Bad, but good: David Feintuch’s Midshipman’s Hope

Midshipman’s Hope is unashamedly reminiscent of both Forester’s Hornblower books and Heinlein’s Starman Jones.  A lot of the worldbuilding is there explicitly to load the deck to get the result Feintuch wants—a Napoleonic space navy where adolescents go into space with ridiculous amounts of responsibility and angst about it. It could be an Oliver Optic novel! The majority of the book is about how Nicholas Seafort, a seventeen-year-old midshipman on Hibernia, a ship headed on a three year interstellar cruise, is forced by circumstances and his own honour into situations where he has to make awful choices which always turn out to be right. The book’s first person, so we spend it nose to nose with Seafort, his angst, his nightmares, his funk, his utter inability to forgive himself or unbend for an instant. And that’s what’s good about it. It’s ludicrous really—later in the series he eventually gets to a point where the only way for him to get more responsibility to angst over and a higher position he isn’t qualified for would be if he was suddenly forced to be God—but it’s compelling nevertheless.

I read it in the first place because the late Mr. Feintuch used to post on rec.arts.sf.written, and he made it sound like something I’d like. And it is something I like. I’ve read the whole series. Indeed, everyone in our house read it, to the point where we affectionately refer to the series as Midshipman’s Mope. But if it’s so awful, why did I keep it, and why am I reading it again? Isn’t that an interesting question?

In Fourth Street Fantasy Convention, the question was raised as to why people read bad books. Sharyn November, the editor of Penguin’s YA Firebird line, replied that everyone wants Cheetos sometimes. The problem with that answer is that it doesn’t really model what I do—and I’m generalising from one person here, but then, as Steven Brust says, everyone does that. If it was a case of “everyone eats Cheetos sometimes,” the requirement for something undemanding, then almost anything undemanding would do. Now I do from time to time want things that are undemanding for their undemandingness, but I always want specific things. It’s not a case of “anything undemanding would do.” I want things that scratch particular itches.

When I think of my comfort re-reads they all tend to be things where everything comes out all right in the end—children’s books, romances, and military stories. The characters in these sorts of books tend to be justified in what they do. There’s a certain black and white nature to everything. They tend to be series, so I can really soak myself in them, or if not series then at least a lot of books to the same formula. If I’m comfort reading I don’t read one Noel Streatfeild or Georgette Heyer or W.E.B. Griffin, I read typically five or six. The other thing they have in common is that while the prose might be clunky, the characters might have only two dimensions and the plots when examined may be ridiculous, they’re really good on the storytelling level. They may look contrived when you step away from them, but while you’re immersed, you can care. Indeed, you’re allowed to care, encouraged to care. They’re manipulative in some ways, but you feel that the author is buying what they’re selling, they’re button-pushing, but they’re honest. They’re the author’s buttons too. Heyer may be laughing just a little at her heroine, and inviting you to laugh with her, but the text is also deeply invested in the reality of social anxiety and true love. And they’re not interchangeable. If I want military training and male camaraderie, then giving me waltzing at Almack’s doesn’t cut it, and vice versa.

Now this probably doesn’t help with why other people read bad books at all, as lots of people don’t re-read much if at all. But it might be why they keep on reading new volumes in a bad series. They know what they’re getting, it’s honest, you’re invited to care about the characters, who will be justified in their main actions, and the storytelling is good.

Midshipman’s Hope definitely fits all this. I picked it up this time because I was trying to think about why I read bad books, so I wasn’t pining for a rigid Navy in space, or for aliens and planets, which are definitely elements that make me forgive a lot of flaws. By about a third of the way in, though, the book had entirely grabbed me. I didn’t want to put it down, even though I knew what happened, I wanted to go through that dance again with poor old unforgiving Seafort as he does everything wrong and hates himself and it all turns out to have been right. I didn’t go on to re-read the rest of the series. But if I’d been at home and they’d been there, I might well have, even knowing everything I already know about them.

(The future slang in the later books irritates me, and the fact Seafort comes from Cardiff, which is mildly irritating in Midshipman’s Hope, because he’s so totally American, becomes actively annoying later where Feintuch demonstrates he knows nothing about the geography and culture. I’m writing this post in Cardiff. It’s a city that’s changed a lot in my lifetime. I’m sure it’ll change a lot more by 2194, but I think it would take a lot longer than that to change into the US Midwest. I wonder if there are people in the Philippines who grump like this about Juan Rico?)

However and not withstanding, if you’re looking for a book about a boy with an uncompromising sense of honour who gets piled with too much responsibility, and which has spaceships and aliens and strong narrative drive and undeniable sincerity, and if you can put up with a handful of ludicrous coincidences pushing the plot along, then Midshipman’s Hope is definitely the book for you.

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