The ‘Honor Harrington’ books explore strategy and politics
by JACK MCCAIN
David Weber’s Honor Harrington book series isn’t very well-known as far as military science fiction goes, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t actually quite good.
There’s one thing Honor Harrington really nails — the role of technology, and the strategy it inspires, in a protracted war between peer competitors.
The series mainly follows a single heroine — the titular Honor Harrington — and her exploits in the book’s protagonist power, the Star Kingdom of Manticore.
The Star Kingdom is one of many spacefaring nation-states spanning the galaxy in the era after humanity fled Old Earth. The Star Kingdom has Anglo trappings with a spice of American individualistic spirit. It’s the galaxy’s underdog.
Then there are the Andermani, the members of a kind of Prussian-Chinese state, the Star Kingdom’s sometimes-ally, sometimes-rival.
We first meet Harrington as the commanding officer of an aging destroyer in the series’ first book On Basilisk Station. As the series progresses, Harrington gets promoted — and the reader does, too, slowly gaining greater insight into the complexities of naval command, war and diplomacy.
What is most interesting about the Honor Harrington series is the interaction between the Star Kingdom and its adversaries. Naval combat in the series’ universe mostly entails ships swapping barrages of missiles. Occasionally some advance in technology will give one side or the other an advantage.
The Star Kingdom is outnumbered and compensates by husbanding its resources and carefully choosing a strategy that will limit attrition, while combining the relative advantages of superior sensor and missile technology. Sort of like what the United States would have to do in a real-world war with China.
Diplomacy between star-nations is personality-dependent, much like it is in our world. Leaders make mistakes, miscalculate and act out of hubris. Crucial advances in technology include better weapons, better and faster communications and smaller and more nimble spacecraft.
The reader is privy to the leaders’ efforts to incorporate these emerging technologies. Parliamentary politics, consensus-making and infighting shape naval budgets and the Star Kingdom’s political landscape. Even the time it takes to send a message across vast distances, both diplomatic and military, plays an important role in the books.
As Harrington’s naval career advances, the Manticoran Navy’s proclivities intercede. Harrington has mentors and champions. Other fellow naval officers would prefer to see her fail. Domestic politics and naval cut-backs force her into reserve status at times, much like they would in the real world.
Matters of honor between herself and other characters sometimes escalate. Harrington’s aggressive style can be off-putting to some male counterparts, but it also makes her a compelling character. She’s flawed. She gets angry. She lets vengeance cloud her judgement.
But she’s also a brilliant tactician, a fearless exemplar and an incredible leader. Any real-world military officer, especially naval officers, would be hard-pressed not to benefit from Harrington’s example.
The series is not perfect. You’ll be disappointed if you demand meticulous technological or scientific accuracy. Relativistic effects are a factor in the story, but never drive the story as much as they do in other books. Earth still exists and has a part to play in the series, but not until the later books.
Length, however, is the biggest problem with the Honor Harrington series. There are currently 13 books in the series, with a 14th arriving in November 2016. The books also take time to move beyond the tactical level, with the first few really only focusing on ship-to-ship combat.
This means that it takes time, and hundreds of pages, to discover the series’ real value — its exploration of high-level strategic decision-making.