Off Armageddon Reef by David Weber
Review Summary: Off Armageddon Reef is a good read, with an interesting premise, a strong ending, and Weber’s characteristic enthusiasm for technical innovation and military tactics.
Off Armageddon Reef is a good read, with an interesting premise, a strong ending, and Weber’s characteristic enthusiasm for technical innovation and military tactics. It is not a great novel, however. While the author has a number of strengths, his proven skills in the shorter military sci-fi novel format need to be developed further for a larger novel such as he is tackling in Off Armageddon Reef. To satisfactorily complete the epic series he is undertaking with this lead-off novel, he will need to work hard to meet the challenge he has set himself.
One of Weber’s strengths is that he can deftly sketch a character in very few words, so that you know and recognize the character, and can then move on with the story or tactics of the battle without having to come to know that character in any greater depth. This works particularly well for minor characters and lower-ranking officers who play a part in the overall battles, but whom you really don’t need to know all that well, and this skill served Weber very well in his collaborative novels with Steven White, particularly Crusade and Insurrection.
This technique doesn’t apply as well to recurring main characters over the span of a 600-page novel. In particular, I had a difficult time identifying with the primary character, Merlin Athrawes. Not enough time is spent discussing his motivations, previous life experiences, and general “philosophy” – all things that can be forgiven in a 250-page book, but in a larger undertaking I prefer to care about the main characters, and really too little of Merlin’s humanity comes through in the work for that to occur. This is particularly a loss since the character concept is so potentially rich in depth and scope.
Antagonists are another weak point in this novel. While I agree with Weber’s overall portrayal of “bad guys” as essentially power-hungry, greedy, and/or short-sighted human beings, in a 600-page novel he again needs to develop even the bad guys in more depth. Shallow characters, while providing useful foils for the protagonists, aren’t necessarily going to enrapt everyone and keep the reader’s attention. Strictly greedy and/or inept people have obvious fatal flaws and weak points which provide little challenge to most heroes – truly difficult moral and political challenges will only come from attempting to overcome a complex antagonist who exhibits flexibility, rationality, and a mix of both good and bad traits. Currently, Weber doesn’t seem to be interested in further developing (or possibly redeeming, through some sort of moral realization a la Insurrection or anti-hero storyline) any of the antagonists of Off Armageddon Reef into anything other than useful excuses for the plot to exist and proceed.
The plot itself is fine, with an interesting premise. The idea that humanity, now established in colonies across several star systems, is barely able to escape genocide at the hands of another alien race, and must flee to set up a new low-tech colony in hiding is handled very originally, if briefly. The idea that social constructs must be put in place to keep humanity’s technological signature on this colony world – which the alien race is somehow capable of detecting and tracking – is also fascinating, and Weber has obviously put some careful thought into how those social constructs might be enacted, even to the point of reintroducing Roman numerals rather than the Arabic notation we take for granted today.
The use of an artificial religious orthodoxy as a method of enforcing the low tech level of the colony, although central to the novel, almost seems to be glossed over by Weber, and I think much more could be developed from it. Although the reader can understand Athrawes’ revulsion on finding some of his friends and associates branded as heretics and “fallen” archangels by the orthodoxy, more time spent with these original characters might have enabled the reader to feel an even greater sympathy for them, and also allowed the readers to identify more closely with Athrawes. As it is, however, Athrawes’s disgust with the Church of God Awaiting almost seems disproportional, and irrational, given the stabilizing force it has proven to be in the colony world.
It isn’t until a third of the way through the novel that the author offers a deeper reason for Athrawes’s hatred. In almost the only “real” statement of the novel, Athrawes contemplates how he is truly the last Christian alive – and the last Muslim, the last Jew, the last Buddhist, Hindu, Shintoist – since no other human alive even knows those religions existed. Until this point, the reader was left only with the idea that the main character is vehemently, rabidly against organized religion per se, when the more interesting truth of the matter is that part of his revulsion stems from the fact that he does actually consider himself to be at least somewhat religious. There is a seed for some very good discussion in this idea, and I hope the author explores this further in his next installment, since little was made of it in the first novel – and the resolution of this idea could make much more of a statement than Weber will otherwise be capable of working strictly within the bounds of an action adventure.
I know I’ve spent a lot of time criticizing the novel, but it really is a pretty good read – the mix of high and low tech I think brands it more as “speculative fiction” rather than “science fiction”, but I really did enjoyed that aspect of the book. Weber put quite a bit of thought into how his technologically-stilted society would function, and how to unravel it, and that thoughtfulness shows. There are some potentially very strong ideas here which could lead into a very powerful and excellent series, but only if the author can bring much more depth to his characters and the struggles they face.