A friend of mine e-mailed me earlier this week about David Weber’s fall from the height of military sci-fi to glacial technical reviews. I have pondered that some this week and want to make a quick blerb about the vital role of conflict in storytelling. I have a degree in English which qualifies me to work at Starbucks and to pontificate about story craft. Neener.
Stories Are About Conflict.
The first David Weber book I read, under protest (which I now regret because I spent six months poo-poo-ing my buddy Peske who said I HAD to read On Basilisk Station, the first in the Honorverse stories by David Weber).
The book was a delight for a great many reasons. Seriously, it is still good, if you have not yet read it you need to remedy this right now. The Honor Harrington series is worth reading right until book ten. Then set the series aside and pretend it ended. You’ll thank me.
David Weber always delivers technical detail, military lore, and bold characterization. He has those items in his wildly successful stories (as stories not as profit-makers. My degree is in English not economics.) and his wildly painful stories.
But it is the quantity and the nature of the conflicts in his stories that make them great.
In On Basilisk Station, having not read the book in the past year, here are the conflicts that are memorable enough to call to mind in an instant. [Spoilers. Duh.]
Honor vs. The Peep Plot
The primary conflict of the novel is that Honor Harrington is going to stand up to the plot of an enemy star nation and win.
Honor’s ship vs. the Q-Ship
This culminates in an epic space battle between a technologically gutted tiny ship and a massive hidden warship. Our heroine gets to be the underdog (good) and the best (even better) because she can pull a victory off with such a material disadvantage. This hits a reader’s happy button both ways.
Honor vs. Her XO
The story gains a relationship nuance that makes the hard-assed captain and her XO much more human. The XO bitterly resents the fact that Honor is so much younger than him and got the command he wanted. This conflict colors many of the others. That’s a good thing. When your conflict affects other conflicts, it matters more.
The Royal Navy vs. The Smugglers
No one likes graft and corruption, and in this story the crew of the Fearless takes a bite out of smuggling and starts enforcing the laws. We get to see a wet-behind-the-ears Ensign and a rough-and-tumble shady NCO reap havoc and enforce the law. It’s very enjoyable and the chemistry between these two is so good that Tremaine and Harkness become regular background characters in the series.
The Honorable Captain vs. The Industrialist Bully
When Honor rocks the financial boat, the richest man in the Star Kingdom tries to bully her to abandon her duty. But Honor is HONOR, and it isn’t going to happen. Once again Honor is the social underdog, and we get to find out what she’s made out of by her reactions no matter the cost. Also this is the first glimpse of how personally deadly Honor can be.
Law Enforcement Vs. Alien Drug Dealers
This story was written long enough that the War on Drugs still mattered to people. For those of us who did this conflict was interestingly nuanced with post-colonial awareness.
Honor Vs. Her Attempted Rapist
The background of most of these conflicts is that some piddling schmuck tried to rape Honor in the Academy and she kicked seven colors of shit out of him. To get revenge he pulls his ship off station and leaves Honor the impossible job of managing the entire star system by herself. Once again the underdog-top-dog dynamic hits both happy buttons for the reader in a quick series of space montages where we see Honor do exactly that. There were three novels worth of play in this plotline, and it is well done. Rape is bad. Attempted rapists and unrepentant scumbags are fun to watch fail.
Folks, this was not a long novel. All of those conflicts took place without seeming at all rushed. That’s what a real plot looks like.
Now for the list of memorable conflicts from Like a Mighty Army, the latest Safehold novel:
Siddarmark vs. the Church
An army completely populated by third-tier inconsequential characters fights for the survival of the world, I think. It’s hard to remember since the book was about other people sitting around talking over tea.
Assassins vs. The Adoptive Son
In a single chapter assassins attempted to kill recurring secondary characters. There is no warning, no build-up, and we get to talk about the fallout over tea a thousand miles away two chapters later.
I have a vague memory of the digitally downloaded person having conflict with himself about his relationship with his wife.
Merlin has a conflict with himself about remaking himself. Then he does so.
This novel was roughly five times the size of On Basilisk Station. So, with one quarter the conflict in five times the novel, you have about one twentieth the pace of the book that broke you into science fiction. David Weber, you are very disappointing lately.
Lesson learned? I shall repeat for emphasis:
Stories are about Conflict.
As an addendum: The Main Characters need to be part of the conflict.