Feintuch, David. Midshipman’s Hope.

NY: Warner Aspect, 1994.

Everyone says this opening volume of the “Seafort Saga,” which won the Campbell Award, is based heavily on Horatio Hornblower, but those people apparently don’t actually read Napoleonic naval adventures. The set-up is actually much more like Dudley Pope’s first novel featuring Lieut. Nicholas Ramage, in which the youngest and least experienced officer aboard a British warship suddenly finds himself thrust into command in the middle of a crisis. Because that’s what happens here, more or less.

It’s 2194 and Nick Seafort is the senior midshipman aboard Hibernia, a United Nations spaceship. (The UN has a monopoly on space travel, so even passenger and freight-carrying vessels are actually naval.) That puts him in charge of the Wardroom, which can be an awful responsibility — so he thinks — but he’s managing. He respects Capt. Haag, actually likes and gets along with a couple of the lieutenants (and is carefully wary of the others), and is looking forward to his first visit to the colony world of Hope Nation, which is a three-year journey even with FTL drive.

And then, while the ship has paused to visit a famous derelict in deep space, a sudden and unexplained accident kills all the senior officers except for a single lieutenant. And the lieutenant dies a short time later. Even though the Chief Engineer has been doing his job twice as long as Nick has been alive, and while even the Pilot and the Ship’s Doctor have spent far more time in space, naval regulations are very clear and very specific: Nick is the senior line officer. And he’s now the captain.

The author’s world-building goes into considerable detail as he outlines a socially conservative future in which a reunified Christian Church provides stability and in which an officer’s every action is closely governed by strict concepts of honor and duty. As the voyage continues, and as Nick tries to do the right thing, he develops a very low opinion of his own abilities, coming to believe that he is incapable of making a correct decision. People die because of him, and it’s almost more than his writhing conscience can deal with. His emotional reactions are not always heroic — even though nearly everyone else in the ship begins to view him as a hero. (Okay, that part is very Hornblower-like.)

Yet somehow, whether he’s confronting pirates without or mutiny within — not to mention an encounter with a very dangerous alien presence — Nick manages to come out on top and preserves his ship and its people. It’s a well-told and exciting story and Feintuch manages to cover all the angles — sometimes in more detail than some readers might desire, but I enjoy that sort of what-if-ing.


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