On Basilisk Station, The Charwoman’s Shadow

I’d heard of David Weber as a pillar of space opera, but never read him until I picked up a promotional copy of On Basilisk Station, remaindered. I get the feeling he’s one of the people whom Jim Baen promised to make famous if they could write three novels a year. On Basilisk Station is the first Honor Harrington novel, of which the sequels are legion.

I am a fan of the pulp/serial approach to science fiction - despite his faults, Edgar Rice Burroughs holds a high (and wide) place of honor on my bookshelves. LMB has turned the series form from a pulp and media-fiction backwater into a literary genre on its own terms. I don’t know that she did it with any help from David Weber. On Basilisk Station did not leave me wanting more Honor Harrington, and not because of any the typical penny-a-word failings of the genre. On the contrary, the characterization was unusually good and the depiction of military life more authentic than, say, LMB’s or ERB’s.

I’ve reread ERB’s Mars books more times than they deserved, and not for John Carter’s sake. What holds up a sci-fi series (and for that matter a fantasy series) is the setting. The reader wants to return to Middle-Earth, to Narnia, to Mars, to Barrayar; I’m attracted by the places and cultures more than by Eustace or Carthoris or even (forgive me, Liz) Ivan Vorpatril.

On Basilisk Station is set in a nondescript galaxy, where almost indistinguishable sides battle for…Basilisk Station, and the good guys are not the Barrayarans or the Heliumites, but the crew of a particular starship. The technology is also uninteresting - the usual hyperdrives and wormholes - and the decisive weapon itself was notable not for its science but for its tactical disadvantages. The book might have been about a true naval battle, on a more watery sea, and the plot, theme and characters wouldn’t have suffered a bit. (In fact, the battle scenes might have been easier to follow in two dimensions.)

That, of course, put me in mind of Promised Land, the sci-fi romance that was mostly romance with residual sci-fi. Military sci-fi is not a genre I follow except accidentally, so I wonder if it’s all heavy on the military and light on the sci-fi. Perhaps David Weber’s galaxy improves with a few more Honor Harrington novels; if I gave Catherine Asaro a second and third chance, he deserves four or five just on the basis of On Basilisk Station.

The Charwoman’s Shadow, one of two Del reprints of Lord Dunsany I picked up at Buck-a-Book, was covered in blurbs praising the father of fantasists. I know when a book comes loaded with that much self-promotion that I’m headed for disappointment. Remaindered disappointment sets me back only a buck or two, so I keep trying. At least the let-down was of an opposite sort: the setting was worked up marvelously, the story was recognizably fantasy, and the plot depended essentially on the magical and the medieval. The book was worth reading for the descriptive language alone.

The trouble was in the characters. The old woman, the young, bumbling hero, the lovely sister engaged to an oaf, the loving but misguided parents, and the princely Duke were all such stock characters as even ERB might have been ashamed to roll out (and he was writing contemporaneously, for pennies). Lord Dunsany is, I must protest, not the father of medieval fantasists. Reading him makes Tolkien’s claim to the title that much clearer. (I’ll leave for another entry the fantastic fantasists as well as the precise distinction between fantastic and medieval fantasy.)

Go ahead, read any of the pre-Tolkien fantasists and tell me otherwise. Try some William Morris for a blast from the medieval past. Have you ever heard of, never mind read, The Worm Ouroborus? It makes the Eye of Argon look Shakespearean. That was the state of fantasy before Tolkien. Tolkien was the first to tell the old stories in the modern form, without turning the old characters into modern man. Some may cheat and write modern men into their fantasy worlds (Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Summer Tree comes immediately to mind) but no one writes in the Grendel mode anymore.

So if you want battle, read On Basilisk Station, and if you want description, read The Charwoman’s Shadow. If you’re looking for sf, well, I am too.

2 Responses to “On Basilisk Station, The Charwoman’s Shadow”

  1. LizB Says:

    I didn’t like the Honor Harrington books when I read them. I gave up half way through On Basilisk Station. According to a friend in a science fiction bookstore, the series doesn’t improve.

  2. Meril Says:

    And now I know I’m driving Liz nuts by all my Harrington blogging… ^_^;

    The series seems to run out of steam during the seventh book, and honestly I’m more enthused with the other characters than I am with Honor. I’m thinking the main plot of OBS was less about the battle over Medusa and more about the relationship between Honor and Alistair McKeon, and for that matter Honor and her misfit crew of irritations, but I tend to interpret things in that way.

    Most military SF is more battle or character-focused; there’s a reason it’s called “space opera.”

    Dunsany was an influence on Lovecraft, for what it’s worth…

    _The Worm Ouroboros_…gee, I thought I was the only person on the planet who read it. I kind of liked it.