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Out of the Dark by David Weber

My reason for buying Out of the Dark was the shorter version appearing in Warriors. I was curious to see how David Weber would develop the idea into a novel.

Sometimes, an idea makes a book inherently interesting and can lift it from boring and pedestrian to something better. This is not to say every good idea will make the book good but it will, at least, give it a fighting chance. Ah, the magic word “fighting”. As most of you will know, there’s a whole genre subculture where SF embraces the military side of life. This fascination with battles and wars has always been around with much of the myth- and saga-making investing great creativity in enhancing the end of Carthage, the fall of Troy or the defeat of Hannibal, while not forgetting the Greeks like Leonidas and Xenophon and, later heroes like Beowulf and others. Our own history lives in the glorification of major campaigns like the Crusades, or Shakespearean interest in British civil and international wars, or. . . well the list is endless, isn’t it? It’s the same when we come into this last century. I grew up on comics detailing WWII, the adventures of the Foreign Legion, etc. Then came the explosion of books, film and television series like MASH. It was only a matter of time before Heinlein’s Starship Troopers (1960) spawned an SF subgenre.

David Weber

Well, Out of the Dark fits beautifully into the alien invasion/planetary defence mode started by H G Wells in The War of the Worlds, developed in film by Earth vs The Flying Saucers (1956), with epics like the Transformers, Independence Day, et al showing Earth surviving against the odds. Following in these footsteps, David Weber can’t resist showing us how we might run the asymmetrical fight against invaders who have superior technology to cross between the stars.

The good idea is to think about the difference in culture between races that are essentially herd-based herbivores, pack-based predators and omnivores who will gnaw on a root until something better wanders into range. The basis of human development has been to turn from random chance to farming sufficient to feed a growing population. We began shepherding, fishing and planting. So, if we scale the develop of intelligence up to a planetary or interplanetary level, what would happen to cultures? Intelligent herbivores might be defensive in outlook, preferring peace and stability to enable their herds to graze in peace, whereas predator species might be looking for new challenges given a hierarchical society with the dominant Alpha males at the top and less strong fighters in submissive positions. Think Klingons. Except Weber prefers to assume a common cultural theme between herbivores and pack-based predators. Herds and less strong predators have a submissive culture. They survive and develop their own self-interest by fitting into a hierarchy. This is a rational decision to sacrifice individual freedom for the benefit of all. Hence, if an invading force appeared on the planet of a herbivore or predator culture, and demonstrated overwhelming superiority, they would become submissive and look for ways of optimising their position in the new hierarchy. Weber assumes we humans just don’t know when we’re beaten. Even though this is all seriously superficial and does not allow for the evolution of different cultural norms over the millenia, I’m nevertheless prepared to suspend all judgement as the book unfolds.

For those who prefer to read the book without knowing how Earth is saved this time, stop reading here.

I confess to being bored by all the detail of which guns were being used, their ammunition and the lists of hardware available to the different groups fighting the invaders. I understand this keeps the geeks happy, but I’m happy if whatever they use kills the critters. But there are some intriguing discussions of the logistical problems for the interstellar invaders and explanations of why they misjudge the initial decision to invade and the conduct of the emerging conflict. Frankly, I long ago tired of third party descriptions of aliens as having an effect comparable to that of a hurricane. Weber offers us a refreshing contextualisation for the invasion, explaining the first view of Earth on the 25th October, 1415 and the return of a fleet in contemporary times. The different alien races have potential for development should there be sequels. As it stands, we are given enough information about the Shongairi, the wolf-like creatures who actually invade, to understand their problems. They are slow to decide extermination is better than subjugation, but we can sympathise. They are the product of centuries of social conditioning. Given what we are told about them, the rigidity of their decision-making systems does make sense.

However, we now come to the deus ex machina solution. As a novella in Warriors, I was vastly amused by this. Chasing through a shorter version of the story, it just comes as a genre-busting joke. If you’re going to have loupy aliens, having Earth’s vampires to fight back seems quite reasonable. Our werewolves would probably not fare nearly so well. Think of it this way. Humans have long been the food animals for vampires. Like shepherds, they have ensured enough of us survive to provide food. But when the Shongairi propose to eradicate the humans, Dracula has no choice. Any good herdsman will defend his flocks. Needless to say, it’s a short sharp campaign to create enough new vampires to be able to take out all the alien bases on Earth and assume command of the fleet in orbit. Once you overcome the basic silliness — vampires vs aliens — it actually does leave more to be explored should the vampires now take the dreadnoughts back to the Shongairi worlds and, in Death Star mode, reduce them to asteroids. What was good enough for Henry V at the Battle of Agincourt, should work equally well when applied to the Shongairi.

It just about kept my interest to the end and, while it’s not the best military SF book I’ve read, it strikes me as being quite good of its type. I can understand that the purists will be outraged by this subversive use of vampires but, once you accept the idea of alien invaders, it’s hardly any more silly for humans to have supernatural farmers as allies.

Jacket artwork by the generally impressive Stephan Martiniere.

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