Review: On Basilisk Station, by David Weber

I’m gonna say this straight up: Honor Harrington is a Mary Sue. At least in On Basilisk Station. Spoilers ahead…

I don’t mean that she’s a self-insert, or that she’s stunningly beautiful and has every possible magical power. She’s not that blatant. But she is one of those eye-rolling characters who has no discernible character flaws, never makes a mistake, has privileges no other character gets, and receives the respect and admiration of almost every single character in the book even when it makes no sense.

Our first introduction to Harrington treats us to her treecat companion, Nimitz. While I’m generally in favor of feline companions for characters, and Nimitz is a pleasantly quirky addition to an otherwise serious-minded space opera, the critter has no plot role whatsoever in the book. He’s a status symbol, allowed to pal around with the protagonist despite military regulations because reasons. Perhaps if any other character in the book had such a companion, I’d be cool with it, but HH is the only person ever depicted with a treecat buddy. He’s a special-snowflake marker, nothing more.

Nimitz also kicks off one of the book’s biggest facepalms: Honor’s strained relationship with her executive officer, McKeon. I might have hoped that McKeon, with his dislike of Honor leading to stubborn, passive-aggressive behavior, would be an example of a character not swooning with adoration of the sainted protagonist. But it turns out, well, he resents her because she’s just too awesome and he wishes he was that good. I kid you not. Even the villains have a tendency to get interludes lamenting how HH is troubling them by being such a badass. There’s exactly one character who isn’t doe-eyed over Honor Harrington, and that’s the slacker ship’s doctor, whom the book goes out of its way to show as a terrible person nobody likes anyway. So there’s that.

Not that I can blame the characters themselves, I guess; it’s not like author Weber gave HH any character flaws to speak of. She’s depicted as something of a hardass, which would be interesting if the book weren’t so in love with military discipline and regulation that doing things by the book turns out to be the right answer nine times out of ten. And in those remaining ten percent of situations, Harrington lets things slide a bit anyway. So, not a character flaw: it never hinders her in any noticeable way. She’s said to be bad at math. But since she’s the captain, not an astrogator, she never needs deep math skills; plus, she does sophisticated arithmetic in her head all the time, and sometimes higher-maths stuff by “instinct,” always arriving at the correct answer. Heck, it doesn’t even impede her in her backstory, poor grades in that area of study failing to bring down her class-topping scores across the board. The only other criticism the book levels at her is that she’s unpretty, I guess? Which A.) isn’t particularly relevant in a romance-free space opera, and B.) everybody gapes at her looks anyway, they’re just not described in gushing feminine terms.

Lastly, though HH does get to face some hardship, it’s never on any level her fault. She makes no mistakes, no errors of judgment, no wrong calls on matters of chance. Her ship gets kicked around in war games, demoralizing the crew, but that only happens because higher-ups gave her ship a dubious armament configuration and because she managed to “kill” an enemy flagship with it in the first set of maneuvers, earning the jealousy of the opposing team. Another case of hating her for being too awesome! There’s one field operation where a bunch of soldiers get killed in a trap laid by the enemy, but Honor isn’t in command of that attack, and the other characters quickly absolve her of any fault. And while maybe you could argue that she lost too many crew, took too much damage, in the climactic starship chase, you’d be hard pressed to make a strong case for that reading. It’s pretty clear from the heaps of commendations HH earns for her adventure that she did the absolute best she could with what she had.

It’s not that I want to see the protagonist make pratfalls, or that I begrudge a book having a happy ending. And I did enjoy On Basilisk Station enough to finish reading it. The SF world-building is particularly strong, with just enough technobabble to justify the dramatic space battles in ways that feel internally consistent. But if I’m to read any more of the many novels featuring this character, I need to confirm from someone else who’s read them that Weber lets Harrington off her pedestal at some point. It reads to me like she has a nasty case of Strong Female Protagonist Syndrome—that in an attempt to break gender norms for space opera heroes, Weber forgot that a woman character still needs to feel human. Unlike Honor Harrington, humans sometimes make mistakes, have unpleasant quirks, and have to deal with people simply not liking them.

Advertisements

Review: WTF Is Wrong With Video Games?

A couple of entries back I mentioned having my brain tickled by an excerpt from WTF Is Wrong With Video Games: How a multi-billion-dollar creative industry refuses to grow up, by Phil Owen. Curious how much further the author’s premise developed in the book, I went ahead and bought it for my Kindle.

The book’s been brigaded with 1-star reviews, because the excerpt drew the attention and ire of the Internet’s gamer manbaby population. Sigh. There’s enough worthy thought in there that it doesn’t deserve that treatment, but it doesn’t shine as a stellar example of games criticism, either. I rated it three stars of five.

WTF has nine chapters, but divides conceptually into three parts:

  1. That exasperated grumble about AAA video games’ failures as art;
  2. A mini-memoir of Owen’s time working as a games journalist, serving as a light exposé of the games industry as a whole;
  3. A retrospective on the Mass Effect trilogy, the closest anything has come to satisfying Owen’s AAA-art-game itch.

It’s a shame that part 1 has gotten so much attention via that excerpt, because part 2 is the strongest stretch of the book, with some eye-opening anecdotes about games development and the gaming press. I’ll go further to say that if I’d been Owen’s editor (did he have one?), I’d have urged him to scrap parts 1 and 3 and unfold part 2 as the whole of the work. It could have come together really well, interweaving stories of Owen’s life and career with the arc of a few case-study games from initial concept to critical reception. Owen appears to know enough about the development of Uncharted 3 and Dragon Age: Inquisition, for example, to have spent much more time and word count on them. The book would still have been brigaded by Gators, because Owen rightly bears no love for GamerGate and that factors in his life story, but it would have made the book a better catch for those of us who don’t venerate hate mobs.

Part 3, a sort of extended Mass Effect 1-3 review occupying the longest chapter of the book, serves to show that Owen doesn’t hate video gaming universally. He praises the games’ storytelling and replayability, while continuing to highlight the design and writing choices he found incongruous, such as the seeming irrelevance of Mass Effect 2‘s plot to the trilogy’s overall arc. The chapter illustrates that Owen’s skillset remains in critique of individual works, and would have made a fine article on any of today’s big-name games writing sites.

That first part, though!

Owen’s premise, that AAA games don’t cohere as works of art, is a head-scratcher in that it’s trivially true. Of course they aren’t great art; they’re mass-market entertainment. You could as easily say that summer blockbuster popcorn action movies aren’t very good art–and in fact Owen goes there in one chapter, discussing the goofy disaster film San Andreas as a parallel example to his gripes about AAA gaming. Owen comes perilously close to recognizing that he’s barking up the wrong tree, mentioning in a couple of places that perhaps AAA games are designed to maximize addictive fun factor rather than to make thematic statements. If he’d recognized the merit of that and focused his attention there instead of on the art angle, he’d still have a strong critique to make: AAA games often suck at being fun, too! But he waves that away, taking the AAA industry’s occasional lip service to artistic aspiration at face value.

The paragraph that disappoints me the most with Owen’s approach, though, is this bit about indie games, from the introduction:

I’m also not going to delve too deeply into the realm of indies because there’s far too much variety there to make the sort of grand, sweeping statements I’ll be throwing down here. I can, however, confidently assert that the indie space has many of the same fundamental issues as the bigger budget projects (AAA), as that sphere is largely made up of the same kinds of people.

Owen’s dismissal of indie development makes me sad, because it’s in the avant garde of video gaming that he’s most likely to find what he’s looking for. Design the from top down, start to finish, with the purpose of delivering an artistic theme is exactly the sort of thing that altgames go for. Perhaps Owen’s experience with “indies” is limited to the likes of Braid, whose convoluted puzzles and collect-every-widget victory condition do no service whatsoever to its aim of deconstructing “save the damsel” storylines. In that case I can understand how his frustrations would be the same as with AAA games. It’s not a sufficient pool of experience to “confidently assert” anything, though, in that case, and assuming low-budget games have “the same fundamental issues” shakes out to be pretty nonsensical once he gets into discussion of AAA corporate structure and marketing.

I’d thus exhort Phil Owen: come over to the altgames side, we have what you’re looking for! Play some Twine games designed to enlighten cishet white dudes about the lived experiences of the marginalized, like Bloom or 12 Hours. Wade into some of the weird, political, artsy stuff that comes out of game jams. Widen your narrow focus, currently fixated on the $60+ shelf. You’ll wonder why you ever went looking for love in AAA places.

What was that book?

Ethan Barrister:

This is a curious use of my blog. But perhaps the Internet can help me.

At some point during my childhood, early grade school I would guess though I can’t pinpoint further (so circa 20 years ago?), one of my parents or elder siblings had a book.

It was mainly an art book, depicting various Indiana Jones-esque archaeological adventures. The one I most vividly remember was a battle on a rope bridge, with unfortunate explorers tumbling over the side into some great chasm. There was also an introductory page depicting the top of a desk or table, strewn with artifacts obtained from the scenes on the later pages. But beyond that, it was a sort of puzzle book: the pictures contained what looked like torn-up pieces of a journal or memoir. When pieced together, they provided… something. The backstory of the pictures and artifacts? Clues to some further puzzle or objective you needed to find by hunting for clues in the pictures? I don’t remember ever attempting what was needed to put them together; you’d have to either photocopy and cut up the pages, or trace the fragments with paper and pencil.

And the fact that I never did that, never understood the book or what it was ultimately about, haunts me to this day. I mean, that may be an overstatement, but for whatever reason I find myself remembering that strange book and thinking about it, every few years.

I don’t know the title, publisher, author, anything else about it beyond these memories. Oh Internet, do you know the mysterious tome of which I speak? …where I might find a copy of it? …if there are others in its unusual and memorable genre?