Tue
Jul 7 2009 10:34am
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.

31 comments
Nick Mamatas
1. Nick Mamatas
Mental Cheetos? That's why I have the HBO/Starz package on my cable TV.

No time or inclination for bad books though... of course, I never re-read either and I know I miss a lot by not re-reading but life isn't long enough for me.
Kate Nepveu
2. katenepveu
See, when I want Cheetos, I want something crunchy and salty and with that awful/wonderful residue of orange to lick off my fingers. So it _is_ actually something specific.

(Actually, I wan't able to eat Cheetos for several months and now they are just awful, which is probably a good thing for my overall health. But when I did want them, I wanted _Cheetos_.)

I still remember being at your place, oh, must be five years or more ago now, someone mentioning "angst," Z. asking for a definition, and then immediately going to the F shelf and pointing at this book when he received it!
Liza .
3. aedifica
When I think of my comfort re-reads they all tend to be things where everything comes out all right in the end... 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.

This is why I keep re-reading Grace Livingston Hill's books. They're utter fluff, and steeped in a religion and an era I don't belong to, but they're very comforting and have enough story to keep me interested each time. And they're full of people being deliberately good, which adds to the comfort. (The exception is one where the main character is so impossibly perfectly sickly-sweet generous that it utterly threw me out of the story--but that is the exception, not the rule for her stories.)
Ian Tregillis
4. ITregillis
I read this series during a particularly difficult year in school. They provided exactly the preposterous comfort I needed-- Seafort does everything wrong but it all turns out okay in the end. If only school had been so forgiving.
Nick Mamatas
5. cbyler
I read some of these quite a few years ago and although I don't remember why anymore, I remember thinking that they combined an author who enjoyed torturing his characters with a character who deserved it.

I don't know what Seafort did to get so firmly on my bad side (although now that I'm thinking about it, I think he was an unforgivable ass to one or more other characters), but I found the combination so disturbing that I stopped reading the series and haven't gone back to it since.
Mike Kozlowski
6. mkozlows
Is it angstier than actual Hornblower? Because I'd passed these by as too grim for me, but if it's just Hornblower levels, then they need to clearly go on my to-read list, as David Weber does not write enough trashy Napoleon-in-space fiction for my needs.
Joseph Blaidd
7. SteelBlaidd
We gave up on these after the third retread of the "same song third verse little bit louder little bit worse." We got frustrated by the fact that the hero never seamed to make ANY emotional progress. Contrast Miles Vorkosigan who also is always himself but still grows from book to book.

I think that a good comfort read conforms to Lady Bracknall's formulation. "The good end well and the bad end poorly. That's what fiction means."
Hugh Arai
8. HArai
mkozlows@6: My opinion is yes, it is well beyond Hornblower levels. I'll re-read Hornblower, this series got exchanged at the second-hand bookshop. I did read the whole series once though, so it did hook me that far. I just don't want to read it again.
Nick Mamatas
9. tariqata
Thanks!

This post really put into words why I keep reading and re-reading David Weber. Now I can finally justify it to my partner (who doesn't read as fast as I do, and therefore doesn't get why I re-read).
Ken Walton
10. carandol
Then of course there's David Weber's "Honor Harrington" books, which manage to cross the comfort-reading genre of "Hornblower in space" with the comfort-reading genre of "feisty women with cats". P.C. Hodgell springs immediately to mind for those, but I suspect Andre Norton started it.
Nick Mamatas
11. David M. Brown
Sounds like you're responding to what's good in Midshipman's Hope, not what's "bad." Is it somehow criminal to be "really good on the storytelling level," or to compellingly engage the reader in the fate of the character? Is this something any haphazard scribbler can easily pull off no matter how weak or clunky he is in other departments of craft? There's a streak of Puritanism in such assumptions, or such insistence in calling "bad" what we find strongly appealing and satisfying. Unless we have good cause to believe that our literary sensibilities and values are altogether stunted and curdled, I don't believe we should feel so guilty about such so-called "guilty pleasures."
Eirin Saeves
12. Eirin
Clunky prose? Heyer?!

I must not be reading the same Heyer.
Nick Mamatas
13. mundens
I agree with David M. Brown. A book you _want_ to re-read isn't bad, it's good.

Personally I enjoyed Fientuch's "Hope" series. It may not be as good as some, but it's nowhere near as bad as some New York Times Best Sellers.

If you want to take it all just a little bit further than the Hope series, I'd recommend "An Exchange of Hostages" by Susan Matthews.
Nick Mamatas
14. Laraine Anne Barker
I'm afraid bad writing is torture to me. I toiled through The Da Vinci Code only because some friends with no taste bought it for us for Christmas.
Nick Mamatas
15. Adam Long
Dan Cragg and David Sherman's Starfist series...fun, light, and the good guys always win in the end. At least both authors were actually in the military (Army and Marine Corps respectively) and served in Vietnam, so the combat scenarios and the Marines portrayed are more realistic than many future military organizations.

David Eddings was another one I couldn't get enough of in high school, but in each "new" series, I could always find characters from previous series by different names.
Nick Mamatas
16. AR Schleicher
Does anyone know if the last book in the series was ever made available anywhere? I found a few references to it (Galahad's Hope), but it sounds like it never made it out. :(
John Fulton
17. BlackJedi
Midshipman's Hope is one of *my* comfort re-reads too... I've probably read it about five or six times now, and quite often I carry on with the rest of the series (up to but not including Voices of Hope, though, as I wasn't too keen on that one).

I'm currently reading David Weber's Honor Harrington series, which pushes a lot of the same buttons.
Tex Anne
18. TexAnne
Yuck yuck yuck! I read the first two or three because "Hornblower In Spaaaaace!" is guaranteed to make me happy. Unfortunately, Calvinists in space make me want to throw books in the trash. (I didn't. But it was a near thing.) It's not Feintuch's fault, though: I hate hardcore Scottish-Presbyterian-style Calvinism with every fiber of my Episcopalian soul.

Honor Harrington was okay until I got to the "Rob S. Pierre" joke, but I didn't quit reading until it became clear that Honor = Nelson, down to the love triangle with the crippled wife. There are not enough treecats in the universe to make up for that.

Now when I'm in the mood for an immersive Napoleonic experience, I just reread Aubrey/Maturin some more.
Nick Mamatas
19. KRYSTA DAVIS
And all these years I thought I was the only SF/F fan with a closet full of Georgette Heyer!
Nick Mamatas
20. David Cook
In the end, Feintuch went one step too far for me - in the final book, fairly near the end as I recall, (spoiler - highlight to read)Seafort's wife died in some sort of tragic accident, one where everyone was "coincidentally" helpless to do anything about it, despite surviving much greater odds all through the series, and that was the closest I've come to actually throwing a book against the wall. I probably won't re-read the series, knowing that Seafort just can't get a break.
Nick Mamatas
21. sirtomster
I cannot read that series.. Last time I read it, it put me in such a depressive funk that I could not do much for awhile. Very lucky my boss did not fire me. Still remember the story but will not read again.
Nick Mamatas
22. Larry J Lennhoff
I'd love to see Thomas Covenant forced to serve under Seaforth for a while. Good for both of them.
Nick Mamatas
23. dancing crow
I like Elizabeth Moon's books for much the same reasons; the good end well, the bad end poorly, and there is some bang-up fighting and chasing and spaceships.

And I completely understand what you mean with comfort reading scratching a particular itch. While I admire Heyer, I have a sekrit crush on Jennifer Crusie and all her works.
ian Mackereth
24. ian_mackereth
I had some correspondence with Mr. Feintuch over my very similar comments on rec.arts.sf many years ago, and he seemed genuinely surprised and miffed that I considered his books a guilty pleasure.
I don't re-read them (are they even available as ebooks?) but found them compulsive at the time.

Fortunately, my comfort re-reading is usually Terry Pratchett, so I get to scratch my itch with something that I can have spine-out on the bookshelf! (Metaphorically speaking; I read everything in ebook format, so it's closer to say that I don't have to encrypt the filenames!)
David Lev
25. davidlev
My comfort reading is Pratchett (so something I can be proud of), but it used to be Magic: The Gathering and Dragonlance books. I finally got so fed up that I sold all the Magic books, then later the Dragonlance ones. They introduced me to fantasy, but there's so much else out there to explore.

I also have a definite weakness for Redwall books, and I don't care that I'm almost 22. They just make me feel so warm and fuzzy, it doesn't matter that Jacques is pretty obviously doing them by formula by now (descriptions of food + puzzles + teenaged protagonist + cute Dibbuns + otters, shrews, or hares being awesome + really evil badguy = WIN). They're still fun to read
Jo Walton
26. bluejo
DavidLev: I haven't read the Redwall books, but my son used to gobble them up like candy, while being aware that they are following a formula. I used to tease him "Which kind of evil animal has invaded Mossflower wood this time?" But if that's the formula you want, then Jacques is clearly doing it just right.
Nick Mamatas
27. David M. Brown
Now that I've read several in the series, I can echo mundens and say that I agree with myself also. The novels are good, not bad.

I think Seafort's chronic guilt is well motivated by the social setup (i.e., the fact that there is an official state religion the tendrils of which seep into everything), by his relationship to his stern orthodox father, and by the extremely difficult and terrible choices that he makes. He may be a Puritan-in-space, but what's compelling is that he does the right thing even when the formal dictates of piety (his father's voice) bid him to do otherwise. So far (six books in), Seafort has never abandoned his rigidly religious outlook, which means that in his own view he faces eternal damnation for the sins of being more attuned to the full context of terrible alternatives than his dogma permits and also being willing to act on that knowledge without hesitation. A heroic man of more rational and secular moral outlook would make many of the same terrible choices, but perhaps suffer less for them.
Nick Mamatas
28. Nikolaibard
Am making my way through the series for the first time. Yikes! This guy has serious "religion" issues! Like an earlier poster, his Scots Presbyterian Calvinism makes me want to dig up Calvin and pound his face in with all of my Russian Orthodox strength.

Regardless of my dislike of that brand of Puritanism, I am also drawn to the story even as I shake my head wonderingly and wish for some brightness in the poor man's life. I do find his self-recriminations and utter inability to recognize his own good qualities and deeds a bit over the top....and yet, the stories work. I like them, in some weird, wash myself thoroughly after each read to get the "depress acid" off, way.

And you all say it gets WORSE after Prisoners Hope?! I'm not sure I can survive....

Still. It's good. I like it. Gawd, I'm so conflicted!
Nick Mamatas
29. Devon Feintuch
My father was an amazing author. Glad to read from other people who have also read and enjoyed (and not enjoyed) his works. Thank you all.
Nick Mamatas
30. riley harrison
Just finished rereading the first book in the series for the umpteenth time. I come back to this series, and "the still", about once a year or so, and I get something new out of it each time. Feintuchs work engages me emotionally more than anything I've read, with the vorkosigan saga coming a close second. I got to meet Mr. Feintuch at an event I arranged at a Barnes and noble, and ill always regret not having spent more time talking to him.
Nick Mamatas
31. Ion A. Dowman
I first read 'Voices of Hope' merely out of curiosity and from memory the premise intrigued me: a kind of politically motivated urban renewal. The manner in which the story unfolds from several first persons' point of view (none of them Nicholas seafort himself, though he is a major character), and the kind of abandonment of large chunks of urban society to the point that the governments don't recognise their very existence - doesn't that ring a bell - I found extraordinarily compelling.

That particular book ain't Hornblower - not in the same way as is the only other 'Hope' book I read, and that later - was indeed Midshipman's Hope. This looked a bit like a cross between Midshipman Hornblower's first command ('A cargo of Rice') and one of Showell Styles's Midshipman Septimus Quinn stories (in which the eponymous character has to bring a vessel to safety after several adventures).

I like self-doubting heroes: the sort who know they're probably right from an objective point of view, but are conscious of subjective values that might equally inform a decision, and are as much aware that their decisions, based as they are on the balance of probabilities, or competing imperatives, have a distinct chance of going turnip shaped. It helps their credibility as heroes to be wrong sometimes, or to have the luck go against them, or even some their successes to be alloyed with some sense of falling a little short.

Nick Seafort is not altogether the (slightly) flawed hero that Hornblower is; but he's not sort who surfs the waves of success from crest to crest as I feel that Septimus Quinn does, but lies somewhere between. There are not many heroes one could sympathise with, not only pronouncing judgment upon the Global Security Council's lack of moral authority to govern the planet, but also accepting, 'however damned reluctantly' the role of secretary General - a.k.a. World Dictator. Nick Seafort - like Marius - is one of the few.

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