October 02, 2018

Icebreaker: David Weber

“You can learn to be a writer, but you can’t learn to be a storyteller.”
Interview by

Sci-fi/fantasy editor Savanna Walker talks with David Weber about visualizing warfare in space, plotting character arcs over several novels and if his latest book, Uncompromising Honor, is the last we’ll see of the indomitable Honor Harrington. Sponsored by Baen Books.

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This BookPage Icebreaker is sponsored by Baen Books.

When one talks about military sci-fi, one has to talk about David Weber. Author of the long-running, deeply influential Honor Harrington series, Weber has been delighting readers with the action-packed adventures of his titular character since 1992. A decorated politician and soldier, Honor is a “strong female character” that is allowed to have more personality traits than simply strong and female. Clever, empathetic and dedicated to her loved ones and country, Honor has starred in 13 standalone novels, and fans have been eagerly awaiting the 14th, Uncompromising Honor.

We talked to Weber about visualizing warfare in space, plotting character arcs over several novels and if his latest book is the last we’ll see of the indomitable Honor Harrington.

I know that the Honor Harrington books were reportedly inspired by the Horatio Hornblower series, but when you originally conceived of them, were there any other influences for her character in your mind?
Well actually, the inspiration for the books wasn’t Horatio Hornblower. I knew that if the books succeeded, that was who she would be compared to. So I decided to go with that motif all the way through. She’s actually much more as character inspired by a mix of Horatio Nelson, who was killed at the Battle of the Nile, and Alexander Cochrane, who is a much less well-known, at least in the United States, British admiral. And so in a sense, she and Horatio Hornblower share a historical ancestor, since Hornblower was clearly modeled on Nelson.

Now, people have asked me many times why I made Honor Harrington female. And the answer to that is that it never occurred to me to make her anything else. Not because I was making any feminist statements or anything else, but because—alright, if you follow my books in general, most of them have very strong female characters, and I would say the majority of them, probably, have female protagonists. If you look at the Safehold books, you’ve got Merlin Athrawes, who was born a woman but who had to become man by reconfiguring a cybernetic body. I write about strong female characters because I like women and I like strong people, and that produces strong female characters.

I think probably my statement on women’s rights is to be seen in the fact that nobody’s fighting about it in my books and it’s a done deal. I think that maybe near-future science fiction is a good platform for novels that emphasize the role of women and the equalization of genders. But I think if you write far-future science fiction like I do, and your female characters are still facing the same glass ceilings, the same restrictions and so forth, then you’re really shortchanging women. Because 2,000 years from now, I’d like to say the whole question of gender equality will have the burning significance to people of say, the pharaoh’s policy towards the Hittites does to us, because it will be a done deal. Half the human race, at least the last time I looked, is female. And that means that half the capable people on the planet are female. And my theory is that any society that doesn’t want to take advantage of that deserves to be stuck in the Middle Ages and probably will be.

I feel like your books take that same stance in regard to race—that we wouldn’t define race in the same way that we do on Earth once we’ve colonized a galaxy. So of course it’s going to be a multicultural society.
Actually one of my friends who is black called me up after reading Field of Dishonor and said, “The queen of Manticore is black.” And I said, “Yeah.” And he said, “You don’t understand, the queen of Manticore is black!” And I said, “Yeah, I wrote the book. I know she’s black.” And he said, “But no one says anything about it.” And I said, “That’s what they said about it.”

Right, there you go, that’s it.
Yeah, I think that science fiction in general tends to be an optimistic genre. Even the most dystopian people at least assume we’ll have a future to be grim about, if you know what I’m saying. But I think that in general, it tends on the social side to take current problems and visualize solutions to them, whether that’s a good solution or a bad solution, and see how that plays out.

So I always stalk the person I’m interviewing online, as a matter of course. You have to be prepared. And in several of the interviews I’ve read with you, you’ve said that you see yourself as a storyteller as opposed to an artist. I was wondering if that is how you personally approach your work or do you think that is a thing that is, for want of a better word, necessitated by the genre?
I really can’t answer that question for other people. Those who write the stronger stories, for me, are those who are storytellers first, and writers second. Writing is the medium through which they tell their stories. And I think that my judgment has been that people who set out to grind a partisan ax, whatever the ax may be, I think that really weakens your work. There are exceptions, but those exceptions are usually where the entire object of the story was to be polemical, like Orwell’s 1984.

Or Brave New World or something along those lines.
Yes, exactly, exactly. And you’re in a different readership, reading for a different reason, than you are for the general readership of science fiction. And that’s not to say that there’s not crossover between the two, because there definitely is. I think that to me, the crunch point comes when your vision of yourself as a writer, as a stylist begins detracting from the story you’re trying to tell. The point at which the reader begins looking at how you’ve done it rather than what you’ve done.

My judgment is that you can learn to be a writer, but you can’t learn to be a storyteller. You either are a storyteller or you’re not. Now you can learn to tell them better. But you have to have that storytelling bug.

Going back to the social structure of the world you’ve created, something I think is unfortunately rare in sci-fi especially is a religion that is not a terrifying cult or seen as alien or prehistoric. I think there’s this idea that, when we’re talking about a society evolving beyond sexism and racism, that somehow society will also evolve beyond religion. And I don’t think I agree with that, and I like reading books like yours where that is very much not the case.
Well, I am proof in advertising. I’m a Methodist lay speaker, although my certification has lapsed. I think that the people who believe that religion has to wither away probably don’t really understand faith in the first place. And I don’t intend that as a slam, because there are people who are people of faith, and there are people who aren’t, and a lot of depends on what your own personal experience has been. I know people who are blindly religious and don’t care about any possible challenge to their beliefs. I know people who are equally blindly secular, and will admit no evidence that might challenge their beliefs.

My personal view is that religion is very unlikely to ever wither away completely. I think that for whatever reason, we as a species are hardwired to look for something beyond ourselves, something greater than ourselves in which to believe. And I think that people who claim to not be religious have, in many cases, simply expressed that need to believe in and identify with something greater toward something other than God. There’s something that they put at the top of their hierarchy. And again, I’m not condemning them for that. I think that all of us have that need, that hunger.

I have met that need in myself through my faith in God. And I try to portray religion fairly in my books. As a practicing Christian and as a person of faith, I obviously believe that religion has a place in people’s lives. As a historian, I am aware of how that need to give God a place has been distorted and used for absolutely counter purposes time and time again. And I try to show both the positive and the negative side in what I write.

And as a historian, how do you visualize warfare in space? Are there forms or kinds of historical battles that have helped you figure out how you would plot a battle in space?
Well, I must confess—I think it’s probably the worst kept secret in science fiction—that I deliberately structured the technology in the Honor Harrington books to do the line of battle of naval warfare. I designed it so they would do broad sides at each other. The elements of naval strategy aren’t going to change all that much. The environment will change. And I think that naval combat is going to be a better guide for what goes on in space combat that say, air forces are.

That would have been my first assumption, because aerial battles are more three-dimensional.
Right and see the U.S. Navy has carriers and it has submarines, so it’s already a 3-D playing field.

Oh, I didn’t think about that!
And the U.S. Navy is unique because of our carrier fleet. The Navy has to be able to practice air-to-air warfare, anti-submarine warfare, commerce raiding warfare—it has to be able to put an invasion fleet ashore. And no one else in the world has anything like that capability.

Now, in the Honorverse and in interstellar warfare, it’s going to have a lot of resonances with World War II in the Pacific. Because the islands of the Pacific were isolated points in the middle of the ocean. Once they can be isolated by your fleet, nobody could possibly reinforce them, so one way or another, the island is going to fall.

In the Honorverse, once you control the gravity well of the planet, the planet is expected to surrender under the laws of war. Because if they can’t keep you from dropping rocks on them, you’ll eventually control the planet. And the Honorverse has the equivalent of the 18th-century, 19th-century laws of war that very clearly specify when a besieged city is supposed to surrender, what happens if it doesn’t surrender, etc., etc. And those grew out of the Forty Years War in Germany, which was just incredibly brutal. So they evolved a code of recognized practices of war.

I write military stories, and they tend to be about combat. Combat is absolutely horrific. And as a writer, writing about it, you have a responsibility to not sanitize it. I tend to be more of a believer in that you deal with the personal costs in terms of grief or guilt, and just every so often, you whack the reader in face with a scene that tells them how horrific it was. The hardest scene I think that I have ever had to write in the Honorverse was from Honor of the Queen. When Honor is dealing with the ensign who survived the mass rapes and the atrocities at the hand of the Masadans. And figuring out how to tell that critical part of the story without being overly graphic on the one hand, without dismissing it on the other.

And I think that the way I did it works. And I’ve had many women tell me that it works. It’s basically that you don’t actually see the assault at all. You’ve got this woman who’s obviously been shattered by what happened to her, trying to hang onto her sanity long enough to tell her commanding officer what happened. And then you have the commanding officer’s reaction to it. And I personally feel that that was a more effective way to handle it. Because you’re dealing here with what did it actually cost the human being involved.

So with such a long-running series and a character that’s been with you for so long, how do you approach plotting out a character arc?
With Honor, I knew a whole heck of a lot more than I told the reader in the first two books. If you read the first two books, you are introduced to this young, very focused, cool, calm collected person, and there’s truth to that. But it’s not until she meets Paul Tankersley and is forced to deal with things that she had suppressed—that had turned off one entire side of her life—that you begin to see that the Honor you met in the first two books is only a part of who she is.

I did that deliberately, because I knew that the character was going to grow and change over the course of the series. I wanted something that I could unpack for you as the reader. I wanted to be able to unwrap pre-existing parts of her that you didn’t know about to maintain that revelation process. I always knew that she was going to wind up with Hamish and Emily. That was really the only nailed-down part that I had.

So what’s coming up next for you?
The next Honorverse novel is A Call to Insurrection, which I am working on with Tim Zahn and Tom Pope. The next solo novel in the Honorverse will almost certainly be about Honor’s father and will be the story of his marine service. And Through Fiery Trials, the next Safehold book, is coming out in January.

I don’t know when/if there’s going to be another Honor-centric novel. One of the problems I had was that she was supposed to die in At All Costs, and she didn’t. And that’s fine! I love Honor, I’m glad she didn’t die, I’m good with that. The problem was that she was supposed to die at the pinnacle of her career. So here I have this woman who’s the commander of the grand fleet, and she’s this and she’s that—you can’t send her on death rides anymore! She’s too senior to be interacting with any junior officers. So the analogy I use when people ask me about this is that Honor will probably become Lessa from the Pern novels. Lessa and F’lar in the later novels are the senior leaders and not going out doing any of the crazy stuff. They are still central characters tying everything together, but they’re no longer the focus of the action.

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