01/11/2008. Contributed by Rod MacDonald
pub: Audio Renaissance/Macmillan. 30 hours 25 CDs. Price: $59.95 (US) ISBN: 978-1-4272-0065-5) Read by Oliver Wyman
check out website: http://us.macmillan.com/Book.aspx?isbn=9781427200655
David Weber is a big man and he likes his books to be big as well. A popular author for 20 years, he is a man in his 50s living in Ohio with dozens of books to his credit. A large number of his books are available free to read on-line from Baen Books. In particular, the 'Honor Harrington' series in one form or another must include at least 20 books but that's nothing unusual for Baen. They have the habit of churning them out in a high and mighty style.
Now, is this quantity and not quality? I've read a few Baen books and some of them leave much to be desired. They can be excruciating to read. However, in saying that there are also many books from the publisher which are really quite good. In the United States, it must be remembered that the market of approximately 400 million people is highly geared and responsive to marketing and for a book to be successful it's only got to reach a small percentage of the population. That means if only one in 10,000 thinks it is great and wants to buy it, sales are pretty darn good!
With David Weber coming from the Baen stable, you would think that some of this influence would be with him still and you would be right to say so. 'Off Armageddon Reef' does have an awful lot of the Baen influence about it. It's basically a form of alternate history, a favourite subject of Baen. It's large and voluminous, perhaps overly so, and it takes a hell of a long time to listen to.
25 discs and 30 hours! It's a large chunk of someone's life and I applaud the narrator Oliver Wyman for his skill and persistence in actually making this book turn out much better than it should be. He plays characters well and doesn't get tired. His voice doesn't flag and he puts lots of enthusiasm into it. However, in saying that, I think 'Off Armageddon Reef' is turgid and could do with losing some weight.
The basic idea behind this book is that humanity, in the process of expanding into the galaxy, comes face-to-face with an alien race of xenophobic nature called the Gbaba. Out-manoeuvred in technology and numbers, the humans are virtually wiped out and Earth is left a smouldering ruin. Basically, aliens are ethnically cleansing us. It's something which shouldn't bother us because we are pretty good at it ourselves. Anyway, a group of desperate humans manage to escape to a distant star system where they can keep their heads and down and get on with their lives on the understanding that in order to avoid attracting the Gbaba, they would have to keep technology to a low level of activity.
Thus they settle on a planet called Safehold but they can't, even in these desperate circumstances, come to an agreement amongst themselves and a terrible war breaks out between those who wish technology and others who do not. The anti-technology people gain the upper hand and the population is brainwashed into believing that they are a society equivalent perhaps to Elizabeth England of the 16th century. Strong religious belief is programmed into them and the church holds sway over virtually everything. The basic idea is that one day they will re-group and give the Gbaba a good kicking but that's put on hold for the sake of self-preservation. After eight centuries in this situation, society becomes even more regressive.
'Off Armageddon Reef' has an opening which describes the above setting in about 3% of the text. The rest concerns itself with mediaeval doings. Maybe the best way to describe it would be with a kitten that has had an act of cruelty done to it at some time. Later in life, the cat grows up and lives with this cloud hanging over it for all its years, shaping its psychology and behaviour. The humans on Safehold are like this. The threat of the Gbaba is vaguely with them but it's like the threat of hell and damnation in the Middle Ages.
Into this, Merlin is introduced. Now, who the hell is Merlin? Well, he...or perhaps she...is a sort of android put in stasis by the original technology boys on Safehold. Despite receiving a beating, these boys stashed her away out of sight so that he (let's just call Merlin a male) could be revived 800 years later to sort out the stagnation caused by the church. He is a weird sort of chap, not really human as such but recognisable as one just the same. Armed with his ideas and technology it must be said, he eventually goes to the kingdom of Charis, which is a strong sea-faring nation of independent mind, to fight off the other kingdoms of the planet steeped in the mire of religious dogma.
Perhaps it is worth mentioning that the very presence of Merlin and the technology at his command should attract the attention of the Gbaba and ensure the destruction of Safehold. However, David Weber skirts about this and gets on with writing with the main theme of the book which is that of alternate history...Baen Books stuff. Merlin is responsible for introducing new technology to the humans of Charis. It is not in the form of atomic blasters or robotic armies, it's simple things like better cannons, sails and other modifications of mediaeval weapons, maybe making them a century more advanced, enough to give them the edge over the enemy.
In essence, all but a small part of the entire book is involved in mediaeval in-fighting and warfare mainly of a nautical nature. The Gbaba did not appear and their only presence is that of a ghostly presence that sometimes interferes to modify behaviour. If you're looking for a grim fight out with the aliens then I would forget it...it just doesn't happen. In fact, the book describes the naval battles between Charis and the other countries that are governed by the church. It's like a reformation battle between the armies of the Pope and those of the breakaway states.
To be fair, David Weber is very good at describing battles and matters to do with the sea. They really come alive in this book and you soon become immersed in the tactics, the weapons and the ships of war. In his creation of Safehold, he has reformed humanity to fight again all the gruesome battles we've gone through in the past. There is no doubt he knows his stuff and you can be assured that when describing certain types of cannons, naval tactics in battles or the sails on boats the descriptions will be accurate.
The 'Safehold' series is now two books strong and another is planned for release in 2009 to take us to approximately 2000 pages of literature devoted to alternate history. If you're looking for Science Fiction in the form of aliens and battles amongst the stars then do not look here. If you're looking for complex and intriguing Science Fiction then don't look here. How long this series will go on for is anybody's guess. Seven books? Perhaps a dozen? Maybe if the Gbaba ever re-appear they will be beaten and it will probably take a only few pages of the very last novel. Basically, the Gbaba are immaterial and are only a vehicle for the creation of this new world.
Nonetheless, David Weber has a great following and the sales of his books testify to this. They are page-turners and the fans are crying out for more material as soon as a new book is published and digested. I don't think the fans of these books become immersed in theological discussions on the merits of autocratic religious societies and the freedom of scientists to do what they will. Rather, they are interested in a good story that will keep them occupied and intrigued, which will keep them excited and enthralled. David Weber delivers this is an accomplished manner. While I would not recommend this book to myself, it definitely has mass appeal and I'm sure its financial future will be secure...Safehold.
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