealt with, and those who are still alive. Of course the treecats are willing to join in the war against Mesa -- but how? Their ability to use human war-making technology is very limited, due to their small size and different body plan. But they do bring their mental abilities to the table -- and thus their new role as bodyguards for the leadership of the star nations that oppose Mesa.
It's an interesting development, since treecats are now moving among humans as equals, and as independent agents rather than in partnership with picked humans whose mind-glows they particularly favor. And although many of their principals do not know sign language, they're feeling a strong motivation to learn, simply because it's becoming increasingly obvious that these little furry creatures aren't just bright animals, but people with a surprisingly complex inner life and a sly sense of humor.
And that, quite honestly, is what really makes this book interesting to me -- the change in the role of the treecats, their movement from being on the margins of a primarily human society to something more closely approximating a full partnership. It represents a major paradigm shift, and I'm really going to be interested in how that's going to reshape the Honorverse going forth. And as a result, I'm pretty much ready to forgive the book being all middle, simply because it's Important middle.
Yet at the same time, I still have those reservations about how -- or even whether -- a first-time reader would be able to enjoy it. I keep thinking of what it's going to be like for someone who grabbed it from a bookshop in an airport in preparation for an eight-hour or twelve-hour flight and is now stuck on a plane with a book that's dumping them into the middle of a story with little or nothing to help them get their bearings.
Review posted January 1, 2013.
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