The Exasperating Case of David Weber, or The Slow Death of the Honorverse

-John Lennard


It should be noted, from the start, that literary criticism is not fan fiction.  Fan fiction involves writing stories using characters and universes created by a particular author, while literary criticism involves analysing the works of a particular author.  Personally, I have always been sceptical of the value of literary criticism.  While any decent author knows the value of a good critic, literary critics tend to be hampered by a belief they should criticise, rather than attempting to form a balanced judgement. 


There is an additional problem with The Exasperating Case of David Weber.  The literary critic in question is also, apparently, a fan fiction writer.  This alone wouldn't disqualify anyone from writing a piece of literary criticism, but it tends to raise red flags when the author in question, David Weber, has flatly refused to authorise any fan fiction set within his universes.  This is not an unwise position.  It was possible to guess just where the Honorverse was going, just by reading the early books.  (For example, the love triangle that pops up in the later books (more on this below) and its possible resolutions was discussed endlessly on Baen’s Bar before it became canon.)  A capable fan fiction writer might be able to make some pretty good guesses, write a fan fiction based on them ... and then sue David Weber for stealing his ideas.  It is for that reason that many professional authors tend to be nervous around fan fiction.  His request that his works are not used as fertile ground for fan fiction should be honoured (pardon the pun).  There are, after all, no shortage of universes where the original author tolerates or actively encourages fan fiction.


Having read the book, I find myself with mixed feelings.


Some of John Lennard’s observations are right on the money.  The Honorverse has expanded rapidly, perhaps too rapidly, after War of Honour.  The development of two spin-off universes (Eric Flint’s Crown of Slaves and its sequels, David Weber’s Shadow series) has made it harder, much harder, for a reader to remain engaged, while a number of short story collections have only added to the problem.  (Timothy Zahn’s Manticore Ascendant novels and the young adult treecat series, being set centuries prior to On Basilisk Station, probably shouldn't be included.)  This probably wouldn't be a problem, if readers didn't have to read those books to follow events in the mainline books.  A number of characters who become significant, later on, are introduced in the short stories.


This has both slowed down the overall plot dramatically while sharply expanding the number of viewpoint characters.  While each of the original books (On Basilisk Station to At All Costs) advanced the overall plot as well as the localised, personal, plot, the post-AAC books have slowed to a crawl.  That this is hampering the series is unarguable.  Just what effect it is having on sales, however, is harder to say. Lennard assets that sales have been falling, but provides no proof beyond anecdotal evidence.


However, some of his other observations are a little odd, to say the least.


David Weber does have a problem with infodumps.  There are no shortage of places within the books where the action stops long enough for the author to tell the reader, in precise detail, just how a newfangled weapons system actually works (not to mention the political infodumps that pervade the text).  Even long-term readers such as myself have a habit of skimming over those infodumps, or wishing they were relegated to ‘factual’ sections at the rear of the book.  However, John Lennard also wishes more details on matters of interest to him, creating the odd contradiction between a demand for fewer infodumps and, at the same time, a demand for more of them.


This is perhaps clearest in the eventual disposition of the North Hollow Files (a collection of blackmail material gathered by the North Hollow family, which includes Pavel Young).  The collection cast a long shadow over the series since it was first introduced in Field of Dishonour until it was destroyed in War of Honour.  They serve as nothing more than a MacGuffin, but John Lennard would like to know the long-term consequences of their destruction.  So would I, but it isn't really important to the overall story (and probably best left to one of the Pearls Of Weber posts).  


This leads, it should be noted, to another issue.  Lennard takes issue with the decision to allow Countess Young to escape to Beowulf, in exchange for the destruction of the files, instead of attempting to punish her for her crimes.  One may feel, from an objective point of view, that she deserved punishment, but trying to punish her would almost certainly have unleashed a political storm.  She was, after all, keeper of the North Hollow files.  Better to make a deal and stick to it rather than risk a disaster.


The author discusses, in addition, the confused relationship between Harrington herself, Admiral White Haven and his wife, Emily Alexander.  (It should be noted that Weber correctly foresaw the public-shaming stunts caused by social media, even though (as of the book in question, the relationship had not begun.)  It is not the most innocent of love affairs - Lennard goes so far as to imply it’s a soppy ‘one true love’ story - but it isn't wholly unrealistic.  Plenty of people have managed to get themselves into trouble by falling in love with someone who is already married, or while being married themselves.  One may feel that the first burst of attraction between Harrington and White Haven is unrealistic, but the sudden recognition that the person facing you is attractive is ... well, part of human nature. 


Here, the author misses a chance for some more substantive criticism.  Having been accused of adultery in War of Honour (and committed against one of the Star Kingdom’s most beloved actresses, no less), one might expect some raised eyebrows after Harrington actually joins White Haven and Emily in marital bliss.  Even on Grayson, the implications are far wider than Harrington (a noblewoman) becoming the junior wife of foreign nobleman.  The proof of naked adultery is there for everyone to see.  There should be more substantial repercussions, including from people who might otherwise be on her side, than we see in the text.  Nor does Weber really explore the social implications of doubling or tripling the human life span or correcting the genetic flaw that ensures that Grayson women outnumber men four to one.  (Although, again, that probably comes under infodumping.)


Lennard asserts, particularly in the scenes involving the incredibly stupid SLN, that such stupidity is unrealistic, that no state could possibly refuse to believe in new weapons that render its entire navy so much scrap metal - and that Weber protests too much by stepping back from the story to explain such stupidity.  However, such stupidity is a function both of the limitations of the setting (a point Lennard discusses earlier in his work) and the sheer ossification created when bureaucracies are allowed to grow out of control.  The Chinese state that fought the Opium War, for example, truly was unable to comprehend the sheer power of the ‘barbarians,’ while the Japanese experience in the Russo-Japanese War (which provided a template for the trench warfare of 1914-18) was largely ignored by many in the west.  Weber, given a choice between justifying it and leaving it open to the critics, chose to justify it.  I don’t think it was a bad choice.


On the micro scale, meanwhile, it is important to remember that characters in a novel lack the information available to us, the readers.  Weber therefore needs to explain a stupid decision - overlooking Nimitz, for example - as we know the cat is extremely dangerous.  One might argue that this isn't always done well, but it has to be done.  The limitations of the format demand it.


Baen’s editor also comes under heavy fire.  Quite apart from the slow advance of the plot (and various minor errors), Baen is taken to task for allowing Weber to literally reprint sections from one book in another.  On one hand, the author has a point; this is annoying, particularly when it fills no substantial role.  However, he takes it too far; many of these sections have to be reused because of the limitations of the format.  Weber, again, had a choice between putting the same scene in two books or leaving it out of one, even though it would annoy readers who would then see the disconnect.  I think it would have worked better if the various sub-series books were completely separate from the mainstream books, or if the scenes were rewritten to show a different point of view, but given the decision to allow them to intertwine, Weber probably had no choice. 


A good editor can offer suggestions, but he or she will also know when to let the writer have his head.  One may question the value of some of the twists and turns in the series, yet very few decisions are praised by everyone.  The idea that Baen should have vetoed any given shift in the plotline undermines the more practical editing issues - the massive infodumps, the slow progression towards an ending, the problem of finding a meaningful role for a main character who has simply risen too high, as Weber himself put it, to go on death rides any longer.  It might well have been better if the series had had a time-skip after At All Costs, which would have allowed the next generation to reach adulthood and made the MAlign a more plausible enemy.  But that was Weber’s call to make.


That is not the only point where Baen is attacked directly.  Weber may well have reached the hallowed - and feared - point where he is editor-proof.  A stronger editor might well have streamlined the books, making it easier to please the fans.  (Lennard also claims that Weber published the Safehold series through Tor because he had a dispute with Baen (perhaps over concluding some of the open series), but from what I heard, Baen simply didn't have the slots to publish additional Weber books and Jim Baen himself helped arrange the deal with Tor.)  However, Baen has good reason to want as many Weber books as possible - they sell.  One cannot blame Baen for wanting to get as much as possible out of a successful series.


However, a worse problem, in Lennard’s view, is that of politics. 


Baen has an unfair reputation as a right-wing publishing house (a glance at the politics of both Eric Flint and Lois McMaster Bujold, as Lennard notes, should put the lie to that) when, in reality, Baen goes looking for a good story over the author’s personal politics.  Lennard asserts that David Weber is guilty of inserting his own politics into his works, ranging from the ‘caricature’ of the Republic of Haven’s Legislates to ‘damnations’ of eco-nuts, techno-illiterates and pre-space Greens.  Such charges have little justification in the Honorverse.  The characters in the series have ample reason to know that such policies are stupid at best and dangerously insane at worst.  The founders of Grayson, who intended to set up a tech-free paradise and found themselves forced to rely on the demon technology to survive, serve as salutary examples for the universe’s inhabitants.  How Weber feels personally about such issues in the real world is beyond my ken and, quite frankly, his fiction writings should not be taken to serve as an indicator of his politics.  There are, quite simply, too many different types of government in this universe alone.


Furthermore, history is replete with examples of stupid decisions made by governments for domestic policy reasons.  Bush41’s decision to allow the Iraqi Army to escape Kuwait in 1991 ensured that Saddam would survive and retain power until 2003.  Obama’s decision to withdraw American combat troops from Iraq in 2010 ensured that the gains in Iraq, bought at a huge cost in blood and treasure, were simply thrown away.  One can question the wisdom of these decisions, but it cannot be denied that they - and many more - were made by people who were confident they would not be made to pay for their decisions.  The High Ridge Government of War of Honour was equally convinced of its own security, that Manticore would retain a decisive military superiority for the foreseeable future. 


Lennard goes on to note that the insertion of ‘American’ politics into books sold internationally is harming non-US sales.  Speaking as a British reader,  I haven’t stopped reading David Weber (or John Ringo, Tom Kratman, etc) because of ‘American’ politics being inserted into the books.  (I do not know if politics are important, but if my experience is any guide, America is certainly the largest single market for Weber and Baen Books by a very long shot.)  He then goes on to slam the ‘Sad Puppies’ as a ‘campaign to game Hugo nominations with an aggressively anti-left agenda’ and asserts that ‘authors hoping to be taken seriously across the political spectrum might think very hard about seeking publication by a house saddled by such a reputation.’  I think I speak for most authors when I say that publication by Baen Books, which has a reputation for treating authors as human beings, would be a dream come true.


Nor do most readers really care who publishes the books.  Baen, in fact, is about the only science-fiction publishing house with, in my opinion, a firm track record of picking winners, authors I actually like.  But this is getting away from the point of this work.  David Weber was not, I believe, a Sad Puppy.  Even if he had been, the wider issue of politics in SF (which is given a very slanted view) is immaterial to a book focused on literary criticism.


And, as a work of literary criticism, this book simply tries too hard.


Many of the points Lennard raises are good ones.  The hodgepodge that is Storm From The Shadows, Mission of Honour, A Rising Thunder and Shadow of Freedom, to say nothing of Caldron of Shadows is a chain of events that really should have been condensed down to two volumes at most.  Excessive infodumping causes readers to just skim over large parts of the book; contrived coincidences, like Harrington’s pregnancy and the death of Giancola in At All Costs, stretch credulity to breaking point.


However, some of his other points are quite poor.  David Weber is well within his rights to determine how his universe functions.  He is also within his rights to determine problems for the characters to solve (who wants to read a book where nothing actually happens?) and to allow them to experience a growth pattern that ensures, for example, that a character who is sexually repressed in the first published volume has no less than two reasonably satisfactory romances by the sixteenth.  Furthermore, the relationship between Harrington and her mother is not as odd as Lennard suggests.  My reading of the relationship, at least in the early books, is that Alison Harrington was never quite sure how to approach her daughter, while Harrington herself felt overshadowed by her mother.  (Shades of the relationship between Deanna Troi and her overbearing mother come to mind, but Lwaxana Troi has the advantage of being telepathic, which Alison Harrington lacks.)  By the time of Ashes of Victory and onwards, the relationship has definitely improved as Harrington matured emotionally as well as physically.


Leaving Weber aside for a moment, bringing the Sad Puppies (and politics in general) into the book was a bad move, as was a honest-to-god assertion that Weber’s increasingly large volumes represent a cost in trees!  I have no idea if Baen ensures its paper comes from ecologically-managed sources or not either, but what does that have to do with David Weber?


He also misses a number of chances for genuine literary criticism.  Giancola’s death, for example, represents a huge missed opportunity, at least for character development.  So too does the assertion, at the end of Crown of Slaves, that the ex-slaves need a monarch, as states built by former slaves have always failed (this may have been Eric Flint’s work, but Weber’s name is on the book).  This attitude could have been challenged, even unsuccessfully - and really should have been challenged.  Finally, there is a strong tendency in almost all of Weber’s work for the ‘good’ bad guys to eventually join the ‘good’ good guys.  Weber has yet to create a sympathetic bad guy who remains bad.  There is no Grand Admiral Thrawn in the Honorverse.


Overall, this is an interesting read.  But in its attempts to focus on the weaknesses of Weber’s work, it dampens its overall message.