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And then they came for the bureaucrats… A Rant and a Review

October 15, 2018

For reasons more to do with habit and compulsive completism, when my friend Rob mentioned last week that he’d picked up the new Honor Harrington book UNCOMPROMISING HONOR, I got onto Amazon and picked up the Kindle version.

This is the point where I should mention that I’m probably not going to get through telling you how much I loathe this book without some serious spoilers. If you haven’t read it yet and anticipate getting any pleasure out of it please skip this review until you have. If you’re looking for reasons not to bother read on.

The earlier novels about Her Grace Dame Lady Admiral Honor Stephanie Alexander-Harrington, Duchess and Steadholder, were fun enough in a gung ho military fashion that I could ignore the political agenda in the background. They were about Our Heroine commanding a single ship or a handful of ships and thwarting the other side in high style.

I think the last one I really enjoyed was the prison breakout story in ECHOES OF HONOR but even there the dread disease of high command was waiting in the background. The viewpoint of the novel was split between the genuine derring-do of getting her and everybody else who wanted to come off the prison planet and the developments of the war among everybody who was left behind.

It only got worse as time went on. In the latest one we’re jumping around between Honor’s viewpoint, the viewpoint of other people on her homeworld, the viewpoint of people among her allies, the viewpoint of her chief overt enemies the Solarian League’s bureaucratic overlords, the viewpoint of the people in the League who are secretly investigating the hidden secret enemies who are manipulating both sides,the viewpoint of the said secret enemies, the viewpoint of the smaller states caught between the two big navies…

Attempting to give us an overview of the development of the war renders any sort of coherent or comprehensible narrative impossible. And Weber has a terrible habit of giving us named characters whose viewpoint and tragedies are on stage just long enough for us to form some sympathy for them before they die horribly along with millions of others. The slaughter in this one is astounding! It makes me wonder that anyone can build up any sort of civilization at all when weapons striking from space can do so much damage. And the Nasty Sneaky Tricks of the Hidden Enemy are there to add a cherry on the top of all the destruction.

The worst bit is when Honor is given her excuse to go all vengeful (it doesn’t really last: she gets a deus ex miracle for the core part of her loss and she’s not the only character who gets that) so that she can struggle against her murderous impulses and her staff can look at her appalled as she only at the last moment decides to accept an enemy’s surrender.

She does this in the course of pulling something off that if she had done it about four books back would have brought the war to an end: it seems to bring it to a victorious end in this one except for mopping up the Nasty Hidden Enemy. I don’t recall any technological or strategic development that makes this only possible after the previous books but that said the weapons R&D stuff is the second hardest bit of these to get through, the mass slaughter in the battle scenes is worse.

But the worst thing about this book is the nature of the Open Enemy which is the ‘unelected bureaucrats’ of the Solarian League government. It seems plain to me that this concept, meme, slogan, catchphrase or what you will is one with ‘communists’, ‘globalists’, ‘international financiers’ and others. It is an excuse to hate people on principle. At the climax (REALLY BIG SPOILERS HERE) Honor forces the Solarians to arrest the ‘Mandarins’ and hand them over to Manticoran justice. This happens as the result of what I can only describe as a military coup: it is plain that the servants of the State in uniform are the only servants of the State that have any decency in the Honorverse and the rest are petty bullies, out for what they can get, corrupt, perverters of the Constitution and general nogoodniks. Military officers who break their oath of allegiance and rearrange the government to their own satisfaction are just patriots doing their jobs.

(Oh, and she tells the Sollies to go and write a new Constitution and if Manticore doesn’t like it she’ll come back and beat them up some more.)

As a retired low level bureaucrat I am alarmed by this depiction of the grey-suited, grey-minded paper-pushers I once found myself among. As a citizen I am much more alarmed. I see a growth of authoritarianism under the guise of populism, a determination that anyone who disagrees with or advises against the current fashion in politics needs to be dismissed at best, put on trial and shot at worst.

There’s nothing easier for a politician to do than blame his own folly and shortcomings on the permanent staff. When Weber was going on about how his made up nations proved that ‘Socialism!’ (1) was a bad idea I thought it quaint and ignorant. But the diatribe against ‘unelected bureaucrats’ is an active force in the world and an inimical one.

It’s all a big pity. As I said, I enjoyed the early books.

(1) ‘Socialism!’ with the exclamation mark is the thing that American right wingers fear. It has more to do with the inside of their heads than it does with actual political policy in the world.

One Comment
  1. Ah, yes, the series that took ten books and a co-author who’d been a union organiser before it had a left-wing character who wasn’t a cackling villain.

    I think I gave up around book 10, where peace is finally possible… and you can see Weber realising that no more explodey spaceships = no more sales, quick, let’s have a bunch of people behaving wildly out of character and ignoring elementary diplomatic procedures in order to get the war started again.

    I’m not a great fan of Tom Clancy, but in Red Storm Rising he and Larry Bond pulled off just this sort of big story through multiple viewpoints (ten or so major ones, as I remember, spread across both sides) pretty well.

    As for the “bureaucrats”, well, that’s the Rough Men fallacy again, isn’t it? All the problems of the world can be solved by punching them, and the only reason we still have problems is that we stop the rough men from punching as much as they want to. Because humans are basically Good, any system that prevents people from doing whatever they want to must be Bad, and therefore anyone involved in such a system must be a Bad Person…

    In other words it says “Baen” on the cover and isn’t by Bujold (or, occasionally, Flint).

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