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Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Out of the Dark (audiobook) by David Weber

 A near-great but flawed epic story

Read by Charles Keating
17 hours
Macmillan Audio

Ultra-prolific author David Weber visits familiar territory in this audiobook. Weber is a master of the military-based science fiction story and Out of the Dark delivers Weber’s expertise and interest in weapons, weapons systems and military organization in spades in this near-great but flawed epic story that, according to Publishers Weekly, is actually the first book in a trilogy.

The novel Out of the Dark is based on a short story of the same name that Weber published in 2010. The story begins with an alien survey of Earth (called KU-197-20) in the year 1415. The aliens are part of a multi-species alliance called the Galactic Hegemony. The aliens are exploring and documenting all habitable planets and rate all inhabited planets on a technology scale.

David Weber
They find the Earth of 1415 backward technologically but decide to watch some military action in Europe. What they witness is the Battle of Agincourt between Henry V’s England and France – some of the fiercest fighting of the Hundred Years War and the site of horrific slaughter, including the killing of hundreds of French prisoners and wounded after the battle. The aliens that witness this slaughter are horrified. The member races of the Galactic Hegemony are almost all herbivores and they cannot understand the raw violence of humans and assume that humans will wipe themselves out as soon as they develop greater technology.

But, there is one carnivorous member of the Hegemony – the Shongairi a race that might best be described as dog people. The other members of the Hegemony fear the Shongairi and decide to recommend that the Shongairi colonize KU-197-20, figuring that the warlike humans and the Shongairi will keep one another occupied for a while.

By the time the Shongairi arrive nearly 600 years have passed and humans have advanced their technology at a breathtaking pace by the standards of the Hegemony. The Shongairi realize that humans and Earth are technically not eligible for colonization anymore – they are too far advanced and should be sealed from Hegemony contact until humans start interstellar travel or destroy themselves in a nuclear war, either way it’s not Hegemony business. The Shongairi decide that the rate of human technological growth indicates that humanity would be a great “client race” for the Shongair Empire and they hop to harness some of that human creativity for their own ends and an invasion of earth starts by annihilation of the capitol of every country with a Kinetic Energy Weapon or, in layman’s terms, by dropping asteroids on them. Half of humankind dies in one day.

The strong parts of Out of the Dark lie in describing the equipment, weapons and strategies of both the humans and the Shongairi. Everything fits and makes sense, especially when the Shongairi start to have problems conquering earth. In Shongairi culture, a culture based on pack animal psychology, humans should submit because the Shongairi have demonstrated they are the superior race, much like other dogs submit to the alpha dog in a pack. They do not understand why humans continue to fight with improvised explosive devices, with suicide attacks and with small arms  - they are particularly irritated that in the United States there are so many weapons and so many people know how to use them.  In fact, human psychology is a complete mystery to the Shongairi – they cannot fathom that mothers would die to save their children and grief-stricken fathers would fight to the death to avenge their families.

To make it all the worse, the Shongairi military is simply not prepared to fight such a technologically advanced foe – they usually fight Stone Age level villagers. Their tanks are not designed to ward off Russian tank rounds. Their body army will stop swords, but not the high-powered rifles of American hunters. Even worse for the Shongairi, they awaken an ancient power while fighting in the wilds of Romania…

At the beginning of this review I called Out of the Dark a near-great but flawed epic story. All of the elements are there to make this an end of the world classic like Stephen King’s The Stand. Instead, the very elements that make the story viable and interesting – the attention to the detail of the weaponry, the motivations of both species, the way they adapt to each other’s strategies, the battle scenes – they all get buried in the detail. There is simply too much of it. We are privy to too many meetings of the Shongairi high command. There is simply way too much detail about the rifles, pistols, IEDs, tanks and other weapons of the human resistance. I am no shrinking violet when it comes to guns, but the constant descriptions of the grains in every bullet, the weights of the various weapons and their relative strengths and weaknesses did more than just approach the level of a gun fetish. Long, clunky conversations that transmit lots of information to the reader but could have been expressed better by an omniscient narrator. The North Carolina family is so self-sufficient and proficient with firearms that they could have been taken straight from a bad historical fiction novel about the pioneers. The book can be read as a how-to guide to building your own bunker and with overly long detailed descriptions of how to create a steady water supply and what food to stock.

But, despite the flaws, it still worked for me. Could it have been better? Yes. But, it was a great ride nonetheless. When American fighter pilots strike down Shongairi landing ships on the first day of the invasion I found myself actually pumping my fist a bit when those ships were shot out of the sky and the planes somehow managed to escape. I was proud of our confusing human psychology that allowed humans to continue to fight. I bought in to the story and, in the end, that’s what is all about.

Charles Keating read the audiobook and he did a great job of creating multiple distinct voices for the characters. His interesting accent worked especially well with the Shongairi characters and undoubtedly made the book a better experience.

I rate this audiobook 4 stars out of 5.

Reviewed on June 24, 2011.

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