01/07/2002. Contributed by Stephen Hunt
Science fiction author David Weber - creator of the fabulous Honor Harrington series of novels - in his most detailed interview to date. Fantasy author Stephen Hunt, a big fan of David's books, pokes a microphone in Mr Weber's direction.
In honor I gained them. In honor I will die with them.
- Lord Horatio Nelson, when asked about the stars on his uniform.
Are you currently writing full-time now, or are you still fitting in the odd day-job?
I've been writing full-time now for at least five years.
When and why did you begin writing? When did you first consider yourself a writer?
I began writing in the fifth grade. I have supported myself as a writer, one way or another, since I was about 17. I've written advertising, public relations news releases, government reports, explanations of economic development plans, newspaper articles, magazine articles, and just about anything else you can think of.
I ran my own small advertising agency for several years, and I have also worked as a typesetter and an old-fashioned paste-up artist. In fact, I'm probably one of the last trained Linotype operators around ... although that's pretty much an obsolete skill, of course.
I began thinking of myself as "a writer" about the time I finished my first successful piece of advertising copy. I began thinking of myself as a writer of novels less when I sold the first novel than when I sold the second one.
In fact, I sold Baen Books Mutineers' Moon and The Armageddon Inheritance simultaneously, and only after they had been initially turned down. The fact that I had sold my second and third books (which also happened to be the first solo books I sold) and done so after I had demonstrated that I could respond to the publisher's criticism in a way which convinced him to go ahead and by them after all caused a little voice in my head to say "Hey, I can do this, after all!"
How has becoming a published author affected your lifestyle?
It's confirmed the fact that I can do something I always wanted to do. It's improved my income. It's brought me into contact with a lot of other people, from readers to writers, and it's given me the opportunity to meet writers whose books I always loved and admired as fellow professionals.
I would include in that category Roger Zelazney, Annie McCaffrey, Fred Saberhagen, Andre Norton, Poul Anderson, Hal Clement, Sprague and Catherine DeCamp, and many, many more. To be perfectly honest, in many respects the opportunity to meet all of those people has been at least as great a pleasure for me as the discovery that so many people actually seem to enjoy reading my stories.
Do you tend to read the work of many other SF/F authors?
I do, but I don't get to read anywhere near as many of them as I would like. In fact, I get to read less of them writing full-time than I did before I was published. Part of it is simple lack of time, since I produce the equivalent of about four full-length novels a year. Another part of it is that I think you have only a certain amount of what I call "literary energy."
You can use a given quantity of it to either read 50,000 words or write 5,000 words. Given the production schedule I'm looking at these days, I tend to use more of it up on writing than I do on reading. I do make a conscientious effort to keep up with a handful of writers no matter how far behind I get, but it isn't easy. I enjoy reading others in the field; I just don't have as much time to do it as I wish I did.
What are your favorite SF/F movies and TV?
I'm not a real big movie-goer, and I don't watch a whole lot of television. Well, aside from baseball games. I'm a huge Atlanta Braves' fan, which poses some real problems for me between April and October. I wind up rationing myself to watching about two-thirds of the ballgames, which doesn't leave me very much time to watch anything else.
I really enjoyed the movie Independence Day, although in many respects it was a terrible flick. I think of it as sort of a deliberate Grade-B movie, which set out to handle all of the Grade-B tropes on a monster scale and did it pretty thoroughly. I wasn't overly impressed with The Phantom Menace, and I haven't seen Attack of the Clones yet. On the fantasy side, I loved The Fellowship of the Ring and Shrek, which probably says something about the, um ... catholicism of my taste in fantasy.
As far as television goes, Babylon 5 probably tops all of the televised offerings in my opinion, although I'm also quite fond of SG-1 and Andromeda. I think that the reason B 5 tops my list of favorites buy as wide a margin as it does is the sense that the entire series was part of one ongoing story concept. The episodes fitted together in a way which isn't possible without that overriding conceptual framework.
Do you use an agent?
No. I never have.
How long did you spend in rejection letter hell before you were first published?
My first fantasy novel, which has yet to be sold, is set in the same universe and story line as my two published fantasies: Oath of Swords and The War God's Own, and it was rejected by several publishers before Steve White and I sold Insurrection, our first collaborative novel.
I guess I spent about a year submitting it one place and another before I began submitting Insurrection. It took about another year to get a response for Insurrection, which came from John Douglas, when he was with Avon. Unfortunately, although John worked with us for the better of another year, we were never able to get the book down to a length that Avon was willing/able to publish as a first-novel.
So John advised me to withdraw it and to submit it somewhere else, with the offer from his side of a strong letter of recommendation. I submitted it to Baen Books, who promptly bought it, and that was the end of "rejection letter hell" for me and Steve.
Did you always want to be a writer?
I always figured that I would probably teach college history somewhere and write on the side. I already was a writer in the sense of being someone who made his living from putting words together, and it never really occurred to me that I wouldn't write. By the same token, however, it was really hard to get up the nerve to make the first submission of a novel.
I suspect that I probably could have been published at least five or ten years earlier than I actually was, except that I didn't have the self-confidence to take the plunge. Or it could even be simpler than that. I often think that what it really was, was that as long as I hadn't submitted my books and had them rejected, my belief that I could be a successful professional author was intact. If I'd submitted them and had them all rejected, that belief -- and dream -- would've been destroyed.
Where, when, and how do you write?
I write primarily evenings and at night. I find that the ability to work in large blocks of time without interruptions (because the rest of the world is asleep) is very important to my writing style. That isn't to say that I can't write at other times of the day if I absolutely must, just that I prefer working late and sleeping in, in the morning.
I have a home office, where I can close the door and concentrate, although during the day domestic matters have a tendency to intrude. (I expect that problem to get worse in a little bit. My wife, Sharon, is pregnant, and we are simultaneously attempting to adopt twin daughters from Cambodia. When we add three children to the household, "domestic matters" are probably going to get a bit more intrusive.)
I tend to be something of an obsessive-compulsive type when I write. I do very detailed "universe-building" background essays and tech bibles, but my plot outlines tend to be extremely rough before I sit down to begin work. I find that providing my characters with a comprehensive "toolbox" and a well-developed back canvas against which to employ the tools it holds does a lot of the detailed plotting for me as I work.
I know in general terms what my characters are going to be faced with, as well as how I expect them to resolve the challenges they'll face, but until I actually write a given scene, I don't have it worked out in detail. I find that actually helps to pull me through the writing process. Readers read books to find out how the story works out; I write books to find out how the story works out.
On a more technical from I began using voice-activated software when I broke my wrist very badly about two years ago. I've found that it tends to increase the rate at which I can write while I'm actually working, but that it's more fatigue-sensitive than a keyboard. You can push your fingers further than you can push your voice when fatigue begins to blur your pronunciation and confuse the voice recognition feature of your software.
I don't think it's had a major impact on my writing style, but it does affect how I compose sentences. What I mean by that is that because the software prefers complete phrases, in order to let it extrapolate from context when it's trying to decide what word to use for an ambiguous pronunciation, I have to decide how I want a sentence to be shaped before I begin talking to a much greater extent than I had to do before I began typing.
What are you reading now?
The books on the corner of my desk at the moment are Joanne Bertin's Dragon and Phoenix, Robert Malcomson's Warships of the Great Lakes, 1754-1834, Edward Porter Alexander's Fighting for the Confederacy, the manuscript for the new Christopher Anvil anthology Eric Flint is editing for Baen, and a handful of books for hopeful fathers, with titles like How to Pamper Your Pregnant Wife and How to Keep the Baby Alive Until Your Wife Gets Home. There are quite a few other books on my "to-read" shelf, but those are the ones I'm actually working on.
Did you come up through the writing short-stories route, or did you get published in novel form first?
I was published in novel form first. In fact, I've done more short fiction (for publication, at any rate) since getting established as a writer of longer fiction.
How would you quickly summarize the Honor series for someone who hasn't read any of the novels yet?
I'd say that the novels are about a 6' 2"-tall female, Eurasian interstellar captain in a navy fighting a large interstellar war. They're also about personal responsibility, personal commitment, friendship, and the fact that even the "bad guys" trapped in fighting a war are seldom really "villains."
The series is often described as "space opera," and I don't suppose I can really quibble with that. But, like Babylon 5, it has an underlying theme and story line that knits it all together. In the end, although the stories focus very strongly on Honor and the people who are important to her (and to whom she is important), my object is really to tell the entire story of the war. Why it was fought in the first place, what it cost everyone involved, and what intended and unintended changes came out of it.
If your Honor series was going to be made into a film, who would be your dream producers/actors for the role?
This is a question I really can't answer. There are so many imponderables, and so many possibilities I wouldn't begin to be able to evaluate, that anything I said would be little more than a guess.
I have been in discussion with some people in Los Angeles who are trying to put together a television series or possibly a theatrical release movie based on the books, but film is a medium in which I lack expertise.
I don't think it's very likely that they're going to find a female Eurasian martial artist who's over six feet tall, so I don't think there's a lot of point in wasting a lot of time trying to somehow manage Honor's physical type. My concern would be primarily that the actress be able to handle the physicality of Honor's role and to project her command style.
I'm not insistent on using a "name" actress for the role, although Claudia Christian has been suggested, and I like her, both as a person and as an actress. Lucy Lawless has also been suggested, and I think she could make a very good Honor with the right makeup (and a promise from the writers to avoid "Xena physics").
My biggest concern, actually, is whether or not it will be possible to assemble a writing team which can successfully transmit Honor's command style from dead-tree format to film. Hollywood, like fiction in general, is very short of historical templates for female commanders in combat.
Male commanders with Honor's command style -- the sort which radiates calm at the heart of the storm rather than what I think of as "over the top charisma" -- are rare enough to be mishandled frequently by television and film writers.
The potential to do that with a female character is even greater. I guess if I were going to look for any female television character who reflected Honor's style, it would be Delenn from B 5, and I would be afraid that the writers would try to turn her into Ivanova, instead.
Mind you, I think Claudia could play someone besides Ivanova very handily, but there would have to be a certain tendency -- especially if she were cast as Honor -- to go with what "worked" for Babylon.
Do you ever attend SF-cons and what has your experience with them been?
I do attend cons. In fact, I make an effort to accept as many invitations to conventions as I can. On occasion I've actually accepted a few too many, which left me running very, very hard trying to keep to my writing schedule.
On the whole, my experience with conventions has been very positive. It's always flattering when people like your work well enough to invite you over to play at their house, and I've found that fans, as a group, tend to be among the nicest people on this planet. I don't agree with certain writers who claim to believe that fandom is bad for science fiction writers.
First and foremost, I consider myself an entertainer -- a storyteller. It's an ancient and an honorable profession, dating back at least as long ago as Homer, and while it may lack some of the high-brow distinction of the true literati, it's good enough for me. Mind you, I'm not going to object if someone decides that I'm a deathless prose stylist, but I'm also not going to hold my breath waiting for that to happen, either.
With that in mind, I find that the opportunities for direct feedback from readers which conventions offer is extremely useful to me. I already know where I'm going to go with the books, but a lot of "fine tuning" results from conventions, panel discussions, and the necessity to explain my ideas to someone else. I guess you might say that fandom serves as a sounding board.
That the more I try to explain my ideas to someone else, the more it draws those same ideas into focus for me. You do hit the occasional argumentative fan, or the reader who is just a bit ... too deeply into your books, let's say.
But in my opinion that's a very minor price to pay for the pleasure of meeting so many people who not only read your books but are actually willing to pay good money to do it. And I don't have a lot of patience for those who think that hanging around with fans and using them for feedback will somehow pollute the purity of their art.
Would you ever consider writing in a different genre, or are you content with SF/F?
I would certainly consider writing in a different genre. In fact, I have an entire series of historical novels which I'd love to write someday. I have about as much background assembled for them as I have on Honor Harrington's universe.
But I don't think I'm going to have the time anytime soon to get to them. I am very heavily committed on the science fiction front, and I have at least seven more books I'd like to do in the Oath of Swords fantasy universe, as well. I don't think I'm going to be able to justify taking time off from that writing schedule to plunge into an entirely new (for me, anyway) genre. Someday, though....
What are your hobbies?
History, pistol and rifle marksmanship, wargames, model railroads (when I have time and space again), miniatures, stuffed animal collections, and spades. Of course, I don't seem to have a lot of time to spend on any of them at the moment, and the arrival of multiple children isn't likely to make that situation a lot better.
What advice would you give to budding SF writers?
I would advise that they write the stories they enjoy reading, because if they enjoy them, someone else will as well, which means there's a market. In addition, they're far more likely to do a good job of telling the kind of story they like than they will trying to tell someone else's sort of story simply because they think that that's what's "hot" at the moment.
I would also advise them to remember that publishers are in the business of publishing. They need books. That means that if what you write is publishable, sooner or later you'll find the editor who recognizes that it is and buys it. What happens after that is always a crapshoot, but persistence pays off when it comes to submitting.
And above all, I would advise them to develop their own storytelling voice. The unique way in which an individual writer tells his or her stories is, in my opinion, what makes or breaks that writer. I've known many people who I thought had the potential to be excellent writers but who lacked the self-confidence, or something, to use their own voice instead of attempting to do a pastiche of some established writer. You cannot succeed trying to be someone else.
You must be yourself. Recognize that every writer is the product of all he or she ever read, in some ways, but that you yourself have to find a way to tell your stories. Don't use someone else's world. The reason avoiding that sin is important is fairly easy for starting writers to understand. The reason to never use someone else's voice is just as real, and just as important, yet somehow it seems to be a harder lesson to absorb.
You might notice that most of this isn't really specific solely to SF. It's the same sort of advice I would give someone who wanted to write in any genre, because the fundamentally important parts of how you tell a story properly have to do with storytelling, not genre labels. Which is also the reason that someone who wants to write must never, ever, lose track of the fact that what any story is really about is the characters within it. Tools, backdrop, and genre conventions are all secondary to the need to create real characters who are important -- whether as heroes or villains -- to the reader.
Are you from the "writing tightly against the full outline" school or the "make it up as you go along" school?
I use very tightly organized tech bibles and background notes, but when it comes to actually writing stories, I tend to let the details make themselves up as I go along.
How much do you base your characters against people you actually know?
Most of the central characters of my stories are created out of "whole cloth." Over the years, and particularly in the Honor Harrington books, I have developed the habit of "Tuckerizing" people from fandom. Some of them are just friends of mine and get stuck in for supporting roles (and usually get killed in one of the numerous battles in the books), but I also auction appearances in the books to support the charities sponsored by various conventions.
There I tend to use the name of the individual who buys the appearance, and perhaps to incorporate some physical elements from the real person, but by and large I don't know them well enough to try to make a character that is "really them." Like any writer, though, I'm sure that almost every character I create incorporates bits and pieces from people I've known.
When it comes to your drafts, how much you tend to rewrite?
I'm constantly editing, but I seldom rewrite. My writing technique usually involves going back over whatever I did in the last couple of writing sessions before I begin work on the new day's work. I tweak those previous sections and use the time I spend there as a sort of "pump priming" exercise. It gets me up to speed and running before I hit the new material. It also means that by the time I finish a book, I've been over every single chapter of it at least three or four times.
Then I sit down and to a re-edit on the entire manuscript. I very seldom find sections in it that require rewriting, although, obviously, that's happened on occasion. For the most part, I find more tightly focused words, descriptive material I can remove, and generally spend some time tightening all the lugs and polishing the brightwork.
As a production writer, the hardest thing for me is actually turning a manuscript loose. There's always something I can do to make it a little bit better, a little bit sharper. Eventually, however, you have to hand it over and trust to your editor and your copy editor. If you don't, you'll just keep polishing away and never get it done at all.
Of the work you've written, what's your favorite novel to date?
That's a very difficult question to answer. It's rather like asking which of your children you love the most. Probably the one I most enjoyed writing was Path of the Fury, which took me about 2 1/2 weeks to get written. I'm also very fond of The Honor of the Queen, and of Field of Dishonor. I don't think I can really narrow it down much more than that.
Of all your books, what's been your best selling work?
I don't think there's very much question that it has to be the Honor Harrington series. I don't have exact figures in front of me on any of the individual titles, but those have sold far and away more copies, both on a per book basis and in absolute terms for the series as a whole, than anything else I've published. So far, at least.
What kinds of manuscript changes have been made to your published works?
I'm not certain exactly what this question means. The copy editors and I, and especially Toni Weisskopf and I, have made changes at one time and another in most of the manuscripts before they were published. By and large, Toni has been relatively satisfied with what I've done, and right off the top of my head, I can't think of any really major changes that she or Jim Baen have insisted upon.
Neither of them is at all shy about offering advice, and I'm not at all shy about asking them to offer it, but by and large once the manuscript is handed in, that's pretty much the form it's finally published in, aside from relatively minor tweaking here and there.
Of the feedback you have heard people come back on about your novels, what's your favorites?
There's been so much feedback over the last five or six years that it's almost impossible to single out individual comments. That's especially true where comments from readers are concerned. There are so many readers, and they say so many things -- most, although not all, kind -- that it's practically impossible to pick out my favorites.
Obviously, the ones telling me what a wonderful writer I am always warm the cockles of my heart. More than that, the ones telling me that a character really meant something to them, or that I really punched their emotional button with a scene or a passage, not only please me but help to keep me pointed in the right direction. Knowing I made them laugh (or cry) is always extremely satisfying.
Probably, though, the two comments which have absolutely meant the most to me came from fellow writers, and, in particular, from two writers whose words always meant a great deal to me as a reader. One was Annie McCaffrey's very kind and encouraging approval of Honor, because Annie had always produced strong female characters.
If she thought I was getting it right with Honor, I was not only pleased, but felt immensely complimented. The other came from Roger Zelazny, who was sitting at an autographing table with me at a convention some months after Path of the Fury had been released.
I had always loved Roger's fantasy and his ability to combine fantasy and science-fiction elements in novels like This Immortal, so when he told me in a lull in the signings that he thought Path of the Fury might be the best fusion of science fiction and fantasy he had ever read, I felt about ten feet tall and covered with long, curly hair.
What amount of research you do your books? Does the science part of the fiction come easy to you?
I do a fair amount of research, and I impose shamelessly on readers who have special expertise in areas where I am particularly ignorant. For example, Dr. Mark Newman was very, very helpful when it came to designing the genetic modification which causes the Grayson birthrate to be so strongly skewed in favor of live female births.
I've spent many a pleasant hour picking the brains of scientists, both at conventions and in other venues.
And I have a distinct tendency to set my stories far enough ahead of our present technological frontiers to give me a decided degree of freedom. For example, I rely quite a bit on manipulating gravity.
At the moment, we don't really have very much of a clue about how to go about doing that, and, as one NASA scientist put it to me when we were discussing the Honor Harrington books, we know just a bit more about gravity at this point than Benjamin Franklin knew about electricity when he flew his kite. That means I'm largely in a terra incognita where anything goes as long as I'm internally consistent. Consistency is the biggest and most important thing of all.
Outside the "applied magic" (like artificial gravity) I'm prepared to allow myself (and which I usually try to keep to know more than one, or at most two, aspects of the tech base in any given universe), I try very hard not to gratuitously step on our current scientific understanding. By training, I'm a historian, not a scientist, so I approach the science from the viewpoint of a fairly well informed layman and rely on common sense, consistency, and input from people who know more than I do, to try to get things reasonably straight.
How long does it take you to write a novel?
I produce a novel of say, 150,000 words in about 2 1/2 to 3 months. As the word count goes up, so does the required production time. The current Honor Harrington novel, which runs to about 340,000 words, took about four months. It's hard to be more precise, because it was interrupted by a couple of other projects which simply had to be dealt with.
You're often pegged as a writer of "military science-fiction." Is that a label you wear with pride, or one you even agree exists at all?
I don't think that anyone could doubt that "military science-fiction" is clearly a subgenre of the general science-fiction field. I would differentiate between what I consider to be "military science-fiction" and what I consider to be ... something else masquerading by the same name.
For me, military science-fiction is science-fiction which is written about a military situation with a fundamental understanding of how military lifestyles and characters differ from civilian lifestyles and characters. It is science-fiction which attempts to realistically portray the military within a science-fiction context. It is not "bug shoots." It is about human beings, and members of other species, caught up in warfare and carnage. It isn't an excuse for simplistic solutions to problems.
It's an opportunity to explore responsibilities, morality, sacrifices, and costs. For all that many people consider the United States to be a violent society, most U.S. citizens actually have very limited personal experience with violence. Violent crime here is nowhere near as all-pervasive as Hollywood, the media, and popular prejudice might suggest, and only a very small fraction of our present population has actually seen combat through military service.
That means that the majority of readers of military science-fiction have no real experiential background with it, which creates a special responsibility for the writer. It's always been my opinion that military science-fiction (or, for that matter, any sort of fiction) in which only bad guys get killed, people hit by high-powered weapons always recover -- or else die instantly and nearly painlessly, and people can witnesses mass death and slaughter and emerge unscarred and unchanged, is "splatter pornography." It trivializes and demeans, and it sanitizes.
I don't see myself in the role of the great moral preceptor of the people, but I do think that I have a responsibility as a writer of "military science-fiction" to at least try to get the costs and the sacrifices across. I have a heavy readership among active duty and retired military personnel, and I take that as a very important compliment. It tells me that my stories resonate with the actual military community, and I think that resonance also comes through the people who have never served in the military at all.
So, yes, I suppose you could say that it is a label I wear with pride.
How much of your working day do you devote to SF/F fiction these days?
Almost all of my working day is devoted to it, one way or another. It's what I do.
I'm a big Napoleonic history buff, as readers of my Triple Realm fantasy novel know all too well. I'm guessing you might be, too, given the Hornblower-like backdrop to the Honor books?
I'm a naval history buff more than a purely Napoleonic one. Actually, I'm interested in most periods of history, with a strong emphasis on military and diplomatic aspects of it. Obviously, from a European perspective, Napoleon and Napoleonic France are going to loom pretty large for any military historian, but I would say that my interest in the American Civil War is probably at least as strong, and I'm also deeply interested in the English Civil War and the religious wars of the 17th century.
I knew that if the Honor novels worked, she was inevitably going to be compared to Hornblower, which is one reason I dedicated the first book to C. S. Forrester and the reason I selected her initials with malice aforethought. (Actually, the first name -- "Honor" -- had come to me long before the last name did, and it was the Forrester connection which suggested that her surname should start with an "H" as well.) In fact, however, Honor is based in my mind more directly on Horatio Nelson than on Hornblower. Mind you, I can see a lot of points of congruency between Honor and Hornblower, but I think I see at least as many differences, as well.
I played for a while with the notion of using the Punic Wars as my model instead of starting out with late 18th century naval warfare and a Napoleonic wars-like political situation. Unfortunately, there was no way that I could create a situation in which a primarily planet-based military power (the equivalent of the Romans' starting land-based military strength) could possibly stand-up for very long against a primarily space-based military power (the equivalent of the Carthaginians' starting command of the Mediterranean).
In the end, I think that the fact that I was forced back on something of the Perfidious Albion model actually worked out for the best. I think that it offered a greater familiarity and more resonances for a primarily English-speaking reading audience, which helped a great deal.
Does the Grayson star system have a direct analog in an analogy of Napoleonic Europe? We thought maybe they might be the USA, but of course the U.S. were on the French side.
Actually, that's rather a British-centric viewpoint. We fought a quasi-war with France long before we got into that unfortunate affair in 1812 with your lads. Of course, if you'd offered us a deal like the one Napoleon made us on the Louisiana Territory (and left our seamen alone), that entire unpleasant episode might have been avoided. <G>
More seriously, I deliberately played up aspects of the Napoleonic analogy in order to distract the reader while I set up quite a non-Napoleonic denoument (like when I killed off Esther McQueen, who everyone was assuming was going to be Napoleon). It was rather like a stage magician telling the audience to watch his right hand very carefully while his left hand did the dirty work.
I'm not saying that there weren't major points of contact between Napoleonic history and that of the Honor novels, but there were at least as many differences, as well. Actually, Grayson is more a combination of the United States in the early 19th-century and Japan in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
In fact, Benjamin Mayhew makes the comparison with Japan quite specifically in The Honor of the Queen. Of course, any analogy that I set up in one of the novels serves purely as a starting point. Where we go from there is always up for grabs, and I have no compunction about going to very strange places indeed.
For example, many people initially insisted that the People's Republic of Haven was the Soviet Union. Then when I introduced Rob S. Pierre and the Committee of Public Safety, everyone said -- "Aha! It was really Revolutionary France, all long!" Except, of course, for the people who thought that I'd made a sudden deliberate change in the paradigm I was using for the novels.
Actually, I'd done no such thing. From the very outset, the Republic of Haven was more an example of the United States of America after a couple of centuries of deficit spending by politicians who had cut an unscrupulous deal with the managers of a massive welfare state in return for permanent, hereditary political power for themselves and their heirs. In large part, I did that deliberately to make the point that very few people set out to become the Omnivoracity of Evil.
The Republic of Haven was once a wonderful place to live, and it self-destructed out of the best of motives and the poorest of public policies. In War of Honor, the next book in this series, that point is made even more strongly as Thomas Theisman and his associates attempt to resurrect the old, original Republic from the ash bin of history.
For those who are keeping track of such things, the Andermani Empire is, in many ways, the Prussia of Frederick the Great, and the Silesian Confederacy is sort of a combination of the historical Silesia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire at its most ramshackle. The Solarian League doesn't have any real Napoleonic analog, and I'm not entirely certain that I would say any historical analog, although many readers persist in trying to force fit one around it.
I read a review of an Honor novel in the press, which thought the subtext was anti-democratic. That was a little odd. Is it a criticism you've come across before?
I suspect that it's a criticism which would come more naturally in the U.K.'s press than in the U.S.'s press, because we don't have a great deal of experience living under a monarchy, constitutional or other. One or two British writers (and readers) have argued that I have the somewhat "warm and fuzzy" view of monarchy which only someone fortunate enough not to live under such a system could possess.
I've also heard the opposing viewpoint, also from British writers and readers. To be completely honest, I think that it's at least partly a case of the ideological and philosophical baggage they're bringing to the books. I think, especially as we get deeper into the last half of the series -- particularly Ashes of Victory and War of Honor -- that those who think that I find an aristocratic system inherently superior will find that that isn't the case.
I do find that there is a common thread in my books, not just in the Honor novels, which works its way around the concept of giving a competent individual the power and the opportunity to deal with problems. You can see that, perhaps even more strongly, in Colin MacIntyre in the Dahak novels.
That stems at least in large part of from the fact that I tend to write military science fiction, which lends itself well to a hierarchical social order. In the StarFire novels, however, by and large you see democratic governments in both the Federation and later the Terran Republic, and until the Corporate Worlds manage to corrupt the system, the Federation government functions very well.
I think that rather than "anti-democratic," the subtext of my novels might be that democratic government is not inevitable. We in the West tend to rather complacently assume that it will be. That we are "the wave of the future." In fact, however, democratic government -- or, my own preferred system, representative republican democracy -- is the newest kid on the block. Historically, monarchy, autocracy, and hereditary government have far longer track records.
The extreme conditions which may very well be encountered in any efforts to colonize extra-solar star systems, it seems to me, are likely to put a high premium on hierarchical systems in the name of the discipline required to survive and prosper in alien environments. I therefore would not be at all surprised to see monarchies and similarly aristocratic forms of government reemerge.
I would expect them to be transitionary, but that doesn't mean that anyone should expect them to disappear overnight or expect those with a vested interest in maintaining an existing system because of their power under it to abdicate their positions without a fight. Nor do I assume that once democracy has emerged, it could not be made to disappear once again. Which is what I had happen in the People's Republic of Haven ... just as I am now in the process of having it reemerge in the Republic of Haven.
If anything, in many respects the "anti-democratic" subtext of my novels actually emerges from a traditional American suspicion of the power of central government. Our tradition over here historically has been that one has to keep a close eye on the government if one doesn't wish to see it transform into a voracious monster, bent on consuming the individual rights and liberties of its citizens.
That suspicion of big government has faded somewhat, among at least some segments of the U.S. population, in the last 50 or 60 years, but it was very definitely a part of the basic, underlying American philosophy of government when the Constitution was written and probably at least through the Great Depression.
In some regards, I suppose that I am reacting against the shift away from that view, which is one I continue to hold. So I tend to be suspicious of manipulative, self-serving politicians who operate most comfortably in the shadows of a façade, sham democracy, and I tend to enshrine heroes who are their opponents.
That has a tendency to create situations in which governments are either transitioning into more monarchial forms or being rescued from them. In the case of the Dahak novels, I really couldn't think of any way that something like the Fifth Empire could be avoided given the threat the human race faced and the absolutely imperative need to quickly and thoroughly unite it. In the case of the Honor Harrington novels, I deliberately set out to create a situation in which the proper foil for an avowedly "democratic" state which was actually totalitarian was inevitably going to be an avowedly "monarchial" system which actually enshrined the rights of the individual.
That situation is now in a state of transition, but that was the basic starting point. And, of course, the fact that I was deliberately basing Honor on Nelson and the Royal Manticoran Navy on Nelson's navy also was a strong factor in pushing me towards a constitutional monarchy model for the Star Kingdom.
I'm not sure that all of that is really to the point, but I hope it goes at least some distance towards explaining my "anti-democratic" bias. And, yes, I have been accused by a few people of being anti-democracy. In response to which, I can only concur with Winston Churchill: democracy is the worst form of government imaginable ... except for all the others.
Everyone at the Nest had an amused and knowing laugh when "Rob S. Pierre" was introduced as a baddie. Is the Honor Harrington universe ever going to throw up a General "Bony P. Art" to give Honor a real run for her money?
Esther McQueen was probably as close as we're ever going to get to a real Bonaparte analog. As I say, from the very beginning I've been planning to take the series away from the French Revolutionary model. In fact, that model was never as central to the People's Republic of Haven as many people thought it was.
There is no Napoleonic analog, so far as I know, for Thomas Theisman and his reformers, for example. Now, between them, Thomas Theisman and Shannon Foraker ought to prove at least as capable as Napoleon and his Marshals, and I think I can predict that they will give Honor a run for her money before this is all over.
What's the reader reaction been to your plot device of setting up "modern" space warfare within the same constraints as the Georgian navy? Can you ever really "cross the T" in the void?
Actually, one thing which has been amazing to me is the number of my readers who don't realize that that's what I did in the first place. Given the constraints of the technology I set up, yes, it is possible to "cross the T" in naval warfare in the "Honorverse" (as some of my readers on the side of the pond have christened it).
It takes a fairly incompetent or completely out of luck opponent to let you get away with it, but the tactics are workable -- especially at relatively short range -- given the weapons and maneuvering systems I established.
I did spend quite a bit of time and effort coming up with a system which would let me work with 18th century naval constraints on a much larger scale. At the same time, as I hope has been obvious at least since Honor Among Enemies, I've been working on changing the entire basis for tactical warfare in the Honorverse. Overall, I'd have to say that reader reaction both to my original constraints and the changes I've been introducing has been positive.
Have you ever had a letter from any French fans of the Honor novels? I wonder what they might make of it all?
The books are published in France in a French language version. I've gotten e-mails from French fans, most of whom really haven't commented on Rob S. Pierre or any of the other "French" elements in the People's Republic. I don't know if that's because I've been relatively sympathetic to those opposed to the "old regime," including even Pierre himself, when you come right down to it.
Or possibly, because they're French, they've been more sensitive all along to the ways in which the People's Republic departs from the French Revolutionary model. I don't know. In fact, I don't know that I ever even really thought of it from that perspective until you asked the question. It might be rather interesting to find out.
What are you working on at the moment? Any more delights planned in the Honor series to keep us fans said with our annual diet of cruiser duels and orbital missile combat?
I'm just finishing up the proofreading on War of Honor, which I promise you will answer the question some of my readers asked after Ashes of Victory: "How could you possibly end the war without even letting Honor fight in it?"
Honor herself is getting a bit senior now to take individual cruisers or battlecruisers on white-knuckled death rides, but I imagine she can probably do the same thing with an entire fleet, if she really puts her mind to it. From the very beginning of the series, I made up my own mind that Honor was not going to be another Captain Jim Kirk.
She might have political enemies which would slow her promotion, but she was not going to be stuck forever as a captain because that was her "highest calling." As such, she is going to continue to grow and mature as a senior officer and eventually -- like Nelson -- emerge as the pre-eminent fleet commander of her generation in Manticoran and/or Grayson service.
I think that the readers will stay with me while that happens. In addition, however, I intend to launch a second series in the Honorverse. At the moment, I'm calling at the "Saganami Island" series, and it will focus on very junior officers who were Honor's students at the Academy as she was Raoul Courvoisier's student and protegee.
Some of the officers who were Honor's juniors in On Basilisk Station and The Honor of the Queen, like Scotty Tremaine and Rafe Cardones, will be in very much the same position Honor was in those early books.
This will give me the opportunity to play with some of those characters in situations which provides more room for their own growth and development while introducing an entire new generation of officers and characters and creating a situation with lots and lots of opportunities for the single-ship actions and small-scale battles -- of, of course, immense importance despite their relatively small size -- which were so much a part of the first two or three Honor novels.
I am also very seriously contemplating a third series which would focus on Stephanie Harrington, Lionheart, and the struggle to build the Sphinx Forestry Service into what it has become by the time Honor comes along. That series would be set, obviously, 400 years or so before On Basilisk Station, and would contain no wars. In addition, I'm thinking about shaping it as a Young Adult series, although it would not be marketed as such by Baen. I think there's room in the Honorverse for all three series.
I'm going to try to continue to do an Honor novel each year. I may not be able to maintain that schedule, even allowing for the substitution of Saganami Island books and/or the Stephanie series, however. I have two separate collaborative series now with Eric Flint (who has been kind enough to invite me in to play in his 1632 universe) and with John Ringo in the Prince Roger universe, plus quite a few solo projects that are hanging fire and need to be dealt with.
I hope to get War of Honor put to bed in the next week or so, and hopefully to get the third Prince Roger (which John has finished the rough draft on) out the door by no later than the middle of July. After that, I have to get the next Honor anthology finished, do a short story for Eric for his 1632 anthology, and then (hopefully) do the third book in the Oath of Swords series. Then, sometime around the end of the year, Eric and I need to begin work on 1634: The Baltic, which will be the sequel to our 1633, which is due out sometime this fall. After which, I will undoubtedly begin work on the sequel to War of Honor.
I've got something like 30 books under contract with Baen, counting the collaborations, so I've got things to keep me busy for the next ten years or so no matter what. I promise, though, that Honor is going to be high on the list, and at the moment I figure that there will be probably a minimum of another five novels or so in the central story arc.
(C) Stephen Hunt 2002
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