Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Literary Sins of David Weber (Revised)

[Note: this blog entry has been revised significantly. Hopefully it is more amusing this time around.]--ed.
David Weber writes science fiction. Badly.

My brother Ronald likes his stuff. This is ironic, because, to a man -- (this includes his women since he has only two stock characters, good guys and bad'uns) -- they are all verbose, whereas in phone conversations, Ronald tends toward the monosyllabic.

Ask a David Weber hero a question, and you will get a formulaic answer: "Qualifier, qualifier, yes, although, qualifier cliche."

Ask a David Weber villain the same question and you will get a long pause while the character panics, considers the political implications of the question, and tries to cover his rear with an eventual "Qualifier, qualifier, no, but justification, justification, blame spreading" followed by a secret evil sneer.

If I were to ask you, gentle reader, a simple question, I would likely get simple answers.

Gail to random sampling of friends, relatives, and passers-by: Do you believe in adoption?
"Yeah, like I have a friend who got pregnant at sixteen, and she couldn't take care of her baby, so the kid really is better off in a stable, two-parent home. Plus my friend could finish her education."
"No. I think if you create a life, you should be the one responsible for caring for it."
"My husband and I were infertile and we adopted. It changed our lives. Wonderful!"
"In most cases, as long as there's reasonable oversight."
"Better than bouncing around the foster care system. Yikes. And way better than getting an abortion."
"Whatever is best for the child."
"Why do you ask?"

Now, let's ask three generic David Weber characters the same question.

Generic good-guy government official: [Reflectively] Well, sir, on the whole, I would have to say I do. Obviously we have a huge population problem right now, what with so many adults dying in the war against the bad guys. Our government could be doing more to protect our soldiers, and our civilians, from the rampages of the evil bad guys, but we are doing our best. Still, there are far too many orphans running around, and the best thing for them would probably be to get placed in foster homes. That's not always an option, though the king certainly wishes it were, and so we're building orphanages as fast as we can, though our resources are strained by also building as many ships as possible....blah, blah, blah.

You know what? I can't stand it. Let's change the question to "How do you feel about slaughtering zombies?" for a little variety.

Generic Angsty Hero: Well, obviously it depends upon the individual circumstances. Naturally, we all want to protect our citizens, but the unfortunate fact is, most zombies once were our citizens. I wouldn't say that every case of zombification is a direct result of biological warfare, but it's almost certain that at least ninety-six percent of them are. I've sat in councils with King Cayleb and I've seen the pain in his eyes when he gets reports of young children orphaned by zombies, or, even worse, turned into zombies themselves. As much as I hate wanton destruction, we have no choice at the moment but to slaughter the undead, although Lord Stodgy is working hard on a vaccine. I can't promise an end to this scourge, or even justice for its victims, but I can promise that one day we will confront the evil empire and make those hypocrites pay for what they've done!
You see? Even under these circumstances, the character manages to make it boring.
I asked the #3-ranked Villain in the Evil Leadership Cabal of the Corrupt Church Executive Committee the same question, but I can't print his answer. Take it on faith that it would turn you, gentle readers, into zombies. Then orphan your children, then turn them into zombies. And then create a plague of undead who destroy genre fiction by insisting upon novels devoid of literary merit like character, plot, metaphor, or readable dialogue.

You think I'm exaggerating. Alas, no.

Not only does Weber write this stuff, he doesn't have the discipline to trim it from his novels, despite it's obvious lack of relevance to the plot. Even worse, he uses cliches. And even more unnecessary qualifiers than I could bring myself to insert into the hypothetical examples above.
Does the man not have an editor?

Behold, a real example:

I quote from page 375 of A Mighty Fortress. A minor character is considering his problems manufacturing cannon.
' "And as White Ford's pointed out, it's probably not totally unreasonable for crews to be just a tad leery of guns that have demonstrated such a pronounced tendency to kill or maim their gunners," he thought disgustedly.'

Ew. I mean, EWWW. I think some putrefying brains got dribbled onto my sleeve, along with drool.

And yes, this is a representative sample. If you insist, I could produce more. Lots more. If you do insist, though, I shall discreetly question your sanity, or your undead status.

I will offer a bounty to the person who expresses that thought in the least number of words.

Here are my attempts:

First revision: "Given our unreliable cannon, no wonder we can't retain gun crews."

Second revision: Don't bother. Just yank the entire scene.

No words at all. I win! Pthpt!

I believe that any David Weber book could easily be reduced by a third. I further believe that any random non-battle page could reasonably be reduced by one-half.

If someone wishes to take this challenge, send me the book and page. We can have a competition to see who can better axe the foliage down to pre-spindle size.

Now, the obvious question is, why do I still read him? Short answer: I don't, much, anymore. Long answer: 1) He used to be better; 2) I want to see how the series ends; 3) I don't read anymore, just skim; 4) I have a morbid curiosity to see just how bad he can get and yet still be published; 5) It helps me fall asleep; and 6) I was doing research for this blog post, trying desperately to convince my brother that solid science cannot atone for the abomination of bad writing.

"I am constantly amazed," I tell Jon whenever I break down and read another book, "How he can have such good ideas, and yet execute them so poorly."

Granted, I have a similar problem. That won't stop me from critiquing him. Ah, hypocrisy.

There's beating a barely-breathing horse. Then there's beating a dead horse. Then there's abusing the re-animated zombie horse until its various body parts are scattered in an even worse mess than its previous excrement. And then there is beating a dead horse, burying it, digging it up again, torturing its desecrated bones, and cloning it into an entire army of ancient nags, merely to perpetuate a death spiral of dwindling marginal utility.

David Weber has definitely moved into the zombie phase. I fear that, without intervention, he will soon venture even beyond that, into the undiscovered country of cloned cliches.

I could go on, and on, and on, in detailing the man's crimes. Yet I shall show mercy. I fear lest my idealistic revolution morph slowly into the very corrupt system I once opposed.

Ah, Ronald, what lack I yet? I suppose that if I haven't converted you, I could always write yet another essay on the point. How's that for motivation?

The pen really is mightier than the sword! And there are fewer moral problems with baptism by literary torture than baptism by beheading. Or accidental beheading by baptism of a rotting corpse. Do I hear an Amen?

--[Note: I cannot compare to Mark Twain, alas. He wrote a fantastic essay mocking the mistakes of James Fenimore Cooper. His commentary about literary rules requiring the characters to be distinguishable from the corpses seems particularly apt. If you want real sarcastic literary criticism, go check it out.]--


Krenn said...

In webers defense, the science is good, and at least the overall plot flows well. If you want to see what weber-esque writing looks like WITHOUT David Weber's assistance, try reading Steve White's "Extremis" , his second sequel to the series he and david weber originally co-wrote.

Now THAT was bad. Evil characters who don't have any motivation for their actions at ALL, but redeem themselves in heroic deaths for equally inexplicable reasons. Tragically misguided characters who never get any time as a point-of-view character, but wind up making pivotal decisions at the end of the book: without giving us any way to understand what they were thinking before or after that decision. Space battles that are largely irrelevant to the story arc, and exist purely to prevent the final resolution from occurring until the end of the book. Dramatic side-quests which need twice the page length they recieved in order to introduce them properly, and which are never actually concluded in a way we can see, they just get resolved as an aside in the epilogue.

Yeah, David Weber is long-winded and a lot of his characters are written from the same manual of style, but at least his books make SENSE.

Except for the latest Honor Harrington novel. That was just painful.

Gail said...

Ronald--I acknowledged that Weber's science was okay and his ideas were good. His plots are uninspired but do creep logically, albeit glacially, from point A to point B.

There are, indisputably, many worse books in the world. That still doesn't make David Weber's books good, or worth my time.

You and I both agree that Weber has been getting worse lately. We just have different definitions of "awful" and different thresholds of pain.

Krenn said...

Well, I read weber for the situations, and the technology, and the general societal problem solving. Individual character monologues are just a way of expressing that, so I don't really MIND that they all sound the same. To me, a weber character's dialogue is indistinguishable from the voice of the narrator, and since the voice of the narrator is what I'm interested in, I don't mind the lack of distinction. If I want to read excellent characterizations of individual speakers, with personal motives that are intrinsic to the character instead of a function of their overall situation, I'll read John Ringo. Who is also a fine novelist.