Off Armageddon Reef
is the first book of a science fiction
series written by David Weber
. It's his latest creation, and as of now (mid-2009) has two sequels. The full series order so far is:
This book, and its successor, are notable for displaying some of the best of David Weber's writing tendencies as well as some of the worst, side by side. Hopefully I can offer a description of this dichotomy without providing any egregious spoilers. As I described in a writeup on the writer, he has a marvelous ability to construct, populate and most importantly describe fairly complex systems of fictional technology, politics and social systems. The first one is the most important; most of his political and social systems are thinly-disguised versions of historical Earth polities and societies - and sometimes not even disguised at all. That's okay; he's a sci-fi author, after all, so as long as those parts of his works support their own weight, we can enjoy the sci-fi bits for their own particular flair.
In the Honor Harrington series, as well as Path of the Fury, these technology systems are set in the distant future. Classic space opera, these. It renders some of his less endearing writing habits less problematic when they are read from within a cluster of exploding starships or screaming spatial weaponry. His grasp of the mythos and social structure of some military organizations is tight as well, allowing him to create perfectly believable navies, armies, marine corps, and even barbarian hordes when necessary.
So, back to Off Armageddon Reef. I suppose it's really not possible to discuss the book without at least briefly describing the setup, and I think I can do so without spoilers because that's precisely what Weber sets out to do as quickly as possible in the preface to the first book. In this series, humanity has gone to the stars - and found something terrible waiting for them. The Gbaba. A race of inscrutable aliens so xenophobic that their only reaction to humanity is a determined attempt to eradicate it. The young Terran Federation goes willingly to war, only to realize that their opponents, while perhaps not their technological masters, definitely possess the resources to bury them under the sheer weight of numbers.
In the first chapter of the first book, Humanity dies, along with all of their planetary environments and colonies. Well, almost, because if that were wholly true, there wouldn't be a book, would there? No, one forlorn hope survives. A colony mission, sent far, far beyond the reach of the furthest human or Gbaba travels to date. The colony is expressly targeted at an area some hundreds or thousands of years past the Gbaba's current frontier at their known rate of expansion. In order to remain safe, the colony is intended to maintain a low level of technology until the Gbaba have passed it over, so as to avoid attracting attention - no radio emissions or other higher tech indications of life.
The colony mission, however, is subverted by a cabal of the scientists leading it, who tinker with the minds of the colonists and instead set up a theocracy based around rigid control of technology and society, with themselves naturally at the top of the order. Those members of the colony mission who object are set up as schismatics, and a religious war is waged for control of the colony. The 'pro-science' faction's main redoubt, an island on the newly-colonized planet of Safehold, is destroyed utterly by orbital kinetic bombardment, and the Church of God Awaiting settles into full control of the planet. With technology frozen at a pre-industrial revolution level, the Church maintains absolute control. All knowledge of the 'real' history of humanity is lost, even to the currently-living Church elders.
Then, hundreds of years later, a cybernetic puppet toy called a PICA 'wakes up' in a cave, buried underneath a mountain range. The PICA, intended to be used as a recreational android body by the technologic Terran Federation citizens, has a copy of a long-dead naval officer uploaded into it- and a briefing, to that naval officer, from one of the original colony leaders and her friend lo those many years ago, is waiting. It tells her what has happened, and explains that this cave - stuffed with the history and technology of Old Earth, as much as could be secreted away before the schism - is intended to help her 'guide' the world of Safehold back to an understanding of its history, and the perils that live out in space.
Yes, that's all in the preface, really. The first chapter or two.
Then the story starts. As Nimue Alban takes on the identity of a 'seijin', or mythic hero-philosopher of Safehold, and descends into what is now the only remaining world of Man where the Church, if it knew of her existence, would view her as the closest thing to the Devil ever seen. Armed only with knowledge and a technologically-advanced pair of swords, can she turn the course of history against the corrupted Church of God Awaiting?
In a sense, this story is an elaborate playground for Weber. It is not as satisfying to me, as yet, because the main thrust of the story is in fact historical technology and societal struggles. While these are of course fertile ground for storytelling, they seem to exist here mostly to let Weber 'stack the deck' as much as he likes in his writing. While I'm certainly impressed by Weber's knowledge and/or research of now-obsolete military and civil technology, and their effect on war, economics, societies and politics, I have to admit that somewhat cheesy sci-fi entertainment isn't really where I go to scratch those curiosity itches. There's all manner of scholarly work on these fields which does a better job (with more context) of examining what these things mean. Doing it in an artificial playground, rather than highlighting the importance or leverage of these innovations, for me does the latter. Knowing that the whole story is a construct of Weber's, I'm disinclined to pay any attention to the vigorously-handwaved-for-attention introductions of 'small but critical' tech advances.
One main reason is that Weber has always had a massive problem with serendipity. The Good Guys win, in his books. Sure, they suffer setbacks, but not in the sense (with a few exceptions) that their designs and arcs are ever really felt to be in danger. In my interpretations, the Good Guys progress along story arcs and plotlines nearly inexorably. Once in a while they are forced to pay a horrible toll for their progress, in the form of casualties usually, but that's what it feels like - a toll. Not a block, or a severe setback - just a cost that is paid out and which is always less than the victory is worth.
In these books, that is even more true. What tension there is isn't really for whether the heroes will win - but rather for how much of that toll they'll be able to cleverly avoid, as the outcome is never really in doubt. In a sense, Weber invites us the reader in these books to share his position as writer in some of his other work - because Nimue Alban, or 'Merlin' as she comes to style herself (it's a patriarchal world, dear reader, gotta have gonads to make a difference) is in possession of this vast store of knowledge that the rest of the players in the story don't have. S/he has real-time intelligence, thanks to technology, that they don't have and don't even know she has. The whole thing ends up feeling like an enormously complex and well-researched wish-fulfillment fantasy, as the bad guys stumble around and end up sticking their hands into meat grinders that we the reader can see coming from miles and miles off. Since Safehold is frozen in a pre-industrial revolution tech level, we the reader already inetinctively know most of the really cool stuff that Nimue/Merlin can deploy to tip the balances as required...and all the restrictions on her doing so start to feel like artificial constraints, obeyed out of a sense of 'story fair play' because without them the whole tale would collapse.
Of course, Weber's not done yet. And I did say his tendencies for serendipity had exceptions. The big question, of course, in this series, hasn't been asked directly yet in the first two books. Namely, what's going to happen when the Gbaba finally get here? Or, if you prefer, how will plucky Humanity end up kicking the Gbaba's ass? And that's the letdown, because at no point is there any doubt that we will prevail. The only question is precisely how our prevailing will unfold - and that makes the complex worldbuilding and storytelling much less interesting than it might be.
Weber's writing itself, which I avoided talking about under his own writeup, doesn't really help. It's very gee-whiz, and technically fairly rudimentary. I wouldn't go so far as to compare it to L. Ron Hubbard's pen in Battlefield Earth, but the feeling is sort of the same - a galaxy-spanning plotline, and somewhat simplistic prose that carries it there. Weber isn't nearly as bad as Hubbard, of course. But he isn't really all that good. The things I end up carrying away from his books end up being wince-worthy turns of phrase, counts of the number of times he repeats one of those wince-worthy phrases. For one example, describing one character's look or voice as being 'alum-tart' happens across a few of his series a number of times, and never fails to make me cringe. For another example, waaaaay too many of his characters tend to 'murmur' things. I swear, grepping his text for the word 'murmur' would produce some inexcusably high number.
Most of his storytelling, unfortunately, happens in two parts. There are huge swathes of expository text ('spam' in the Turkey City Lexicon), couple with extensive musings on the part of his characters which comes across as clumsy puppeteering. Then, once a situation has been elaborately set up using these techniques, there is a (in this series, usually very brief) denouemont of realtime events and dialogue. It is only there, in those passages, that the reader isn't laboring along with way more information than the characters themselves possess. Usually, the reader still does have way too much information about the storyline in a general sense, but for that particular action, neither the character nor the reader know precisely how things will turn out, so it becomes more traditional and satisfying storytelling. Throughout this series, I feel that I know (even if I don't, exactly) the general way things will turn out, and I've been right across two books so far - which means all the grand sweeping bits of this tale are robbed of their effectiveness, and I"m left craving the battle scenes where I have to read to see what happens.
Now, I said 'exceptions.' Sure, there are. As I said, what'll happen when the Gbaba get here? That, in a nutshell, is what tends to keep me reading Weber's series. Once the basic tech is explained and the ramifications explored, I go looking for those questions, because the character development or storytelling that other writers would use to keep me roped in is usually missing. The most recent few books of the Honor Harrington series have mostly been bearable because there's a clearly-laid-out train wreck coming on a galactic scale, and there's a sort of morbid fascination as to how he's going to get us out of it. I honestly have zero interest in the characters, or the book-scale subplots, because they're just not that well handled. Here, too, the same is tue - I don't honestly care much about individuals in this story (except maybe Nimue/Merlin, and I don't have much doubt that s/he's survive at least as far as the true reveal at which point it might not matter and s/he can become part of the Toll).
So. This has been a long and somewhat rambling treatise on Weber's writing and this series in general. Will I buy the next book? Yes, I will, because I've found that I can obsessively read Weber's books and turn off my head while doing so. This is one of the two reasons I read sci-fi. The other is to make me genuinely think, but that doesn't happen here. What does is that I find myself very curious about how the overarching plot will play out, to the point where I can just ignore the problems at the micro and mid-levels of the story.
So if you're a big-story fan, then you'll probably quite enjoy them. If you judge your fiction on the more traditional pillars of character, narrow story, and use of language, then you'll probably be disappointed.
Appendix: The Turkey City violations Weber commits just on first quick check.
- "Call a Rabbit a Smeerp" (A 'cat-lizard'? Oh-kay.)
- "Pushbutton Words" (Quoting the Declaration of Independence preamble to emphasize the Light of Freedom!)
- "'Said' Bookism" ("Murmured" is only one of the offenders.)
- "False Humanity"
- "Show, don't Tell"
- "Squid on the Mantelpiece" (although this may be because he conceives of multi-book stories and then releases them one at a time, meaning some Big Things don't get used before the end of the book they're introduced in. It's up to you if that's a decent excuse.)
- "White Room Syndrome" (Nimue's awakening and briefing)
- "Wiring Diagram Fiction" (Not all the time, but a lot of it.)
- "Deus ex Machina" (Maybe not in the overarching plot - yet - but all over the smaller arcs)
- "Just-Like Fallacy" (The Catholic church and its capture of secular authority vs. the Industrial Revolution, for example)
- "The Shaggy God Story" (Not fully, but an enormous part of this story would count as one. The *actual* existence of God is taken as a given by Weber and all of his protagonists, but he loves to build clockwork religions to play with).
- "Idiot Plot" (On the baddies' side.)
- "Second-order Idiot Plot" (ALMOST. There is, however, at least a plausible explanation for why they're idiots.)
- "As you Know Bob" (Because Nimue/Merlin gets to hint at things we the readers know, and the other characters then 'excitedly figure it out')
- "Frontloading" (Ohhhh, yeh.)
- "Infodump" (Probably the most egregious)
- "I've suffered for my Art (And Now It's Your Turn)"
Again, I should be clear - I enjoy Weber's books. I enjoy them enough to buy hardcover or advance draft versions of them when they are released - testament to his ability to construct a 'larger story.' But I do so for fairly narrow reasons, and YMMV.