The Honor of the Queen (Honor Harrington #2) by David Weber

The Honor of the Queen by David Weber

The second installment in the Honor Harrington series really gets down to business in addressing some of the issues that were raised by the first novel, such as “holy shit, a female main character!?” and also “holy shit, a female space battleship captain!?”

I’ll freely admit that even if I hadn’t already read – and thoroughly enjoyed – the first Honor Harrington book I probably would have picked this one up based on the ridiculousness of the cover illustration and summary alone. Look, we put covers on books so that we have something by which to judge them. Not everyone has the time to read a whole chapter of something they might hate.

honor2

Look at that fucking cover! That scene doesn’t happen anywhere in the book, to my recollection, but unlike the cover of the first book, which actively annoyed me, this one is irresistibly over-the-top. You know what you’re getting into with this cover. That is a woman who can comfortably ride in a flying convertible, standing up, with a huge cat perched on her shoulders, while the dude driving doesn’t even question it. That woman is a stone cold bad-ass.

The Honor of The Queen lays down some feminist anger with hands heavier than Mjolnir, to start. Things pick up right where they left off on Basilisk Station. The inevitable war between the Republic of Haven, and Honor’s Kingdom of Manticore is still encroaching and Manticore is trying to gather strategic allies before shit blows up in their collective faces. Enter the planet Grayson, which boasts a strategic location and potential motive for allying with Manticore – as well as an incredibly hostile surface environment, stunted technological development, and some deeply ingrained fundamentalist Christian views on women’s rights.

For some reason Manticore decides that a diplomatic mission will make for a great opportunity to shove their social advancements down the throats of the Grayson dignitaries, and sends Honor to head the excursion.

While the women on Grayson are treated reasonably well (for pets), they’re not really allowed to work, go to school or own property. Seeing Honor and her female officers in uniform and ordering dudes around is just too much for the men of Grayson. Sexism ensues. Comments are made about Honor being on the rag. The hand is so, so heavy.

We soon find out, though, that the original colonists of the Grayson planet were split into two sects. The current citizens of Grayson are the descendants of the more moderate of the two, while the remaining extremist division escaped to a nearby planet called Masada. David Weber lays down a few really solid passages that not only serve to explain the differences, but also to give the reader an opportunity to change their minds about the Grayson people. The admirals of the two navies meet, and the Grayson commander repents, admitting that Honor’s captaining is on-point and there isn’t a legitimate argument to be made against her abilities or position. However, he notes that his culture’s views on women are so deeply ingrained that it will take many decades to make a dent in changing them.

I like the way Weber pulls this off. He made me sympathize with a character I was prepared to hate, and he did so without relying on a comparison to a greater evil (despite having one in the chamber.) So I give kudos for that.

Political stuff happens. This is a very talk-y novel. I’m not sure I appreciated that aspect of it, beyond what I just talked about. Anyhow, midway through, Honor and her treecat nearly single-handedly thwart an assassination attempt by some Masadan thugs. This makes a huge impression on the Grayson people, and suddenly a lot more of them are on board with the idea of a female naval officer. During the scuffle, our hero takes a rifle butt to the head and loses vision and muscle control on one side of her face.

That’s right, Honor Harrington has an eyepatch, now and presumably for the rest of the series. Because she wasn’t hard enough. Damn, Weber! You’re really taking no prisoners with this one.

Unlike the Masadans, who take a whole bunch of Maticoran P.O.W.s and, obviously, because this novel has feminist undertones, rape them half to death. Honor barely restrains herself from justifiable homicide, and from then on it’s a Grayson/Manticore versus Masada death-match.

I won’t talk too much about the web of lies that Masada weaves throughout the novel, partly because it would be spoilers and mostly because I found it hard to follow. Honestly that’s my biggest issue with this book. It’s fucking hard to follow. It’s densely tactical and political, and while I don’t tend to write off a book on that basis alone, I found that it really dragged in places because it spent so much time setting up and explaining strategic maneuvers.

If you’re expecting an intense feminist shit-kicking bonanza, well, you pretty much get it – just, diluted with a lot of men talking about how big their ships are. It’s the novel equivalent of a cocktail with way too much ice.

I also just need to point out that Weber knows all the rules for writing a book that feminists will like, and he likes to fucking flaunt it. At the very start of the book we’re treated to a scene in which Honor’s mom does the mom thing and pesters her about getting a boyfriend, pointing out which of her crew members are the hottest and generally being perfectly and wonderfully inappropriate.

And it never pays off. There is not a single moment of sexual tension in this novel. No one gives a shit. Ships get blown to particles in the vacuum of space and there’s not a single “we’re about to get fucked, kiss me now!” So I have to congratulate Weber on that because honestly, with such a potentially campy premise I myself probably would have wedged in at least one awkward sex scene.

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Friday by Robert A. Heinlein

Friday by Robert A. Heinlein

Ah, Friday. It took me a long time to write about this book – mainly because, weeks after reading it, I’m still not sure what I want to say about it. I think my biggest issue with this novel is that I don’t know why it was written. I don’t mean to say that it’s awful – though it certainly has its flaws – but I can’t discern the point of its existence, as a novel. I’m not talking specifically about plot, here. This isn’t a postmodernist novel. But it’s not the rollicking action-adventure story that it tries to sell itself as, either.

There’s no central mission, no really well-defined conflict, no one event that’s weighted with any more importance than the rest. A bunch of stuff happens, the characters are tossed to and fro without experiencing any sort of personal growth – then the story ends with everything tied up in a neat, abrupt bow that comes across as incredibly banal.

Robert Heinlein sets Friday at an indeterminate point in the future, presumably a couple hundred years from now. The Americas have been split up into a number of smaller, separate nations and advances in transportation have made it possible to get pretty much all the way around the world in a couple of hours. In some ways, it almost reads as a technological precursor to Ringworld. For the most part, I found the world building really interesting, logical and believable as a whole. Space travel exists and a number of other planets are colonized but the story takes place by and large on Earth.

Friday is an artificial human – not a gynoid or a cyborg but a flesh-and-blood human that was conceived with frozen eggs and sperm, then grown in a tube. And she’s far from alone in her origins. These genetically perfect humans (and more bizarre composite organisms, known as living artifacts – but we never get to meet any of them) are made to seem relatively commonplace in Friday’s world. Knowledge of their existence seems widespread and the fact that they are being produced is apparently largely accepted.

Despite this, the artificials are met with such uninhibited, violent prejudice that they can never reveal themselves for fear of being lynched. Despite their physical perfection and ability to complete any task with a rate of error far below that of an average human, no legitimate employer will hire them.

This whole concept alone seems like a bit of a farce – it’s deployed as an allegory for racism, sexism, insert-your-ism-here, but with humanity already utterly in control of the creation and rearing of these artificial humans, it seems bizarre to have built up such a hatred of them. Why not just discontinue production? Why design and create organisms for the purpose of living among humans, then refuse to let them live among humans? If there was some sort of traumatic incident in human history that was the fault of the artificials, Heinlein certainly doesn’t let on. So it’s just… a bit nonsensical.

Friday, aka Marjorie Baldwin, admonishes the reader that artificial humans are just as “human” as the rest of us, and that unless the artificial is circumstantially forced to reveal his or herself, the layman is completely unable to distinguish a tube-grown human from a “natural” one. All the while, though, she reminds us how much better she is than the average person – smarter, faster, stronger and better looking. She’s better at fighting, strategy, sex, arguing, and drinking. If not happier, she’s certainly fitter and more productive than you.

This gets a little grating after a while. Plus, she consistently makes mistakes, and admits to her flaws in the same breath that she reminds us how much worse it would’ve been for a normie. To have the main character of your novel constantly negging herself is a choice that gets old really fast.

Speaking of better looking, Friday is always talking about how she’s not really that pretty, even though everyone in the world continuously tells her she’s gorgeous – if she wasn’t so apathetic the rest of the time I’d start to wonder if Bella Swan had been cryogenically frozen for a couple centuries. I wouldn’t exactly call it low self-esteem. At some points she seems genuinely uninterested in her own appearance, emphasizing instead her abilities and intelligence, while elsewhere in the novel it seems like her only real abilities are looking pretty and fucking.

She wants to be seen as a regular human, but when she’s always talking up her artificial upbringing it’s a little hard to believe. Friday goes on about how she doesn’t understand human customs, doesn’t quite grasp human sexual tension, doesn’t have tact. Does she really not understand, or does she just think she’s better than us?

There’s no actual evidence of humans being any more socially awkward than Friday, either. Sexuality has evolved somewhat predictably. Heinlein’s future Earth is less bogged down in relationship stigma – casual sex isn’t portrayed as particularly taboo, and 101 flavors of monogamy and non-monogamy coexist apparently without conflict. It’s humans that Friday is constantly in bed with, and none of them seem to have a problem with it.

A sex-positive heroine is fine, and her sex drive is not in and of itself an issue. But within the context of the book, it doesn’t really matter. If this had just been written as an erotic novel and Friday’s sexual escapades were the plot, hey, that would be dandy. But Friday works as a courier for sensitive items and information. She answers to a mysterious man who for most of the novel we know only as “Boss.” She has numerous bank accounts and credit cards and fake identities and a license to kill that she frequently takes advantage of. So sue me for reading this expecting a goddamned action adventure novel. I don’t really care who Friday is sleeping with unless she’s seducing someone to get information.

Perhaps it’s the certain intangible, male-gaze-iness to the whole ordeal that makes it seem like the author wanted to write a really sexy femme fatale and didn’t quite understand what that meant. All the artificials are given “doxy training” (the killer sex skills aren’t ingrained) before being unleashed on the general public. Which, again… why? If humans hate the artificials so much, why bother training them to be good at sex? Why isn’t humanity prejudiced against people who are good in bed, at this point? The more I wonder about this, the more confused I become.

Sure, yes, there’s action and there’s adventure. But not enough detail about it for me to really get invested. I said it before and I’ll say it again – there is no conflict in this novel aside from small, insignificant disagreements that are opened and closed by circumstance. Religious extremists or [other] decide to mess around with the government at the halfway mark and it causes problems but not… to any lasting detriment? Later, it’s expressed that a pandemic is set to sweep the Earth in a few years but… oh, no one really seems to care, and the problem is neatly solved? It seems like our hero spends most of the novel eating breakfast in bed or travelling. And I’m left exasperated because I can’t figure out why I didn’t care.

The one thing that I could identify as a genuine (if minor) flaw, was I guess a fault of Heinlein’s world building: human society has changed. Government, monetary systems and transportation are all drastically different, but the way that humans interact remains the same. This certainly isn’t a problem that’s limited to Heinlein, but it seems especially annoying here because all the tech is in place to let human social interaction evolve.

Decent analogues for laptops, iPhones and the actual internet are readily available in Friday’s world, and yet we’re treated to a scene in which Friday, in her unparalleled wisdom, just suddenly realizes that you can really spend a lot of time using them for entertainment. This book came out in 1982 and 20 years later we’re already dependent on screens for a good part of our social interactions. We talk to people less in real life. We don’t leave our doors unlocked or let kids go out without supervision. Why, in Heinlein’s distant future, do we have to assume that humans interact in the same way that they did in the early 80’s? Maybe this is the 20/20 vision of hindsight talking but, really, this didn’t occur to anyone?

Oh, and the ending – it’s something like that Harry Potter epilogue that everyone hated, where all the friends get married to each other and have a matched set of kids that are ready to start off on their own adventures. For a story that didn’t really have a point, the neatness of its ending verges on eerie. Friday gets her wish, seeing as her main purpose in life is apparently to get married and have children – which is fine but who is this character? Is she a cutthroat assassin, or a homemaker? Is she both? Because that’s possible, but Friday seems less well-rounded and more indecisive and scattered. I could probably write an entire dissertation on Friday’s character but I’ll leave you with that. This novel is kind of fun, and a relatively quick read, but it might leave you wondering just why you thought so.

Dreams of an Unseen Planet by Teresa Plowright

Dreams of an Unseen Planet Teresa Plowright

Dreams of an Unseen Planet by Teresa Plowright was a random thrift store pick. With a cover like that I wasn’t going to pass it up, and I was delighted to find a female author sandwiched between the usual Asimov and Heinlein novels that populate my local Value Village. I had high hopes for this one from the start, and in the end I’m not disappointed! Though I have to say I think, as a novel, it takes a little bit of time to pick up steam. If you’re reading it, I’d encourage you to stick it out until you’re at least a third of the way through.

Aside from the obvious selling feature of a female sci-fi author, this book features a female protagonist and what I would call a majority of female characters. The circumstance isn’t contrived, either. When your setting is a space colony specifically designed for the propagation of the human species, you can’t really get away with focusing entirely on men. Maybe the scenario is rife with opportunity for females to be given the static “birther” role, but I might have thrown the book out the window if that had been the case. As in David Weber’s Honor Harrington books, I really get the sense that women exist as actual people in this world. There isn’t a palpable distinction in capability between men and women. They hold the same jobs, seem to have the same weird social tendencies, and are equally as worried and emotional. Fertility issues as they pertain to women are discussed as just part of a working whole, not some mysterious, foreign enchantment.

A word on what I just said about fertility – with a tagline like “When sex is not the answer…” I wasn’t sure if this was going to be a novel that toed the line and tripped into straight-up erotica or if I’d get the Stephanie Meyer asterisks-mean-sex cop-out. Surprise! The answer is neither. Sex is a central theme, because of course it is when your setting is a domed base on a distant planet populated by 2,000 colonists whose main purpose for being there is to procreate and continue the human race. Earth has gone to hell and so, on the verge of nuclear war, the Americas, China and Russia each send a bunch of colonists to a far off-planet called Gaea to preserve and rebuild the human race. From the point of view of Miera Tull, a woman living in the English-speaking colony, we learn that all efforts at procreation have been unsuccessful – no one can get pregnant, and those that do eventually miscarry or die.

Naturally, as the sex-drenched but childless years wear on, female fertility takes on something of a talismanic, mystical identity. Everyone lives for it but no one knows how to obtain it.  Eventually, the colony takes to putting on a multiple-day orgiastic festival of procreation called Estros. Which harkens to the importance of female sex hormones and is in its way reminiscent of fertility festivals associated with some pagan religions. But I never felt like the book was earnestly presenting this view as its own. The view of fertility as an evasive deity belongs to the characters, and the novel takes a documentary backseat.

It would be difficult and unnecessarily timid to take a setting where sex holds such omnipresence and remove the basic act. So Plowright doesn’t. But she also rarely veers into outright titillation. There’s not a sex scene that takes place outside of the plot or character arcs. The novel stays improbably classy for taking utter, desperate fucking as its subject matter.

So why did I take so long to come around to it? My theory is that Plowright introduces the characters so brilliantly that it’s a little too real.  As I started the novel I found Miera petty, dramatic, and largely overly concerned with her own personal issues, considering the general direness of the situation on the colony. Despite being hand-picked for the project for her looks, personality and scientific education, she doesn’t fit in, she’s jealous that her ex-lover has found a new girl, she has insecurities about her job, suffers from insomnia and nightmares, et cetera. In retrospect, of course everyone on the colony would degrade into focusing on personal anxieties, and after a while it’s clear that this is all part of the psychological set-up of the novel.

The range of characters is diverse enough that some are swallowed up in a wave of anxiety, never to return, while others, including our hero, rise above it and become stronger, more developed than I even thought possible at the outset.

Language-wise, you might find the novel a bit flowery. I definitely did. When Plowright hits her stride she does so without sacrificing her language, though these very pretty, dreamlike descriptions seem to have more utility as events progress. The descriptions of sex are at times almost too vague, with so much metaphor that you’re not sure what you’re actually reading. There were a couple passages that I ended up reading twice just to clarify what was actually going on. But it’s worth it for that occasional passage that sparkles with beauty even while it’s describing a hallway or an office.

The sense of scope expands as the story goes on, giving the reader time to get acquainted with each character individually, instead of having to meet several of them at once. Only after a few distinct personalities have been developed do we start learning about the history and inner workings of the colony itself. By the end of the novel we know more about the people in the book that we do about their world, though in a character-focused story, this is an acceptable balance.

In final summation, this book is way more than the fluffy, softcore romp that the cover and synopsis would suggest. It’s definitely a treat for those of you who are sick of reading female sci-fi characters as damsels or oversexed femme-fatales.

Buy Dreams of an Unseen Planet on Amazon.ca!

On Basilisk Station (Honor Harrington #1) by David Weber

On Basilisk Station by David Weber

A few days ago I thought I was going to start this review by saying that David Weber’s On Basilisk Station, the first novel in the Honor Harrington series, attempted to be feminist but almost missed the mark. After having finished it, I can say it really hits its stride in the latter half. Considering that the last few novels I’ve read have been Horus Heresy volumes, it was wonderfully refreshing just to read something that focused on a female lead character. And even more refreshing to note that Honor Harrington is not treated as an anomaly in her universe, but rather that Weber’s Navy seems to have a fairly even distribution of men and women among all ranks and positions. Women in this novel are portrayed as capable, intelligent tacticians, scheming politicians, corrupt billionaires – and each is just as sincerely written and believable as any male character in a similar position.

While the story itself is tight and relatively small in scope – small given that the main conflict involves a space station, wormhole travel and interplanetary espionage – the writing itself drags very occasionally. This is usually when Weber gets caught up in explaining the technological aspects of ships and weapons or the history and process of various political systems. It’s clear that the author genuinely enjoys his world-building, and it’s not that I don’t appreciate this – I can think of a lot more stories where a bit more world-building could have improved things. Weber’s bouts of exposition sometimes go on for four or five pages, eventually reading like someone rambling nervously at a bar, knowing their target is going to walk away as soon as they stop talking.

Those of you expecting a tale of swashbuckling high-space-seas adventure won’t be disappointed – though you should be warned that things take a turn for the #dark towards the end of the novel when the stakes get higher and the body count rises. I’ve never been particularly put off by blood and guts but the way the gore is treated here (serious, with odd dignity given the number of over-the-top violent deaths and their slightly-too-loving descriptions) might be a little incongruous for summer reading. Honestly though, my biggest complaint about this book pertains only to the specific edition that I bought, which features a conventionally beautiful, long-haired Honor Harrington on its cover despite numerous descriptions to the exact contrary within. I digress: the book was engaging almost all the way through, with likable characters and meaningful losses, and I will definitely buy the next installment of the series.