Are the Honor Harrington Books Too Feminist?

After Lori wrote her review of the Honor Harrington series, she got a comment that she had to take issue with. It wasn’t a comment here on the blog, and the person who made it isn’t a bad person, so I feel no need to repeat any names or reveal any identities. I hope that other readers of this blog will extend the same courtesy.

I was going to make my own reply to this discussion, but realized that the reply would be prohibitively long for social media, and decided I’d turn it into a blog post. I thought it might be interesting, because it serves as an in-depth look at one of the most iconic aspects of the Honorverse: the culture of the planet of Grayson. 

I know, it's the old early-90s cover. This is the one I first read, and I actually like it better than the sleek version on the shelves now.

I know, it’s the old early-90s cover. This is the one I first read, and I actually like it better than the sleek version on the shelves now.

I’ll give a quick recap of what that planet is like, for those who haven’t yet read the series (and why haven’t you?). To do so, I need to explain the setup of the second book of the series, The Honor of the Queen.

While it’s hard to pick a favorite Honor Harrington novel, this one ranks high for me. My favorite four are this novel, Flag in ExileHonor Among Enemies, and Echoes of Honor; which one is on top at any moment depends on my mood. I’m guilty of pulling out copies of each and re-reading favorite scenes. (“Send for your sword” gives me chills; you Honorverse fans know what I’m talking about. Or White Haven’s priority fleet transit. Or the First Battle of Yeltsin. Gosh. So many, so many . . . )

The Honor of the Queen is, in some ways, the true start of the series. We know from the first few pages of the first novel, On Basilisk Station, that the war with the People’s Republic of Haven is inevitable. The only thing in question is when, and whether the small Star Kingdom of Manticore will be ready. Manticore is a tough nut, and they have a strong navy for a single-system nation (two-system, if you count Basilisk), precisely because of the Manticore Wormhole Junction and the need to protect their own merchant fleet. The Solarian League, the Andermani Empire, and the People’s Republic of Haven all look covetously at Manticore, but only the PRH is desperate enough to try it.

One attempt at . . . er, something, I’m not saying what . . . has already happened in the first novel. Officially, there’s nothing Manticore can do; but Queen Elizabeth III isn’t one to rest on her laurels, especially where Haven is concerned. You find out why in one of the short stories:  Haven (which used to be an ally before it was taken over by French-style communism) assassinated her father. There may not be anything she can do politically, but she’s going to make as many allies as she can of other systems in Haven’s path, and hope they can collectively resist the juggernaut.

That brings us to book two, The Honor of the Queen. Like many of the Honorverse titles, it’s multi-layered. It points to many things, but the primary one, and one that can only be understood by the time you get well past the book’s midpoint, is that the good word of Queen Elizabeth is at stake. In many ways, this book is the most like the Age of Sail stories the series draws on for inspiration. National-level stakes without massed fleet battles, with decisions made by ship captains weeks away from any admiral or head of state. This book drives home that old saw about how, away from port, a captain on his ship is outranked only by God.

But I digress, if not terribly far for the purposes of this discussion. The reason why Captain Honor Harrington holds this great responsibility is that she is the senior military commander on a diplomatic mission to the Yeltsin System, home of the planet Grayson.

The information I’m about to give you here is all taken from the first chapter of The Honor of the Queen, so you don’t have to worry about spoilers. Though if you want to go read the book first, I’d understand . . . and even encourage you!

The planet Grayson, in the Yeltsin System, was founded nearly five hundred years earlier than Manticore, even though they’re in the same neighborhood. At the time, no one was even thinking of colonizing that deep into space — no one, that is, except the Church of Humanity Unchained. This was a radical anti-technology offshoot of Christianity that believed that humanity had become too dependent on machines for their own spiritual good. (And if that seems ridiculous, I invite you to remember how many people today, both Christian and otherwise, argue the same exact thing about social media, phones, video games, etc. So yes, it’s ridiculous, but not far-fetched.)

Pretty much the moment that reliable cryogenic suspension was made available, the Church of Humanity Unchained — colloquially termed “Father Church”; this will be relevant to this post later — began preparations for leaving Earth behind and setting out for a world of their own. This was centuries before the area of the galaxy holding the Yeltsin system was ever mapped by early hyper-capable scouts, much less before hyperspace travel was made reliable for the general public.

The reasons for that delay aren’t relevant for this post, but I’ll just say this. The Manticore system was surveyed with a hyper-capable ship, but its colonists got there in sub-light ships. Later, a second wave of colonists (funded by a trust left back on Earth) came in hyperspace, at which point the old guard founded a monarchy to protect their interests against the newcomers.

No one did the same thing for Grayson. That’s important to know for this discussion. No one even knew they were in the area until a hyper-capable ship stopped in their system two centuries before the events of the series. That, for context, would be roughly the 38th century AD, nearly a thousand years after colonization.

That’s thousands of years of cultural isolation, coupled with another issue: their planet is trying to kill them.

Grayson is a habitable world, but only marginally so. It looks inviting at first glance, but it has a concentration of heavy metals in the lethal zone. The Graysons had tried to abandon technology, but they couldn’t do that and survive. Over time, they redefined their doctrine to be that technology isn’t inherently bad, just the way it was used back on Earth.

A millennium of cultural isolation is difficult for us to comprehend, even though it’s only been a few decades since we could start referring to a “global” culture with anything resembling a straight face. (I can’t fully do it myself.) That’s one thing, but try to imagine an entire planet where there is only one religion, combining a lot of the elements of Mormanism and perhaps a touch of Confucianism with the fanaticism of a stereotypical backwoods revival preacher.

It gets even better from the modern reader’s perspective. This is a world where gender roles are clearly defined, both because of Biblical ideas and the necessity of a high birthrate to offset the way the planet tries to kill them every day. There’s no such thing as a single woman on Grayson; they’re all wives, all trying to be mothers, once they reach adulthood. (Similarly, there are no men who can choose to be single either, but this fact seems to be overlooked by most people talking about the books.)

This means, long story short, that this is an insulated, isolated, struggling, backwater, poor nation that has little contact with galactic culture and no desire to fix that . . . and even less understanding of the idea of a woman in uniform.

Again, all of this is in the first chapter, and you can easily get the idea that this book is setting up for a “lol, feminism FTW!” plotline. You’d also be wrong.


This brings us to the comment I mentioned when I started this post. I’ll quote this person (anonymously) along with Lori’s responses.

Other Person: I couldn’t get past the second book. It was too preachy. Traditional men secretly hate women, bla bla bla.

Lori Janeski: Preachy? Seriously? I don’t think you were reading the same book. The whole point was that the Graysons *loved* women. Protector Benjamin being the ideal example. The whole point was that that love and protection turned sour in *some* people, not all. The *opposite* of the best thing is, of necessity, the worst, hence the evil bigotry in *some cases,* not all, and certainly not because they were “traditional.” Some people are just bad apples, no matter what society you’re in.

Other Person: There was that conversation between the Manticore admiral, and some Grayson guy (Protector Benjamin? it’s been years since I read it) he essentially confessed that his culture was based on hatred of women. I don’t remember him saying ‘in some’.

The conversation where the Grayson said he thought of the admiral as Harrington’s protector, and the admiral got in his high horse and said that wasn’t so. That conversation was the preachiness I was referring to.

Lori Janeski: You are misremembering the conversation. There was no “hatred of women” in Grayson society. In the society of their enemies, the Masadans, yes (they’re more like radical Fundamentalist Christians, with a Muslim take on life, but we’re not talking about them). And I hardly think High Admiral Yanakov misunderstanding the customs of another culture qualifies as hatred of women, or preachyness on the author’s part.
Other Person: I went back and found the chapter I was referencing. Chapter 8 Paragraph 49. Granted it doesn’t use the word hate, but it says their founders blamed their wives for the horror’s of surviving on a hostile word, and their anger towards them is what drove their protectiveness etc. None of that makes any sense to me. 

I can understand where this person is coming from, because I had the same fears when I originally read the book — and when I read it, I was a cafeteria Catholic who was inundated with modernism, so mainly I was worried about heavy-handedness than rah, rah, feminism, woot.

However, that’s nowhere in the book. Actually, Weber takes potshots at leftist ideas several times, and yet none of his books are based around anything that ties them to modern culture. It’s part of the genius of these books, because they can be enjoyed by multiple generations and nothing dates them (except, perhaps, the fact that only more recent books have anything like smart phones).

Seeing a feminist message in these books requires bringing it in with you. Grayson seems like a simplistic society at first, but you quickly realize how complex it is. It took me until Flag in Exile to truly like Grayson, but I’m not going to point to anything there as evidence, because our commenter didn’t finish The Honor of the Queen (truly a tragedy).

In fact, I’m going to just use the conversation previously listed as evidence. This takes place as the head of the Manticore diplomatic mission, Admiral Raoul Courvosier (on loan to the Foreign Office) is speaking with High Admiral Yanakov (the highest-ranking military officer in the tiny Grayson Space Navy). In this scene, Courvosier is taking Yanakov to task for the Graysons’ treatment of Captain Honor Harrington, as well as the rest of the task force’s female officers.

 

“Admiral Yanakov,” he said finally, “please tell Protector Benjamin I deeply appreciate his message and, on behalf of my Queen, look forward to securing the alliance we all hope for. But I must also tell you, Sir, that your subordinates’ treatment of Captain Harrington has been inexcusable in Manticore’s eyes.”

Yanakov’s flush returned, darker than ever, yet he sat motionless, clearly inviting his guest to continue, and Courvosier leaned towards him across the table.

“I am in no sense Captain Harrington’s ‘protector,’ Admiral. She doesn’t need one, and, frankly she’d be insulted at the suggestion that she did. She is, in fact, one of the most dedicated and courageous officers it has ever been my pleasure to know, and her rank—at what is a very young age for a person from our Kingdom—is an indication of how highly she’s thought of by her service. But while she needs no one’s protection, she’s also my friend. My very dear friend, a student I regard very much as the daughter I never had, and the way in which she’s been treated is an insult to our entire Navy. She hasn’t responded to it only because of her professionalism and discipline, but I tell you now, Sir, that unless your people—at the very least your military personnel—can treat her as the Queen’s officer she is, not some sort of prize exhibit in a freak show, the chances of genuine cooperation between Grayson and Manticore are very, very poor. Captain Harrington happens to be one of the best we have, but she isn’t our only female officer.”

“I know.” Yanakov’s reply was almost a whisper, and he held his brandy snifter tightly. “I realized that even before you arrived, and I thought we were ready to deal with it. I thought I was ready. But we weren’t, and Captain Harrington’s departure shames me deeply. I realize our behavior was responsible for it, whatever the official story may be. That’s what . . . galvanized me into inviting you tonight.”

He inhaled deeply and met Courvosier’s eyes.

“I won’t try to refute anything you’ve just said, Admiral. I accept it, and I give you my personal word that I’ll work to resolve it to the very best of my ability. But I also have to tell you it won’t be easy.”

Now, let’s pause a moment. Yanakov made an interesting point here, at least for this discussion. He knows that his behavior was wrong, even for his own culture, and feels shame for it; and basically all he did was be very rude. There were others who did worse, including a Grayson who attempted to grope a Manticoran woman. Yanakov thought he was ready, but he wasn’t.

This is something very well-written about the Grayson culture. Culture shock is difficult to convey, because it requires us to get into the perspective of someone truly surprised by someone else’s life. Most of the time, what we call “culture shock” today is very mild compared to what used to happen before things like, say, the Internet. Today, we can look up how other people lived. A few decades ago, you might be limited to issues of National Geographic. Before that . . . well, I could point you to some pretty odd examples of how both Americans and the English thought that distant cultures lived. (Actually, just watch some of the Jeremy Brett years playing Sherlock Holmes. That show faithfully reproduced Doyle’s own ideas of world cultures, even though they’re now clearly absurd.)

Grayson has been on its own for about a thousand years, and its only other cultural contact in all that time was a fundamentalist (yes, even by Grayson standards) offshoot that also decided to leave and settle another planet nearby. This isn’t a culture that’s used to ideas being questioned, as Yanakov is about to explain. And what he doesn’t explain, but Weber guides the observant reader to understand, is that shock — including culture shock — makes people act differently, and even badly, and even badly by their own standards.

“I know it won’t.”

“Yes, but you may not fully understand why.” Yanakov gestured out the window at the darkening mountains. The setting sun dyed the snowy peaks the color of blood, and the blue-green trees were black.

“This world isn’t kind to its women,” he said quietly. “When we arrived here, there were four women for every adult male, because the Church of Humanity has always practiced polygyny . . . and it was as well we did.”

He paused and sipped at his brandy, then sighed.

“We’ve had almost a thousand years to adapt to our environment, and my tolerance for heavy metals like arsenic and cadmium is far higher than your own, but look at us. We’re small and wiry, with bad teeth, fragile bones, and a life expectancy of barely seventy years. We monitor the toxicity of our farmland daily, we distill every drop of water we drink, and still we suffer massive levels of neural damage, mental retardation, and birth defects. Even the air we breathe is our enemy; our third most common cause of death is lung cancer-lung cancer, seventeen centuries after Lao Than perfected his vaccine! And we face all of that, Admiral, all those health hazards and consequences, despite nine hundred years—almost a millennium—of adaptation. Can you truly imagine what it was like for the first generation? Or the second?”

This is an interesting way of underscoring the difference between the Graysons and the Manticorans. The Graysons are barely above late 20th century technology, though they have both impeller and hyper drives. Actually, the best thing to do is to imagine that they are what the people of the 50s thought the people of the early 21st century would be, technologically speaking. They’ve had to crawl back to that level, struggling because most of their effort was put into sustaining themselves and their next generation.

So, aside from the specifics of heavy metal poisoning, Yanakov’s description of their current population sounds a lot like ours, but with a greater struggle on their hands. Current United States life expectancy is 78 years, and we’re not having to deal with a toxic environment.

In a subtle way, Weber is preparing us for what Yanakov is going to tell us about those first and second generations. Graysons think of living about as long as us — the Biblical life expectancy, even — as evidence of their struggle. How would we fare in such an environment? In a place where, in order to survive, we all had to produce children as quickly as possible for as long as possible? What would that do to our culture? What would that do to us if we were like that for a thousand years — and then met another culture without any of that struggle? For whom even precious water was taken for granted?

It’s a backwards comparison; backwards because instead of looking at progress as inevitable, Weber is pointing out to us the same thing Chesterton said more blatantly: that progress can also mean being progressively worse. That cuts both ways, as Courvosier is about to realize.

He shook his head sadly, staring down into his brandy.

“Our first generation averaged one live birth in three. Of the babies born living, half were too badly damaged to survive infancy, and our survival was so precarious there was no possible way to divert resources to keep them alive. So we practiced euthanasia, instead, and ‘sent them home to God.’ “

He looked up, his face wrung with pain.

“That haunts us still, and it hasn’t been that many generations since the custom of euthanizing defectives, even those with minor, correctable flaws, stopped. I can show you the cemeteries, the rows and rows of children’s names, the plaques with no names at all, only dates, but there are no graves. Even today there are none. The traditions of our founding die too hard for that, and the first generations had too desperate a need for soil which would support terrestrial food crops.” He smiled, and some of the pain eased. “Our customs are different from yours, of course, but today our dead give life to gardens of remembrance, not potatoes and beans and corn. Someday I’ll show you the Yanakov Garden. It’s a very . . . peaceful place.

This is a vital point to understand about this discussion. Our commenter had called them a society of “traditional men.” This is a Christian society, and yet there is a gigantic problem in it: it’s not a pro-life society, at least not until recently.

Yanakov says it “haunts” them, and well it should; even in a society that needed bodies, they would abort or euthanize children who had even correctable defects. Doesn’t that sound extraordinarily “progressive” for our modern society?

No, Grayson isn’t a “traditionalist” society, not by our standards of tradition. Even if this were the only point of departure, and even though this practice has apparently been stopped for many decades, there is no way that Grayson would be an analog for faithful Christian culture today. I don’t think they could be called pro-choice either; they’re just different. More on that later.

 

“But it wasn’t that way for our founders, and the emotional cost to women who lost baby after baby, who saw child after child sicken and die, yet had no choice but to bear and bear and bear, even at the cost of their own lives, if the colony was to survive—” He shook his head again.

“It might have been different if we hadn’t been such a patriarchal society, but our religion told us men were to care for and guide women, that women were weaker and less able to endure, and we couldn’t protect them. We couldn’t protect ourselves, but the price they paid was so much more terrible than ours, and it was we who had brought them here.”

The Grayson leaned back and waved a hand vaguely before him. No lights had been turned on, and Courvosier heard the pain in his voice through the gathering dimness.

“We were religious zealots, Admiral Courvosier, or we wouldn’t have been here. Some of us still are, though I suspect the fire has dimmed—or mellowed, perhaps—in most of us. But we were certainly zealots then, and some of the Founding Fathers blamed their women for what was happening, because, I think, it was so much easier to do that than to bleed for them. And, of course, there was their own pain when their sons and daughters died. It wasn’t a pain they could admit, or they would simply have given in and died themselves, so they locked it deep inside, and it turned into anger—anger they couldn’t direct at God, which left only one other place it could go.”

“At their wives,” Courvosier murmured.

Another vital point here, in response to our commenter’s argument. Actually, several points.

The first is that Yanakov said it was “some” of their Founding Fathers had this attitude. I’m actually reminded of Henry VIII here, who blamed his wives for a lack of sons.

But more importantly is something at once more obvious and more subtle, as good storytelling can be: that Yanakov notes that the proper thing to do is protect women. Not just that there was a cultural error by some people (who, it’s implied, became the Faithful, the offshoot that makes the Graysons look like feminists), but that there was already a guiding principle in their religion that you do not do this. Yanakov isn’t admitting that they don’t live up to Manticoran ideals; he’s admitting that they haven’t been living up to their own standards.

“Exactly,” Yanakov sighed. “Understand me, Admiral. The Founding Fathers weren’t monsters, nor am I trying to excuse my people for being what they are. We’re no less the product of our past than your own people are. This is the only culture, the only society, we’ve ever known, and we seldom question it. I pride myself on my knowledge of history, yet truth to tell, I never thought this deeply about it until I was forced up against the differences between us and you, and I suspect few Graysons ever really delve deep enough to understand how and why we became what we are. Is it different for Manticorans?”

“No. No, it’s not.”

Here Courvosier is coming to grips with his own limitations. He, too, though he was ready to deal with the Graysons, just as Yanakov thought he was ready to deal with the Manticorans. They’ve both been judging the other according to their own standards, and reacting to the differences rather than the commonalities.

This is an important point that people just don’t get, and here I’m talking about the real world. One should never overlook fundamental differences, nor accept the idea that compromise means accepting the other party’s terms rather than trying to find a middle ground. That doesn’t mean, though, that one should only ever look at the differences; that leads to fundamental misunderstandings.

I often recommend a lecture series from the Teaching Company called Customs of the World: Using Cultural Intelligence to Adapt, Wherever You Are(Follow the link for more details. It is, as of this posting, currently on sale for $35. If you miss that sale, it’s also on Audible if you’re fine with only the audio.) It does an excellent job of showing how small differences can mean big misunderstandings across cultural boundaries, even within supposedly related cultures.

It also makes a big point that cultural differences aren’t necessarily the result of wrong ideas, even if it seems wrong to us. I’m not talking about morality here; I’m talking about different ways of thinking. Here, Grayson and Manticore are realizing that they’re very different; irreconcilably so, if they don’t both work at understanding each other.

“I thought not. But those early days were terrible ones for us. Even before Reverend Grayson’s death, women were already becoming not wives but chattels. The mortality rate was high among men, too, and there’d been fewer of them to begin with, and biology played another trick on us. Our female births outnumber male by three to one; if we were to sustain a viable population, every potential father had to begin begetting children as soon as possible and spread his genes as widely as he could before Grayson killed him, so our households grew. And as they grew, family became everything and the patriarch’s authority became absolute. It was a survival trait which tied in only too well with our religious beliefs. After a century, women weren’t even people—not really. They were property. Bearers of children. The promise of a man’s physical continuation in a world which offered him a life expectancy of less than forty years of backbreaking toil, and our efforts to create a godly society institutionalized that.”

Yanakov fell silent again, and Courvosier studied his profile against the fading, bloody sunset. This was a side of Grayson he’d never even imagined, and he was ashamed. He’d condemned their parochialism and congratulated himself on his cosmopolitan tolerance, yet his view of them had been as two-dimensional as their view of him. He didn’t need anyone to tell him Bernard Yanakov was an extraordinary representative of his society, that all too many Grayson men would never dream of questioning their God-given ascendancy over the mere females about them. But Yanakov was just as real as those others, and Courvosier suspected it was Yanakov who spoke for Grayson’s soul.

God knew there were enough Manticorans not worth the pressure to blow them out the lock, but they weren’t the real Manticore. People like Honor Harrington were the real Manticore. People who made the Kingdom better than it dreamed it could be, made it live up to its ideals whether it wanted to or not, because they believed in those ideals and made others believe with them. And perhaps, he thought, people like Bernard Yanakov were the real Grayson.

See that? Yanakov isn’t somehow the barbarian meeting the enlightened modernist and having the scales fall from his eyes. Similarly, Courvosier isn’t high and mighty — or at least, not remaining so — on his moral high horse, dispensing judgment because his heart is pure.

Yanakov is admitting that they didn’t live up to their own standards, much less their ideals, and explaining why. Not explaining it away, just why. Over generations of struggle, the struggle became everything. Just as a society faced with constant war would see sons as necessary cannon-fodder, so too does Grayson see their daughters as future incubators.

But it isn’t supposed to be like that, and Yanakov knows it. And it’s heavily implied, even just in this passage, that many of them realize this as part of a recent development. I’m reminded of the passage in 2 Kings, when Josiah hears the words of the Book of the Law and is horrified at how much they had overlooked and excused away. Josiah, as we are told, was a just man who did everything as David had done, staying as true to God as he knew how. One might even call him a fundamentalist, as the Bible says he never turned aside “to the right or to the left.”

And yet he discovered how far he and his people had strayed, and insisted that the Book of the Law be proclaimed throughout the land, instead of put aside in the Temple as it had been. I’ve always imagined priests putting it aside for being just too hard to work with, and better to enjoy more “moderate” pursuits. Once put aside in a mostly illiterate culture (even the king was illiterate and had to have the Book of the Law read to him), it was quickly forgotten. As another great man once said, these things are not passed on in the bloodstream. They must be taught.

So too do I imagine Grayson coming face-to-face with other cultures after a long isolation, and being horrified. Not just at what they would see as wicked, modern cultures, but at the challenge they represent. What happens when an entire nation of Josiahs, certain they are doing all that is right in the eyes of the Lord, meet the heathens and realize that they, God’s chosen people, aren’t living up to things the barbarians teach every day?

This is made clear over the course of this book, as well as in Field of Dishonor and Flag in Exile. Grayson didn’t shrink back from the galaxy in horror over the heathen behavior they found there. They knew all along that the rest of the human race was out there, and they had (no doubt exaggerated, but probably often accurate) descriptions of what they’d left, if for no other reason than as an object lesson for their children. They knew, and they could have responded as Christians do today, and have done throughout the ages: they are in the world, but not of it.

If not for this, then the behavior of the Graysons is inexplicably hypocritical. By the later books, they are staunch allies of the Manticorans, and actually technological innovators. If they were rejecting the world outside, if they were simply uber-traditionalists and nothing more, then it would make no sense. I wouldn’t enjoy that story.

And they aren’t somehow converted to being modern. They retain their culture, even alongside their technological bootstrapping. So what’s the reason? Why did they wait so long to rejoin the galaxy, and why did they try to avoid it when they so desperately needed modern innovations to protect their society?

The answer is simple. They weren’t a planet of Josiahs at all. Instead of rending their garments and decrying their sins, they shrank back and hid. Galactic cultures held up a mirror to them, and they didn’t like what they saw.

Remember, Yanakov said it hasn’t been many generations since they stopped practicing abortion and infant euthanasia. It’s been less than two hundred years since they were contacted by other societies. There’s a heavy implication there that, even with the pressure to produce children, this supposedly God-fearing culture was as casual about removing even correctable genetic defects as many in our own culture today. Like the institutionalized treatment of women, it became just another thing they never questioned . . . until they met the heathens who actually lived up to those standards.

To put it bluntly, Grayson was a cowardly nation, and it took the events of The Honor of the Queen to wake them up and let them rediscover their courage. Once that was unleashed, well . . . you’ll have to read the books.


Grayson is a complex culture, and more complex (at least in terms of literary art) than Manticore, precisely because it’s supposed to be different from our own.

It’s easy to make that mistake, too. Manticore is Britain, the People’s Republic is a French Soviet Union, the Andermanis are German and Chinese; but these are only superficial elements, providing a basis for a modern audience to leap right in with a few assumptions and easily figure out the differences. They don’t stop there, like might happen with less-talented authors. Weber doesn’t use 20th- and 21st-century examples as a way to create boxes; he uses them as launch pads, and their cultures develop from these seeds in realistic ways, just as if people from those countries had gone to settle these worlds.

What culture, then, are the Graysons? I’d say you would be hard-pressed to find any analog on the line of the others. There are some elements of “generic rural” United States in there, but also the Dutch (which is where the whole concept of “steadholders” comes from in the first place). There’s also a lot of elements from hippie communes, too. So I guess that Grayson was founded by a bunch of fundamentalist Dutch Mormon hippies from Idaho?

No. Trying to draw a parallel for anything beyond superficial elements is an exercise in futility. The most you can do that with is what Weber already admitted to (and, in fact, has never made a secret of): that Honor Harrington is based on a combination of Lord Admiral Nelson and Horatio Hornblower, and that this is why there are British and French elements in the series in the first place.

One of the easiest things to do as a reader is assume that the author is using a book to explore ideas that he or she holds. It’s easy because it happens a lot; we see it everywhere. It’s actually very hard to not write a book that mentions its author’s own message.

That’s why the better books aren’t those which don’t have messages (those often wind up being bits of fluff that you read once, find entertaining, and then forget a year later), but rather are entertaining despite whatever message they might entail. The Honorverse, and many of Weber’s other books, have blatant references to the futility of leftist policies; but he’s such a good storyteller that even an avowed leftist can enjoy and appreciate it.

The same thing happens here; but it’s not the message that our commenter thought was there. It’s not a message about rah, rah, feminism, woot. If there’s any message here, it’s about hypocrisy, the courage to own up to your shortcomings, and the willingness to do better next time. And that happens with both sides in this passage.

About Matthew Bowman

Matthew Bowman is a traditionally-minded Catholic convert and freelance science fiction and fantasy editor, which means that he's in high demand in a small population. Fortunately, he loves talking about stories. And Catholicism. And history. And philosophy. And lots of other stuff.
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2 Responses to Are the Honor Harrington Books Too Feminist?

  1. I love these books. Yes, she’s a successful female. Yes, there are feminist elements. They are actually part of the storyline. Part of it is about how she’s treated *because* she’s a woman. The best captain, tactician, etc., in the RMN, and still you see the prejudice. “Oh, she probably lost her temper and blew them away because it was her time of the month!” as one Peep spin doctor portrayed it.
    This is real NOW, not just in fiction. As Karina says above, there are totally different standards applied when a man does something as to when a woman does the exact same thing.
    I’m a feminist. I’m male. I’ll fight for equality and I couldn’t give two hoots whether the MRA’s try to shout me down. Feminism is of benefit to everyone.
    I think the only real talking point here is that this series was written by a man. Do you think it would have been this successful if the first name under the title had been Diane? I read an article recently by a female author. She sent basically the exact same pitch to over 50 publishers, one under her female name and one under a male pen name. She received something like 7 responses on the female name and over 20 on the male. Same sample, same publisher, same everything except gender. The figures are off, but it’s as close as I remember it. The responses she got for her female pen name were uniformly critical and quite negative. The responses for her male pen name were constructive, approving and encouraging.
    I’m not trying to take anything away from David Weber, he’s a fantastic author, but that story only reinforces WHY we need men like him who write strong female leads. They are the forerunners, the pioneers who are forcing the doors open so that publishing houses are ready to accept strong female characters! He writes the type of characters I want to read, and I don’t want authors who write characters like Honor turned away and rejected because they are female.

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  2. My disclaimer: I love this series and do not feel the author needs to ‘change’ anything to make it better. If you take a step back and look the series as a whole. You will see that there is indeed a strong feminist theme to it. This is not a bad thing though. It does not take away from the stories at all. For me to get into any book Fantasy or Sci-Fi I need at least one character to really like enough to see what happens next to them. It doesn’t even have to be the main character either. The fact that this series has given me so many is why I love it so much. I bring this up to kind of prove my point. The majority of the more interesting characters are female, and of the more interesting male character most of those have had major life changes because of women in their lives. What do I mean? Here are some of my favorite characters (not necessarily in my order of preference either) Honor, Queen Elizabeth, Sharon Foraker, Nimitz, Alice Truman, Mercedes Bringham, Horace Harkness, Eloise Pritchard, Michelle Henke, Allison Harrington, Sgt. Major Babcock, Queen Berry, Ruth Zilwike, Anton Zilwike, Victor Cachet, and Scottie Tremaine. There are so many others I find interesting and have not put on the list and I’m sure some of you have favorites I didn’t list, but going bu my list above of the four male characters listed only the last two have not become better people because of the women in their lives. If you also look at the major political aspects in the series, The ‘good guy’ political powers are generally run by female heads of state while the ‘neutral’ and ‘bad guy’ political powers are runs by men. In fact there was only one female recurring character in the whole series who could be described as a villain, Cordelia Ransom, and only one who who was portrayed as weak though understandably so, Meiling Jackson. Again this is in no way a criticism or something to be changed. One does need to recognize though that Mr. Weber does indeed concentrate on strong female characters and that does put a feminist spin to the stories. If someone is put off by this and chooses not to read the books because of it they are really missing out on a great series Just my 2 cents. 🙂

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