Reading me some Horatio Hornblower

I’ve dipped into (and made fun of) British naval scenarios transplanted to a space setting. But the truth is that I am a big fan of them. If you’ve put a naval genius in charge of a crew of malcontents – kept in place only by rum and the lash – and had them fly through space and shoot at other spaceships, then I have probably read your book.

But, until now, I had not read any of the large amount of fiction set in the actual British navy (why is it always the British navies? Have there never been any super-sweet non-British navies?)

The most well-known of these series, and probably the one that most directly influenced the space-navy genre was C.S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower series. I had never read any entry into this series. But for the last week I have been in the grip of an insomnia that both gave me a lot of empty time and reduced my ability to understand any book whose overall structure and type was not already somewhat familiar to me. This led me to read the first three entries in the series.

(I’ve been reading them in the order they were written and not their order according to the series’ internal chronology. In the first book that Forester wrote, Hornblower has already been a captain for some five years. He wrote enough books to make Hornblower an admiral and hereditary noble, then he went back and wrote six prequels to the first book)

It is totally bizarre to read these books and see how directly the space-navy genre has copied shit. Even the character of the protagonist: somewhat haunted and introspective, is mirrored in numerous space-navy series (particularly Feintuch’s Seafort Saga). Each author gives a little twist to the tone and nature of the introspection, which makes space-navy books feel different from each other (since their twists are additive). But when the lines of descent are pointed out, the similarity becomes obvious.

But even the tone and narrative distance – all kinds of things that I thought were somehow inherent in the genre – are things that I’ve come to realize are basically accidents. They were established as conventions because of this series.

It is interesting to see the other conventions that were taken from Forester: the steady rise of the hero through the ranks; the gradual appearance of politics and political considerations; the gradual accumulation of honors and public regard…

But it’s more interesting to see what things did not make the jump.

I think the primary thing is that I have never seen a space-navy story which characterizes its ordinary seamen with quite the brutality that Forester does. At the start of the second book (Flying Colors), Hornblower’s men are travelling the country, beating the brush for conscripts. They’re getting guys out of prison. They’re pouncing on people in bars and conscripting them. They’re getting them out of cottages and hauling them off to sea. All totally against their will, of course.

About a third of the way through the book, Hornblower impresses 150 men off a British East India Company ship. What is actually being done is not particularly shocking (I mean, conscription kind of pales in the face of the permanent slavery that is practiced in much of the world at the time in which the novels are set). What is shocking is that Forester bothers to mention it, and to decry it.

There are passages like:

“A good many of the clodhoppers in question had three days before been living peacefully in their cottages with never a thought of going to sea. And here they were under a grey sky, pitching over a grey sea, with a keener breeze than ever they had known blowing round them, overhead the terrifying heights of the rigging, and underfoot the groaning timbers of a reeling ship.”

And Forester frequently mentions the beatings, and the danger, and the poor rations, and the arbitrary cruelty, and the capriciousness, such as being kept in sight of shore with no leave or having their pay delayed for a year, that must be suffered by these involuntary conscripts.

And sure, what they suffer is no worse than what all conscripts have to suffer in war. It’s no worse than what America has done to its own soldiers in Vietnam, or World War II, or the Civil War…but that’s exactly the point. It’s no worse, but most authors do not mention it.

Joan of Arc’s knights were supported by conscripts. Julius Caesar marched with conscripts. Gettysburg had conscripts on both sides. Conscripts were encircled in the Battle of the Bulge and conscripts did the encircling. Conscripts held Stalingrad for 700 days and conscripts assaulted it. We all know that slavery plays a central role in war, but it’s somehow kind of tawdry.

In the Hornblower books I am not quite sure what the purpose of bringing it up is. I think maybe it might be enhance the cult of the naval captain, by making him not just the leader of the ship, but also its captor. The captain struggles against a crew that does not really want to fight, even as he struggles against the enemy. Really, the captain is the only one in the endeavor with any freedom.

But still, it fulfils this purpose by detracting from his heroism. One wonders, sometimes, what the main difference is between Napoleon (or “The Corsican Tyrant!” as Hornblower calls him) and Britain really is. After all, Britain was the one who declared war on France first, way back in like 1792, so it’s not like Napoleon is even the aggressor.

Regardless, that moral ambiguity actually kind of works for the book. Regardless of rights and wrongs, Hornblower is still going to fuck up some French shit because, well, that’s his job. And we’re going to cheer for him because we’re an English-speaking people.

Oh, the other thing that struck me about the series – and which didn’t really make the leap into space – were the bizarre semi-feudal trappings of the British Navy (as depicted by Forester, no idea if it was really like that).

For instance, Hornblower is complaining (in his mind) about the lack of paint on his ship:

“A wealthy captain and first lieutenant would have supplied the deficiency out of their own pockets, and would have shown a lick of gold leaf here and there, but Hornblower had no money to spare for gold leaf, and he knew that Bush, who kept four sisters and a mother on his pay, had none either–not even though his professional future depended in some part on the appearance of the Sutherland.”

Or, earlier, when he is trying to drum up men for his ship:

“To send four lieutenants, each with half a dozen men, round the southern counties to gather recruits in accordance with this poster was going to cost him practically all the pay he had accumulated last commission, and he feared lest it should be money thrown away.”

Like, ummm, is this not a modern nation-state? If you’re going to require your commanders to maintain their military commands out-of-pocket, then you should at least give them titles and estates with which to do it. I guess it was a weird transitional era.

The flipside to this is that when he is out at sea, he can basically do whatever he want (subject to his orders, which are basically just a letter given to him). He knows he will have to answer to it later, at court-martial. But he has pretty wide latitude to just go out and wreck shit.

Comments (



  1. Tracy Canfield

    Have you read the Aubrey and Maturin books? More British Navy, deliberately set up to reverse some of the conventions in Hornblower, while preserving others.

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      I have not. I might check them out at some point. I saw the movie with Russell Crowe and whatshisname, though. Paul Bettany. That’s his name. It was a pretty good movie.

      1. Tracy Canfield

        I haven’t seen the movie, so I don’t know how it compares. Often if I like the first book in a series, I’ll read them all in short order; I liked the first Aubrey and Maturin book so much I rationed out the rest, because I didn’t want to face the day when there weren’t any more.

        1. R. H. Kanakia

          That is quite a recommendation.

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