Wednesday, January 9, 2008

What I'm Reading: At All Costs

At All Costs David Weber. Riverdale, NY: Baen Books, 2005.

I had no idea David Weber existed until this book caught my eye at the public library after Christmas. My pastor’s brain was tired and I wanted some light relief, and the colourful dust jacket intrigued me. Likewise the cover’s blurb from Publisher’s Weekly: "like a fusion of Horatio Hornblower, Robert A. Heinlein, and Tom Clancy". That triangulation gave me enough to go on – this was pure escapism in the kind of swashbuckling, heroic adventure quadrant of science fiction known to its devotees as military SF.

I suppose the locus classicus of military SF in the 20th century has to be Robert Heinlen’s Starship Troopers (1959). Despite being made into an awful movie by Paul Verhoeven in 1997, it was a reasonably convincing look at what war and soldiers might be like in the next few centuries. In fact, I noticed Starship Troopers among a list of recommended titles on military leadership, pinned up in my Army Reserve CO’s office, so I guess Heinlein’s book still has some street cred in the military community, despite the crap he wrote later in life. I’ve dabbled in the genre in past in a limited way, including Elizabeth Moon and the General series by David Drake and S.M. Stirling.

I don’t know how many military people read military SF, but my gut sense of the typical fan of this subgenre is as follows. An inherently conservative person, attracted to hierarchical structures and who is happy to put limits on human agency in favour of a greater good. Thus, military SF tends to feature kingdoms, militaries with traditional trappings, feudal aristocracies and aristocratic heroes bound by codes of honour and chivalry (it is probably not a coincidence that Weber’s character is a Duchess and Admiral whose first name is ... Honor). The conservatism of military SF comes from it’s discomfort with the utopian strain in science fiction, and this goes far deeper than the fear of bug-eyed monsters from outer space. This discomfort is ideological, and comes from a longstanding scepticism of the optimistic claims of humanism. Military SF is willing to concede that humans can harness fusion power, colonize the stars, and travel in hyperspace. At the same time, the subgenre suspects that humanity will take its worst traits – greed, treachery, the capacity for violence – along for the ride when it goes to the stars. In such a future universe, military SF argues that only strong characters with strong, traditional values, leading strong militaries, can protect, serve, lead and save humanity.

The military SF reader also appreciates geek stuff – descriptions of weapons, uniforms, tactics and battles. He or she (I know some women readers of this stuff) is also not highbrow enough to be troubled by the boilerplate quality of genre writing. They like heroic, noble characters who are handsome, proficient, and self-sacrificing, and whose dialogue is a kind of clever wisecracking banter. Someone who values inarticulate antiheroes speaking like Beckett or Pinter characters won’t be attracted to military SF.

If I’m sounding like a literary snob (part of me is and I’ve got the degrees to prove it), don’t think I didn’t like this book. I did, and at some point I’ll come back to Weber, whose written almost (it may be more than) a dozen books featuring Honor Harrington. Weber is not a risk-taking, thought-provoking SF writer – his universe is far tamer and much less ironic than the kind you find in , say, Iain M. Banks, but the universe he has created as a backdrop is entertaining and convincing. His characters are key players – Admirals and senior officers, cabinet ministers and politicians, master criminals and spies – so in that case it’s more like Tom Clancy then, say, the historical fiction of Patrick O’Brien, whose below-decks and below-stairs characters are just as memorable and as entertaining as the nobs and toffs. It’s boilerplate writing (again, Clancy comes to mind) but there is a degree of subtlety to the political machinations that keeps it from the kind of black and white conflict that makes Clancy so dull for me. In At All Costs we follow characters on both sides of a shooting war started by a third party for its sinister own ends. There’s a degree of helplessness and tragic resignation in the final battles that saves the book from becoming a glorification of war and violence that I think lurks in a lot of writing of this type.

I mentioned Patrick O’Brien deliberately, because there is an old-world, retro naval quality to much of the book. Honor’s ships have Royal Navy names like HMS Warrior, they manoeuvre in fleets and squadrons led by flagships, and fight in a "wall of battle" that is clearly an affectionate nod to the age of sail. At the same time, Weber is sufficiently technical that he can convincingly translate Trafalgar to deep space. So much so, in fact, that when he talks at length about velocities and vectors, missile defences and accelerations, I tend to glaze over just as I do in the pages of a Patrick O’Brien novel where he describes the technical intricacies of handling a sailing ship. There’s enough science here to satisfy people looking for verisimilitude in their reading. I know wargamers who will lay out model ships on a floor and calculate turning speeds, angles of deflection, and armour penetration – they will love the battle scenes in this book. Part of me wonders if Webe’s authenticity comes from some time spent serving in a NATO navy’s command and control centre.

The church geek in me liked the religious trappings in this book. Honor’s home worlds of Grayson and Manticore are home to a religion (the Church of Humanity Unchained) that looks a lot like high church mainstream Protestantism. This church also gets along with the Roman Catholic Church, which has survived into the far future, and the scene where Honor’s son is baptized shows that Weber knows and understands liturgy. At the same time, Weber may not know his churches as well as he may think, as this speech by a Roman Catholic prelate suggests:
"But the context in which those humans confront their spiritual needs does change. The rules evolved to handle those needs in a preindustrial, pre-space civilization simply cannot be applied to the galaxy in which we live today, any more than could the one-time religious ratification of slavery, or the denial of the rights of women, or the prohibition of women in the priesthood, or the marriage of priests." (p. 418)

Perhaps Weber, who elsewhere seems to appreciate tradition, may be underestimating the willingness of the Roman church to be true to itself in the far future. Just a thought.
At 892 pages of maddeningly small print, At All Costs is a serious investment in time for light reading. Well-written within its genre arcs, it kept me reading right to the end and wanting more ... some day.


M. Simon said...

If you like military SF the Dorsai novels by Gordon R. Dickson are tops.

They used to be on all the services reading lists.

Re: fusion. It may be closer than you think.

Bussard Fusion Reactor
Easy Low Cost No Radiation Fusion

It has been funded:

Bussard Fusion Reactor Funded
Bussard Fusion Update

The above reactor can burn Deuterium which is very abundant and produces lots of neutrons or it can burn a mixture of Hydrogen and abundant Boron 11 which does not.

The implication of it is that we will know in 6 to 9 months if the small reactors of that design are feasible.

If they are we could have fusion plants generating electricity in 10 years or less depending on how much we want to spend to compress the time frame. A much better investment than CO2 sequestration.

BTW Bussard is not the only thing going on in IEC. There are a few government programs at Los Alamos National Laboratory, MIT, the University of Wisconsin and at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana among others.

The Japanese and Australians also have programs.

If you want to get deeper into the technology visit:

IEC Fusion Technology blog

Start with the sidebar which has links to tutorials and other stuff.

M. Simon said...

BTW the Dorsai stuff covers unorthodox tactics very well.

styler said...


mad padre said...


Mea culpa, steve. Fixed.

John Dougan said...

If you want to read the rest of the series, Baen has made it available in the early printings of "At All Costs" via a bound in CD. The license lets one post the CD contents online....and Joe Buckley has done just that at:

Mad Padre

Mad Padre
Opinions expressed within are in no way the responsibility of anyone's employers or facilitating agencies and should by rights be taken as nothing more than one person's notional musings, attempted witticisms, and prayerful posturings.


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