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The Age of Sail through the Vacuum of Space: A Review of the Seafort Saga and Honor Harrington series
By John WN Buell
January 20, 2003

When CS Forester penned his famous saga of sea battles set in the Age of Sail, few anticipated that his series would spawn not one, but two major science fiction series. Although writing well after the start of classic science fiction authors Arthur C. Clarke and Philip K. Dick, Forester chose to look to the past to trace the meteoric career of Horatio Hornblower, a young midshipman who rises to the rank of Admiral in a navy dominated by men of privilege and often little else. Hornblower is intelligent, bold and dashing as he extricates himself from one engagement after another, managing to be decisively present for every major naval battle in a slightly fictionalized version of Napoleonic Europe.

Two decades after Forester penned his last Hornblower novel, science fiction authors David Feintuch and David Weber began their own interpretation of the themes explored by Forester, choosing to set their series in the future. Each has borrowed different elements from Forester to weave their very own epic "great man" series with differing success and following among fans of military science fiction.

Captain Seafort, United Nations Space NavyDavid Feintuch recreates best the salty atmosphere of harsh discipline, malnutrition and dangerous multi-year voyages in his "Seafort Saga", set in a post-apocalyptic earth ravaged by massive poverty, global warming, pollution and the abolition of free general education. Through a freak accident and faulty computer programming, midshipman Seafort finds himself the ranking officer of the United Nations Ship Hibernia as it blunders into the first discovery of alien life by man, an encounter that sets the stage for a series of desperate battles on which the fate of dispersed human colonies and ultimately the Earth itself is balanced. Seafort is relentlessly driven by heroic tragedy and fate in the next six novels, seeing his wife and close friends killed as a consequence of the actions he must take to save his crew, the colony of Hope Nation and Earth itself.

The series is entertaining and captivating, although some would say that Feintuch is too slavish in his translation of the Hornblower theme, even going so far as to recreate the infamous 17th century naval tradition of caning. Feintuch's characters are also somewhat two-dimensional, with a disconcerting tough-guy masculine quality seemingly lifted from John Wayne films, although many seem to enjoy the relative lack of emotional entanglement as Seafort overcomes impossible odds with steel and nerve.

The series starts out with Midshipman's Hope, originally published by Warner Books (now Time-Waner) in 1994 and continues with Challenger's Hope, Prisoner's Hope, Fisherman's Hope, Voices of Hope, Patriarch's Hope, and the latest installment, Children of Hope, published by Ace Books (part of the Penguin-Putnam group) last March.

In contrast to the cold, masculine quality of Feintuch's Nicholas Seafort is the compassionate and quiet confidence of Honor Harrington, the singular creation of David Weber, a prolific writer, military history buff and one-time designer of a series of war games.

Honor Harrington is the daughter of a hard working middle-class family living on the three-planet Star Kingdom of Manticore, a constitutional monarchy made prosperous by its command of a series of wormhole junctions through which a large percentage of the galaxy's trade fleet passes on its way to market. Manticore also sits at the junction between two major empires and a lawless confederation of planets plagued by pirates. If Manticore is not being threatened by the expansionistic machinations of the People's Republic of Haven or the lawless brutality of the Silesian Confederacy, it is faced with the inscrutable intentions of the powerful and elusive Anderman Empire.

Captain (JG) Harrington, Royal Manticore NavyIn the first novel of the series, On Basilisk Station, we find the young, newly minted commander of Her Majesty's heavy cruiser Fearless. Exiled to a colonial backwater, Honor must prove herself fit to command as she is haunted by an old adversary, Captain Lord Pavel Young. As revenge for an incident from their days together in the naval academy, Young abandons Harrington to patrol a planetary system rife with intrigue and the beginnings of a Havenite plot to launch new war of territorial expansion at the expense of Manticore's only colony, Medusa. Honor succeeds brilliantly, exposing the Havenite plot, garnering the praise and attention of the Queen and collecting her first following of passionate enemies and allies alike.

In the following novels, Honor emerges victorious despite impossible odds in gripping epic battles, is taken prisoner, leads the largest prisoner escape in galactic history, is elected to the peerage of Manticore as Countess Harrington, and is made the first female Steadholder on the once male-dominated Republic of Grayson, steadfast ally of Manticore.

Like Horatio Hornblower and Nicholas Seafort, Honor Harrington is driven by necessity to overcome a series of endless and seemingly intractable obstacles as she navigates her way through an impressive slate of adventures spanning ten novels and a host of short stories. Unlike Hornblower and Seafort, however, Harrington is a deliciously complex character rich in humanity, compassion, and loyalty.

What gives the series its cult-like following is Weber's careful attention to a complex universe of plots and exquisitely rendered background. The stories combine colorful political intrigue, splendidly choreographed military battles, and impeccably realistic characters whose rich relationships tie the events together in a personable and accessible manner. No detail of the human experience is ignored as the series explores a rich depth of feeling and tragedy, the heady intoxication of victory, and the mature wisdom of lives lived through conviction and honor. Weber is a master in evoking the quiet terror of the endless wait before the fight, the painful blur of battle, the determination and professionalism of a well-trained military, and the stomach churning spectacle of politicians as they ceaselessly pursue competing agendas to the good and detriment of the Kingdom.

Lieutenant (JG) Harrington, Royal Manticore NavySprinkled within the grand plot are a series of interesting sub-plots that lend a tantalizing texture to the narrative. For example, Honor has an inseparable companion in the form of a treecat, a feline-like empathic species native to Honor's home planet of Sphinx that adopts a small handful of exceptional humans including the Queen herself.

The treecats play a subtle part during the course of the story; we are never quite sure of their role in the grand scheme of things, although there is the implication that they are not merely passive witnesses to the events unfolding around their humans.

The characters are also refreshingly rich in their expression of the diversity of humanity. Although Weber does not have the courage of Lois McMaster Bujold in openly incorporating alternate lifestyles and orientations into the important characters, readers are also not subject the endless tide of male Northern-European descendents who seem to dominate many works of science fiction. On the eve of the launch of a manned space vehicle by the People's Republic of China, not to mention the multi-ethnic crews of our own space shuttle missions, Weber's treatment of ethnicity and gender is reassuring. In an offhand way, we find out that the Queen of Manticore as well as the entire Royal Family is African-American (although perhaps African-Manticoran is more appropriate). The Anderman Empire is demographically Chinese, although German is the official language. In fact, Honor herself enjoys a dual heritage in several senses, with parents born on different planets as well as having different ethnicities.

In short, the Honor Harrington series one of the best science fiction series ever penned, certainly my favorite science fiction series and destined to become classic. Published by Baen Books, the series includes ten books.

  • On Basilisk Station
  • The Honor of the Queen
  • The Short Victorious War
  • Field of Dishonor
  • Flag in Exile
  • Honor Among Enemies
  • In Enemy Hands
  • Echoes of Honor
  • Ashes of Victory
  • War of Honor

The series also includes four compilations of short stories by other science fiction authors called Worlds of Honor, the most recent being The Service of the Sword, due in April. Continuing a wonderful precedent in science fiction publishing, Baen Books has made the first two novels in the series, On Basilisk Station and The Honor of the Queen, available for free in the Baen Free Library. If you have a chance to read anything on your Palm Pilot this spring, load up these two novels. Alternately, you can purchase the latest novel, War of Honor, which includes a CD-ROM with an electronic edition of all of the previous novels and short stories.

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Edited by Michael Harkovitch

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