Hornblower in Space

Sea stories from the Napoleonic wars have a mysterious appeal for SF fans. In SF discussion groups on Usenet, they tend to know all about C.S. Forester's legendary Horatio Hornblower, and (until he died) eagerly awaited the next nautical yarn from Patrick O'Brian.

This isn't a new thought. Forty-five years ago in the British magazine Nebula SF, the late great fanzine writer Walt Willis pondered on the popularity of Hornblower among fans. "Finally I decided that it was because they appealed to the sense of wonder, and equally the soul of what science fiction should be, the thrill of discovery." (Nebula 27, February 1958.)

Incidentally, C.S. Forester also wrote one SF novel, The Peacemaker (1934). His hero invents a disrupter that paralyses electrical systems, and tries in vain to blackmail the world into permanent peace. SF author Kenneth Bulmer – who first recommended Forester to Walt Willis – repaid this compliment by writing a series of Hornblower-clone sea adventures under the pseudonym "Adam Hardy".

But the real SF challenge was taking Hornblower into space. That combination of strict discipline, technical jargon ("Splice the fo'c'sle! Heave some loblolly on the larboard ratlines!"), and perpetual danger in a frail, crowded ship far from shore – it all transferred so easily into SF. The result was a whole subgenre, as Ben Jeapes ruefully admitted he hadn't known when he drafted his novel Her Majesty's Starship (1998) ...

First off the mark was the Aussie author A. Bertram Chandler, who had the unfair advantage of actually being a ship's captain in the merchant navy. He started publishing his ripping "Rim Worlds" yarns about Starship Captain Grimes in the early 1960s, when Forester himself was still alive. Solid, old-fashioned SF.

Part of the original Hornblower's attraction was his being such a self-doubting, introspective hero. He was always accusing himself of cowardice and then committing mad heroics in the heat of battle; or tormenting himself for being a rotten leader while his entire crew adored him. Other more or less sympathetic traits included quirky humour, mathematical brilliance, being an closet agnostic, and total tone-deafness: Forester made the poor man suffer through several musical performances.

Later authors who "did a Hornblower" can be seen distancing themselves from Forester's creation. Thus Patrick O'Brian's Captain Jack Aubrey is a cheerful, untormented hero, and likes music so much that we first see him disgracing himself by conspicuously humming along and beating time.

One of the more successful SF reinventions of Hornblower is David Feintuch's "Nicholas Seafort" saga, beginning with Midshipman's Hope (1994). Seafort is as supremely competent as his original, but lacks any humour, has an abrasive personality, is unquestioningly religious, and cranks up the self-torment aspect to approximately fourteen on a scale of ten. Although it's all highly readable, this space-naval hero is such a prig that our sympathy is somewhat muted as Feintuch subjects him to ever increasing levels of guilt, Angst, injury and personal loss – friends, mentors, wives, children, you name it.

For example, when as a last resort Hornblower solemnly swears to a lie in hope of saving England from the Corsican Tyrant, and gets away with it, he feels only huge relief. When Seafort does roughly the same, he knows he's damned and spends the rest of the saga reminding himself and us of just how jolly irrevocably damned he is, which becomes quite tiresome. Nevertheless he repeatedly damns himself all over again to defend humanity (i.e. the English) from despicable hordes of alien "fish" (the French), with self-loathing increasing by several notches at each new triumph. Just as in the old British navy, the punishment for practically everything is death, and while Hornblower always tried to spare lesser offenders indicted for crimes like breathing on a superior officer, Seafort dutifully hangs them and then spends chapters feeling guilty about it.

Rather more cheerful is David Weber's space-opera series beginning with On Basilisk Station (1993). These US bestsellers star Captain Honor Harrington – note the initials – whose differences from Hornblower include being half-Asian and female. In place of his tone-deafness, she has perfect pitch; she's rotten at maths; he gets knighted and she rather too quickly becomes a Dame. Self-doubt is kept to a plausible level. While Hornblower took his forename and a few career details from Nelson, Harrington goes further in homage by losing an eye and, later, an arm ...

One trademark of these books is Weber's manic determination to keep space warfare tactics as similar as possible to nautical ones. Ships of the line (of battle) become ships of the wall. Physics and engineering are gleefully distorted, with gravity currents for tides or winds, and a doubletalk space drive that restricts the dreadnoughts to firing broadsides through virtual gunports rather than being studded all over with weaponry as you'd expect. Daft, but great fun.

Finally there's Harry Harrison's short pastiche "Captain Honario Harpplayer, R.N.", whose strangely familiar hero can't perceive the unusual skin coloration of the alien press-ganged into his crew as "Mr Green", because Cap'n Harpplayer of HMS Redundant is not tone-deaf but colour-blind. Logical, Captain.

David Langford's timbers remain reasonably unshivered.