Title: On Basilisk Station
Author: David Weber
First Published: 1993
Genre: Science Fiction/Fantasy
I’ve picked up several free e-books from Amazon since I first got my Kindle two years ago. This was one. Most of the others were ‘indie’ or self-published and most were surprisingly well written and enjoyable. This was neither.
When I saw this on the list of Amazon freebies, I grabbed it because I know the series has something of a following. Scanning down the reviews that have been posted, I saw many have raved about this book. I can only wonder why. Perhaps the Kindle version I got was an unpolished draft. It certainly read like one.
This is a pulp sci-fi military space opera, and although these can be fun, this particular book has few redeeming qualities. There is a large cast of cardboard characters and enough techno-babble to choke a Vulcan, but, with a judicious amount of skimming, I found the story engaging enough for me to finish reading (almost). I couldn’t take any more by the end and skimmed the last few pages.
The poor writing style was obvious from the start. The prose is amateurish. The first ten to fifteen percent of the book is primarily backstory and exposition. If this were a self-published book, I would have stopped reading and concluded that the writer needed to develop his skills a bit more. But this book has a traditional publisher (Baen), and it has fans. I kept reading, thinking it must get better as it goes on.
I almost gave up again half way in because the setting and characters were beginning to strain my ability suspend disbelief. Perhaps the most implausible aspect was that Honor Harrington (the unbelievingly self-disciplined lead character) increasingly appears to be just about the only truly competent commanding officer in the Royal Manticoran (space) Navy. If this were a work of comedy or satire, this would be fine, but it’s not. We’re supposed to accept that this is plausible. Even under an archaic form of monarchy (more on this later), where commissions are handed out based on family as often as they are on achievement, I have trouble accepting that any military organization could accept, or operate with, such a high amount of incompetence. (There is also a dysfunctional political system operating largely behind the scenes, which is, sadly, plausible, although I also doubt such a system can endure long without getting its act together.)
About eighty percent in, I considered tossing it aside again. In the middle of a chase scene, in which Honor’s ship is pursuing a much larger and more heavily armed enemy ship (for which she has no real plan how to defeat), the narrative devolves into a long exposition on the history of the faster than light technology they use. If there is ever a time for something like this, a chase scene is not it.
The battle scenes, especially the naval battles, are competently drawn, although a bit graphically for my taste. The wholesale slaughter of Bronze Age aliens (by the ‘good’ guys) with little remorse or reflection gave me one of those WTF moments. The ‘glory of war’ aspect of these scenes predominates. The ‘tragedy of war’ aspect is largely limited to instances when the ‘good guys’ lose or take casualties. The concept of war, the ethical considerations, and alternatives to it are largely ignored. That kind of underlying message became clearer as the book progressed. If there is a theme to this story, it is something along the lines of ‘duty above all else,’ ‘violence is always a first and best response,’ ‘war is inevitable,’ or ‘might makes right.’
But there really are no ‘good guys’ in this story. No one has a clear claim to the moral high ground. Honor is a citizen of the Star Kingdom of Manticore, a hereditary monarchy with privileged, landed gentry, self-serving corporations, a multiparty political system that seems largely inept, and a culture that feels almost medieval. Their rivals are the People’s Republic of Haven, a star nation of military expansionists with a strained, socialist economy. The book provides little more insight than this into their respective cultures, but I doubt I would want to live in either. I saw insufficient reason to favor one side over the other in their squabbles despite Haven’s particularly nasty effort to foment something like the Boxer Rebellion by supplying drugs to the Bronze Age natives of Medusa. I got the impression that the Manticorans would have few ethical qualms about doing something similar if they found it expedient.
The formatting of the eBook was also poorly done. The text was double-spaced throughout, with forced line justification and missing scene breaks.
Maybe I’ve come to expect too much from a free eBook, but almost all of those I’ve seen had something going for them—a good story, interesting characters, a thought provoking theme, or even just proper formatting. This book fails in all regards.
If books were like TV, this one would be on par with Saturday morning cartoons or professional wrestling. I realize that many people enjoy that kind of stuff. That’s fine. Different people like different things. I, however, cannot recommend this, not even as a freebie. There are far better books available for the same cost.