I told myself I wouldn’t write this essay. I’m not a fan of publicly criticizing another writer’s work, particularly a living author’s work. I’ll never do that to anyone. It’s not cool, and it’s definitely not professional. However, there’s a distinction between criticizing a work in order to make yourself look bigger and genuinely criticizing a work because it’s a culturally significant piece requiring extensive deconstruction in order to examine its effect upon those who it is supposedly supporting. I’ve had this discussion with other authors who happen to be women—and well…it’s time, guys. I’ll add that if you’re a fan of the novels I’m about to discuss, no matter your gender, good for you. I’m happy you found something you enjoy. That’s what SF fandom is all about: finding the thing you love. I don’t disrespect fans for their fandom. Therefore, the following is not a personal attack. It doesn’t mean the author is a bad person, either. It doesn’t even mean that the series in question should never have gotten published. Got it? Cool. [deep breath] Now, let’s do this.
As a SFF writer who is a woman, men recommend the Honor Harrington novels to me with an alarming frequency—even the same men. Over. And. Over. Like, so much it’s begun to feel as if they think I’m a two-year-old who needs force feeding. I have tried to read Honor Harrington. I couldn’t get past the first half of the novel. Sure, the author’s politics are inserted into the story in a—we’ll just say—less than graceful way. Sure, I have a strong dislike of that particular political perspective, but that’s not why I had to quit reading. I’m a liberal. I want to understand other perspectives, in particular the ones I personally disagree with. As a fiction writer, it’s my job to do so. And now, I will explain why I find the novel unreadable. (I emphasize the first novel because I haven’t read the rest. However, I have it on good authority—from readers who have continued through the series—that my criticisms aren’t addressed.)
I am aware that the author of Honor Harrington effectively took Horatio Hornblower, set it in outer space and gender-flipped the main character. This is a fine old literary tradition. It’s taught in English Literature classes the world over. There’s nothing wrong with it. I’ve done it myself. Where the novels go wrong is in not taking into account context when gender-flipping the character. Women do not have the exact same life experiences as men—particularly in a misogynist environment. Context. Matters.
In the Hornblower series, Horatio begins his life in the British Navy as a midshipman at the ripe old age of seventeen. He’s the son of a middle class family with just enough connections (and money) to get him in as a midshipman, but not enough to buy him a lieutenancy straight out of the box. His career gets a less than auspicious start when he becomes seasick on the boat taking him to the ship, Justinian. He is instantly labeled as weak and has a great deal of trouble getting respect as an officer as a result. Eventually, he overcomes this reputation when he proves himself an excellent navigator (and transfers away from the crew that sees him as weak) and wins out. Yay.
So, Honor is Horatio, right? She’s supposed to be seen as weak. Okay. She begins her career by carrying around what amounts to a cute, fuzzy stuffed animal. Not only that, her voice is too soft and feminine to shout orders authoritatively. No one, including those who want to see her succeed—for reasons that are never explained other than they’re The Good Guy™—sees any command potential in her. Her superiors are frequently shown discussing how unsuitable she is for any officer’s position. Hell, they frequently discuss how no woman is suitable. You see, misogyny is alive and well in this future. Eventually she’s moved into a navigational position. However, I’d totally bounced off the character at this point. Why? Given the misogyny inherent in the novel’s culture combined with the Libertarian beliefs, the story panders to and demeans Feminism.
First, no grown-ass woman carries a teddy bear to work—particularly one that is interested in being taken remotely seriously. And from what little I know of the military, they’re serious about officer ranks, deadly serious—maybe even ruthlessly so. People’s lives depend upon it. Yes, I know the animal in question isn’t a stuffed animal. It’s a telepathic creature. However, its appearance is that of a multi-armed, clawed, teddy bear. Worse, the creature isn’t allowed on the command deck. She breaks regulation by carrying it around. For some reason—it is never explained why very well—she chooses to do so anyway. (Being emotionally dependent on it is not sufficient reason.) She’s not even significantly reprimanded for this affront to the uniform—let alone the officer’s code of behavior. I also seem to recall that the creature’s telepathy is an issue as it would be. Officers are given information deemed not for public knowledge. It’s a security problem.
The whole issue with the teddy bear is downright offensive. It portrays Honor, not as a functioning adult, but as a childish little girl. When you take into account how often grown women aren’t treated as adults, particularly if they’re short—ask any women five feet (or under) tall about this phenomenon especially if they’re of Asian descent—the act of having your character behave as a stereotypical child-woman is rage-making. There is no way in hell she’d have made it through the Naval Academy with that creature on her hip. Her instructors would have bounced her out immediately. They’re looking for reasons to do so. It’s their job. Lives are at stake. More importantly, no grown woman would think this behavior was okay—not one whose life’s dream was to be an officer in the Navy. She wouldn’t risk it. She couldn’t. She’s not welcome for the simple reason she exists. Once again, ninety-nine percent of the men around her are looking for reasons to have her removed, and more importantly, they have the power to do it. She would have overwhelming motivation to comply with orders and regulations in order to fit in.
File the teddy bear under: No Fucking Way.
The “weak” voice? I have to say that this is dead right. Men have complained about women’s voices since the invention of radio. They still do. No joke. Every time a woman moves into a position of power it’s highly likely her voice will be criticized. The author didn’t have to give Honor any other weakness. In fact, he shouldn’t have. All he had to do is make her a woman who must rely upon her voice to be authoritative in a professional setting. That alone is enough of a career hurdle. Add more? And she’d have lasted thirty seconds. White men can have all the character flaws that make them unsuitable for a position of power for real and still get the position. (See Trump.) Women can’t. They aren’t even allowed pretend flaws, let alone real ones. This is even more the case if the woman in question is a woman of color.
Honor is the only woman in an officer’s position surrounded by men. Clearly, the prejudice against women is systemic in this future culture. (That fact alone is all that is needed to demonstrate the bias.) Never mind the fact that women are not The Highlander, she would be extremely aware that her behavior reflects on all women, not just herself. It’s another reason why she’d be super careful about every aspect of her person. She’s being judged, and she knows it. Not only does she have to compete with the notion that she’s a lesser being, there are probably other women who want to be where she is. She has to be the exceptional woman to be where she is.
Ultimately, Honor’s story is told from a white cis male perspective. I’m not saying that white cis men can’t write compelling women characters. They can. However, Honor’s story isn’t her own. She doesn’t even have real agency. She isn’t centered. The entire novel is set up to make white cis males feel good about being allies. Worse, the lone male superior (in the beginning of the tale) who supports her never sufficiently explains his actions. In that sense, it feels a little creepy. It’s clear she’s attractive. Speaking as a woman, in situations where men are inexplicably supportive—particularly when they’re taking on big risk to themselves to do so—it’s usually because they find you attractive. Thus, Honor is given chances she’d not normally be given. By a man who is older than her. Because she’s young and pretty. Not because she’s talented at her job. Think about it. Not very empowering, is it?
In addition, if you combine the Libertarian “survival of the fittest” politics heavily underlined in this novel with the Righteous Male Ally™, you have the message: “Hey, ladies. You totally can’t exist without the direct aid of the Righteous Male Ally™. Because, you know, the world is a terrible, terrible place. You can’t do it on your own. Never ever forget that. Because, gee, it’d be a shame if we couldn’t help you.” And you know what? That’s not only a shitty thing to say. It’s a thinly veiled threat. And if you don’t get the idea that on a fundamental level women are a little afraid of men and for good reason, then you aren’t paying attention.
There are probably details I’m forgetting. That happens. But largely this is why I find Honor Harrington deeply problematic. If you enjoy the series, there’s nothing wrong with that. However, it’d be nice if you’d admit it has issues. It’s perfectly okay to like problematic things, provided you admit they’re problematic.
 For this reason, I will not mention the author by name. This essay is entirely about the work. The series is a popular one. His name easy to find.  The Author Mansplains Modern Libertarianism™ isn’t the best way to illustrate your imaginary universe’s political workings. We’ll just leave that subject there, shall we?  Note the initials: HH. That isn’t an accident, folks. It’s a nod to Patrick O’Brian as well as C.S. Forester. You see, O’Brian was a huge Jane Austen fan. This is why the main character of the Aubrey/Maturin series is named Jack Aubrey.  A light-years better series, if you ask me. Both are historical novels set in the Napoleonic era. Yes, I’ve read both series, and if you’re a woman, I highly recommend O’Brian. His love of Austen shows in his writing. Thus, he deftly avoids amplifying the misogyny of the era by not having his characters revel in sexism while not denying its existence.  He seems much younger. And I seem to recall that midshipmen could be as young as thirteen. (And yet, O’Brian is never labeled a YA writer. I wonder why that is? [cough])  Or, onboard ship, I seem to recall but could be wrong. It’s been a while.  There can be only one! This is problematic because it psychologically pits women against one another. Sure, it may not be the case in the story, but the underlying take away is “Women aren’t allowed. Specifically, you’re not allowed–unless you’re the exception. Are you the exception? Exceptional means the best. If you’re the best, your sister isn’t. And you can’t hang with her, or her ‘not exceptional’ cooties will rub off on you. The Highlander approach is the patriarchy’s way of programming in the discouragement of women while pretending to be encouraging at exactly the same time. It’s downright evil.  See Stephen King’s Carrie. He isn’t the only one. However, Carrie is the only one I can think of right now that I don’t have to stick on the qualifier “but not in this scene.” There are more recent examples. Maybe next time I’ll write about those.  See Schrödinger’s Rapist.