Sunday, February 24, 2008

Off Armageddon Reef - David Weber

There are two ways of looking at this book from the perspective of one who's read quite a bit of sci-fi. Either it's a good addition to the volumes on this particular topic, or else it's a not to inventive retelling of a familiar theme. I'd like to lean towards the first, but there's no denying that this story will be familiar to readers. At it's base we have the Connecticut Yankee scenario, civilization has fallen on the colony world and the main character is ready to bring it back up to its space faring roots. The first few chapters lay the groundwork of what has come before, and I'm tempted to say that it's the most heart filled part of this tale, as the alien exterminators crush the last human resistance save for one small fleet, ark ships sent to establish a colony and go on low tech silent running to evade detection.

Once they get there however we have something that could have come out of Zelazny's Lord of Light, a split between those who would set themselves up as gods of a permanently agrarian pre-industrial society, and those who want to keep the knowledge of what has come before alive so that their descendants can take back the stars. Needless to say, the deicrats win, even though the techies manage to squirrel away one of their android bodies(along with a few high tech goodies) for 500 years or so. And now we awaken a living computer to guide humanity back to the stars(The General Series by David Drake), keep the barbarians from sacking what may be the last bastion of civilization(Lest Darkness Fall, L. Sprague De Camp) holding out against a violently anti-tech mother church and the added complication of an orbital space array set to destroy any telltale emissions(Greatwinter Trilogy, Sean Mcmullen).

We of course go through our checklist when encountering a more primitive society you wish to bootstrap up. Gunpowder? Check, they already have that but the protagonist introduces a better mixture. Rifled Weapons? Check, as well as Mine Balls. Better Ships and Cannons? Schooners, Galleons(the current navies are anchored on rowed galleys) and cassions. Cotton Gin? Check. And so on and so forth. As Nimue, now in her gender bending role as the teacher Merlin guides the fledgling kingdom(And yes, Excalibur makes an appearance as a machine forged sword of 'battle steel').

There are a few places where we get interesting factors in play, such as Nimue being schooled in the Japanese sword arts and trying to teach that to essentially medieval Europeans. As well as the aforementioned gender bending...but otherwise it' simply a rather predictable grind. Not that the grind isn't enjoyable of course, Weber definitely knows how to write military fiction, and learning how Nimue deals with the next ordeal was enough to keep me interested. However some of the other characters fall flat, especially their antagonists, are pretty archetypal, and I found myself skimming while their parts came up, or when it discussed their religious structure, an undisguised take-off on Catholicism. Which is a little strange in itself as the early discussions feature ancient Egypt as the historical near ideal for a static society(Which I'm not sure I agree with, as opposed to perhaps a far eastern Confucian example, but we digress).

From Bring The Light by David Drake, to A Fire Upon The Deep by Vernor Vinge, one wonders if this bootstrapping of technological progress should have a genre all its own. As it is, this addition to the type doesn't really have any portions that I can point out as especially bad, but nor does it have many extraordinary qualities either. Good writing, but it feels like we're just going through the motions, without anything "special" to make it stand out, the exciting story makes up for this, but there really isn't much tension. When you're a neigh immortal android body, waiting another century or two of stony sleep isn't that terrible of an idea as it seems that technological progress was beginning to seep in through the cracks anyways. Her motivation being to stop a holy war, but one that most likely won't destroy civilization on the planet, so it's very hard to see the urgency that she seems to feel.

Anyways, solid work, but predictable and made less forgivable given that Weber has already written on this very topic in Heirs of Empire, which in my opinion did it better with more sympathetic characters and in about half the length(Off Armageddon Reef weighs in at about 800 pages...and promises to be only the first in the series given that they hadn't even made any steps towards working around the orbital bombardment/sword of damocles over their heads). I'll pick up the next in the series, but it probably won't be a priority for me.


Ymarsakar said...

Her motivation being to stop a holy war, but one that most likely won't destroy civilization on the planet, so it's very hard to see the urgency that she seems to feel.

You read that wrong. Merlin's motivation is the opposite. He has to make Charis stronger before that happens, so that is why he has to tone down the rhetoric whenever such thoughts pop up.

If you don't like epics, if you don't like the plots of stories like DBZ, and if you don't like military heroism or examples of the same, you won't get much out of this story. Much of it is unspoken, like the deal with Merlin's views on a Holy War.

How much of Merlin's urgency you will be able to get will depend somewhat on your views towards the Iraq war. If you take the view that it isn't something you as an individual should be responsible for, then you can easily see Merlin as sleeping a few more centuries and letting Charis fall and letting the invasion fleets get closer to finding Safehold as nothing much.

If you take the view that personal responsibility and duty is not something you can just shrug off by going back to sleep, well, you may see things in a different light.

Talkos said...

That's a fair critique. And perhaps its my personal feelings getting in the way, though the way I saw it was that with a tech killing satellite in orbit, the planet could afford to wait a few hundred years more, hidden until there was a more conductive situation on the ground. Especially perhaps given Weber's other work, Children of Empire for example had that urgency, while Nimue with an android body, cold sleep chamber, and nowhere to get to except a war didn't seem to have it.

Anyways, thanks for the comments.