So once upon a time (three weeks ago), I was feeling kind of depressed. And simultaneously I was also wondering a lot about the nature of heroism: what makes a character a hero? Why do we empathize with them? Why do we feel something when characters face insurmountable odds in their attempt to defend other people?
At this time in my life (again, we’re talking about three weeks ago), I just wasn’t very interested in reading any of the books I thought I ought to be reading. I was halfway through this year’s Pulitzer Prize winner, The Sympathizer, and I was just forcing myself to go on. I’d also recently abandoned, at around the halfway point, a Balzac novel, Cesar Birotteau, and a Dickens novel, The Old Curiosity Shop.
To be frank, nothing was doing it for me.
So for some reason I decided what I ought to do was read the first entry in a military science fiction series that I loved when I was a kid: the Honor Harrington series. These books are easy to describe: they’re basically a space version of the wars that surrounded the French Revolution, wherein a plucky nation with a powerful navy finds itself at war with a massive behemoth that has vaguely commutarian ideals. The good guy space nation, Manticore, is an aristocracy. It has a queen and a nobility. The bad guys, Haven, are a People’s Republic. They have a faltering command economy. Manticore has a technological edge, but Haven has way more ships. The design of the space combat system in the novels purposefully echoes early 19th century naval warfare (crossing the enemy’s T is a major thing, for instance).
Every single one of these books is the same. You’ve got Honor Harrington: a navy officer who is basically perfect (extremely brave, competent, an excellent leader, great shot, martial arts master, and, eventually, a telepath). Honor is given command of a ship, or multiple ships, in a situation that looks a little dicey. She gains control of the situation. But then about 2/3rds of the way through the book, an enemy appears who has her massively outnumbered, and she has to use pluck and bravery to defeat them despite the terrible odds.
I loved these as a kid. Loved them. Even then, though, I think I knew the characterization was thin. It’s not even that the characters are flat or that they’re all the same: it’s that almost all of them have absolutely no personality. There are characters you see in book after book, like Captain Alice Truman, for instance, who later rises to admiral. And there’s nothing you can say about them. They just never do anything distinctive. This is true for literally dozens of characters. There is simply nothing to them. Even the major love interest in the series, Hamish Alexander, has no distinguishing characteristics aside from his extreme competence (which is a trait everybody shares).
And even when a character does have a personality, it’s always a one-note personality. For instance, Elizabeth, the queen of Manticore, is fierce. And in every scene she’s always gonna be fierce. Lester Tourville, one of the enemy commanders, is a rake, and he’s always gonna be rakish and irreverent whenever he appears. There’s no depth. It’s a little horrifying at times: the emptiness inside each of these characters. How is it possible to read so many millions of words and not really feel like you’re ever reading about anyone or anything that is alive?
Which is to say: I cannot wholeheartedly recommend this series. I don’t think the characters are very good.
And yet…they are compelling. And it’s because of two things. The first is raw suspense. The situation is always set up so carefully: you always know exactly why they ought to lose, and the solution, when they win, is always so cunning and logical. And secondly because of that moment when they turn and face the enemy. There is something there. In each of these books (and especially the early ones), Weber catches the essence of heroism. It’s an odd thing, because it’s not precisely bravery. These characters are in huge spaceships. They’re in the military. They’re not going to run away. No…it’s about having this determination to win. These are people who need to win: not to protect themselves, but because other peoples’ lives are at stake. And because of that, they will do whatever they can think of–they will exert themselves to the utmost extent of their powers–to come out victorious.
And I love it.