The Short Victorious War, by David Weber

I’m afraid that I continue to self-harm with David Weber’s long-running mil-SF series. That’s not entirely fair, actually: On Basilisk Station and The Honor of the Queen were authentically good in their way. Certain admirable aspects of those works continue in this, the third Honor Harrington book. For instance, Weber still has a pretty coherent, self-consistent way of how space naval battles might work (in a way suspiciously similar to the way that, say, actual naval battles worked in the 19th century, but, hey, at least he goes to the trouble of trying to make his contrivance make sense). However, in terms of plotting, character development, and suchlike, I can’t help but feel that Short is coming up, er, short.

Both Basilisk and Honor were set on worlds which were in themselves unusual and provided grist for the plot. This work, by way of contrast, is set on wholly unremarkable Manticorean worlds, with wholly unremarkable Havenite foes. There are a few technological twists, but neither of them are quite equal to the gender politics and religious subplot of Yeltsin or the native uprising plot on Basilisk. The weight of the story thus falls on Manticore and Haven themselves, and not only are they not terribly interesting, but the places Weber shows interest come across as political potshots.

For instance, previously, Haven was just the designated black-hats. They were skirmishing with our designated heroes, and that was enough to give them the role of guys-we’re-rooting-against. Also, they weren’t front-and-center in previous stories, and the central villains (particularly the Masadans) were loathsome enough that we didn’t need to delve very far into who the Havenites were and why we should be rooting against them. But here Weber decides to actually spend some time on world-building Haven, and it’s awful. The premise, which I suppose we’re supposed to take seriously, is that the existence of social welfare has developed the majority of society into a nonlaboring underclass on the dole, with the result that the economy is wholly unsustainable except by relentless pillaging. It’s like a bad parody of Communism blended with a strawman version of the US’s welfare system. With transparent references to revolutionary France that seem frankly a bit cheesy and unworthy of a work that wants me to take it seriously. Manticore itself is not terribly well-developed, but they come across as basically a fantasy-UK. One without the dole.

So the basic premise of Haven is this weird bit of socialism-bashing, and the unfriendliness to liberalism doesn’t end there. Remember Houseman, the straw bleeding-heart diplomat from Honor that didn’t understand that sometimes force was necessary? Well, his cousin’s in this story. He basically does nothing and has no impact on the plot, but he’s present so that every 50 or so pages we can get a reminder of just how weak and stupid he was.

So, yeah, there’s another Honor Harrington story here (spoiler: she wins), which unlike the last two, doesn’t do much to develop her character. She gets a romance subplot and faces some fears, but all in all she feels pretty static here. A lot of energy is devoted to worldbuilding, and the world built is so incomprehensible and crafted to score cheap political points that it was quite hard to actually view the page-count spent on it as worthwhile.

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Confessions of a Mask, by Yukio Mishima

It would be monstrously unfair to compare this book, which is unambiguously literary, with the less artistically ambitious Strings Attached, but having read them in close proximity (purely by accident; I’d been meaning to read Mishima for some time), it’s worth noting that they’re both, at their core, novels of gay self-discovery. That may be where the comparison ends, because Confessions of a Mask is dense and obscure and possibly semi-autobiographical.

There are events and a plot to the book (namely, World War II, as seen from a Japanese civilian point of view) but it’s mostly a psychological and cultural snapshot: a picture of a specific individual in a specific culture. There is an ball of intertwined ideas woven around the sexual kernel of the story: primarily conceptions of virility, as appearing in the culture-at-large and filtered through the consciousness of the narrator, and their expression through military service, athletics, and patriotism, which is where it becomes clear that this story’s not just a character sketch, but also a reflection of the larger culture of the early Showa, where these exact virtues were also given significant prominence.

Our nameless narrator, however, has pretty skin-crawling fantasies built around these notions, with the ideas of sacrifice and martyrdom resolved into a certain degree of sadism, and his explicit fantasies are rather horrific. As far as I can tell, they’re supposed to be distressing (and presumably they are either not autobiographical or Mishima was sufficiently self-aware to know their effect on other people), and present a sour, unhealthy side to the nationalistic fervor of the time. Digging homoeroticism, or even homoerotic sadism, out of virility-worship is pretty easy, really (see also: the American military, American football), and it’s a pretty cheap satire nowadays. But in 1948 Japan, maybe a dark twist of a sexual conception of nation’s military attitudes was what was needed.

On the other hand, Mishima would eventually become infamous (and die) trying to instigate a return to those glory days, so maybe reading it as a condemnation of the pervasive culture isn’t quite right. No matter what the take-home message is, it’s a starkly compelling view of a character whose impulses, desires, and duty drive him apart, and the way he interacts with a culture which expects a particular character and is not equipped to tolerate anything else.

See also: Wikipedia.

The Honor of the Queen, by David Weber

I liked On Basilisk Station enough to continue following the series, or at least as far as the Baen Free Library would take me. It remains a pretty solid page-turner, and I daresay this book is actually in many ways superior to its predecessor. While it lacks the appealing “Honor makes good where nobody’s even tried to before” subplot, it is in many ways less predictable and goes in different directions than were originally foreseen (by way of contrast, it was pretty clear that there was a very specific twist which would arise in the climactic battle of OBS, because it was very strongly foreshadowed early on). One machination of the plot I found surprising, and authentically shocking, was that a newly introduced character, and a minor character from before, take center stage early in the story and become very well fleshed out and likable and generally interesting. And then they both die. It doesn’t feel like a cheap shot, or even a gratuitous drama-heightening death, but it authentically managed to catch me flat-footed, and had significant relevance to the plot. The military developments were also less predictable: devoid of any real twists, but, agian, since the twist in Basilisk was telegraphed, maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

As for the actual plot and conceit of the story, one source of moderate worry to me in the series is the pervasive theme of Manticorean ministry to the Less Enlightened Civilizations; it’s all very White Man’s Burden (particularly in light of the fact that Manticore is a thinly veiled outer-space version of the UK). In Basilisk it was literal savages; here the primitives of the day are misogynistic fundamentalists. This admittedly makes for good drama when the Good Guys are a monarchy whose titular head is female and whose on-site military coordinator is also female, and to Weber’s credit he veered clear of Very Special Episode moralizing about equality and religion and suchlike, and kept mostly to logistical and diplomatic ramifications.

Also, I have no idea what David Weber’s actual politics are, but I was a bit irked by the inclusion of a completely pointless diplomatic character who is a hopeless caricature of bleeding-heart liberalism, affording the military characters several pages of frustrated whinging about how he just doesn’t get that you can’t negotiate with fanatics. Nuance may not be Weber’s strong point, and he doesn’t seem to trust his readers to find someone despicable unless they’re a caricature (Houseman and pretty much every named Masadan) or transparently skeezy (Pavel Young, back in the last book).

See also: Wikipedia, Baen Free Library.