Friday, July 18, 2003

A few years ago my dad sent me a copy of David Weber's On Basilisk Station, a paperback version which was being sold cheap as a promotion for a later book in the series featuring the same characters. He and I (as well as a good chunk of science fiction readers) are fans of Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan books, which feature several members of the Vorkosigan family as main characters, but mostly Miles Naismith Vorkosigan. My dad Joe wondered if Weber would be as successful in writing his female protagonist Honor Harrington as Bujold was in writing her male protagonist. I read On Basilisk Station and ranked it good enough to stay on the shelf but not nearly as interesting as the first Vorkosigan book I'd read (Barrayar, when it was being serialized in Analog magazine and I was so mad that I'd have to go home from my summer visit before the final portion was published). I had no urge to go and read the rest of the books about Honor Harrington.

I think it was only a few months ago that I spotted a later book in the Harrington series on the shelves of my friends Ben and Jodi. (I assumed it was Ben's because I never had any idea Jodi was a science fiction reader, but it turns out it's hers.) It was something I could read while Jon and I visited their place to catsit, but once I got started I wanted to keep going. Without pause. I think I just about did so; it didn't take more than two or three days to finish. The fact that the majority of the 10 novels in the series have some play on "Honor" in their titles makes it really difficult to keep the names straight; I had to look up the fact that it was Echoes of Honor, the eighth novel in the series. But after reading that one (and having skipped the intervening six books made no difference), in which Honor escapes from an enemy prison planet, I DID want to go straight to the library and check out all they had.

Unfortunately, our branch didn't have the whole series and I was about to go on a trip, so I didn't have time to have them sent from other branches. I took the four they had, one short story collection with stories set at different points in the series chronology, Changer of Worlds and the novels The Honor of the Queen (Book 2), Field of Dishonor (Book 4), and War of Honor (Book 10). All but the last and thickest one went with me on the trip; it wasn't until I got home that I discovered the CD-ROM in an envelope attached to the endpapers of War of Honor -- which just happened to contain the text of all 10 novels and 3 short story collections published so far, as well as several other novels and collections also published by Baen. In rich text format, HTML, and a couple of PDA formats. All this is apparently also available on Baen's web site, but a) I didn't know that and b) it's a lot faster to copy all that from a disk.

One of the things I like about this series and that I particularly noticed in War of Honor is that Weber writes both sides of the story. Indeed, all sides of the story, which frequently requires insight into the people high in the governments of at least three multi-planet nations, citizens of those nations' views on their governments and those of other nations, and even of non-human species. And the vast majority of them are portrayed as well-intentioned. There are certainly some evildoers who are flat-out amoral, but most of the characters really believe that they are working for the right cause (even when the reader, having knowledge the character doesn't, can see that they are doing exactly opposite). It may be adventure fiction, even space opera, but there are very few flat characters who only exist to provide enemies for the protagonist. Throughout all the series that I've read, the complexity of real life with real consequences for any action applies. (This may be why the most recent four novels, which delve a little more into political situations as Honor's rank and influence increase, are about three times the average length of the earlier ones.) The parallels with real life incidents are not always subtle (in case the government of the People's Republic of Haven after the coup against the Legislaturalists doesn't remind the reader of the Reign of Terror in revolutionary France, Haven's new leader is named "Rob Pierre" and his next-in-command is "Saint-Just") but perhaps remembering our history will help us analyze the events of real life.

But the core of the series is the symbolically named Honor, a member of the (space) Navy of the Star Kingdom of Manticore who takes a book or two before she comes across as a relatively normal human being. She is a wonderful leader and commander no matter what the situation is, but frankly, seeing her anger at a foreign planet's sexism and grief over the death of a mentor in The Honor of the Queen was the first place in the series chronology where the character herself really resonated with me. The books are generally written so that references are explained and reading them in series chronology is not necessary, so I would probably recommend leaving On Basilisk Station for later and starting with one of the other books.

Would my dad think these books are good as the Vorkosigan ones? Maybe. Despite both series' being military/adventure science fiction, Honor's position is always a lot more "within the system" than that of Miles Vorkosigan and his other family members. There's also a lot more technology and actual shooting war in the Harrington books; the Vorkosigans seem to do much more one-on-one conflicts with their enemies on Barrayar, a planet still working itself back up from years of being cut off from the rest of the universe, and even when visiting elsewhere. I note that Baen did not include any of the Vorkosigan books on the CD that came with War of Honor even though they do publish them -- perhaps they don't think there's much audience overlap, perhaps they just preferred to promote single books and shorter series on the disc, or perhaps Bujold didn't give permission to have her books made available this way. Nonetheless, both series are definitely worth reading.

Monday, July 14, 2003

I read a book recently that was a biography of two people; a modern history of one country; a family saga of three generations of love, break-up, and their repercussions; and a political mystery/thriller. How can all that go into one book? It's The Devil That Danced On The Water: A Daughter's Quest by Aminatta Forna, whose parents were Dr. Mohamed Forna, former finance minister of the African country of Sierra Leone, and his Scottish first wife. The book tells the story of her father's life and her own childhood (in and out of Sierra Leone, depending on the danger to her family from changing regimes). It is both a child's-eye view of having a father who is successively a doctor, a politician, and a political prisoner, and an adult's search for corroboration of her fragmented memories and information she never knew on the trial leading to her father's execution on trumped-up charges. The book makes clear the tangled politics of the decades since Sierra Leone's independence and the complex web of extended family, as well as brief jaunts into European and African racism and even the differences in children's stories. Overall, I found it so absorbing I had trouble putting it down to get other things done.