Turns out there really is life on other planets. And they have a multi-planet, multi-species government already in place. This government sends out survey teams to keep an eye on developing species on various planets, and one of these teams decides to check out Earth. This is the set-up for ‘Out of the Dark’ by David Weber.
The plot thickens when we discover that nearly all intelligent species out there are herbivores, with the occasional reformed (only eat meat on holidays) omnivores and they’ve formed a hegemony to govern this corner of the galaxy. According to their view, carnivore and omnivore (omnivores eat both meat and plant material) civilizations are so violent they usually destroy themselves before becoming space-born. So they’re somewhat concerned by human barbarism, especially since the vegan survey team arrived in the middle ages when organized warfare is just getting seriously bloody.
The vegan aliens cook up a plan to make sure humans don’t grow up to trouble the peace of the galaxy. Turns out there is one token carnivore species called the Shongairi that did make it into space to join the ‘weed eaters’. In the interests of keeping the fox out of the hen house the powers that be cook up a plot to let the space-faring carnivores colonize Earth and use humans however they like. If the humans make trouble, well that just keeps those nasty carnivores busy. (Turns out the herbivores are right too, the Shongairi are up to all sorts of nasty business and are delighted that the humans with their gift for mayhem will be the perfect slave race.)
So then we jump forward to an invasion fleet approaching Earth. Only this isn’t middle ages Earth. It took awhile for the plan to come together, so it’s now the early twenty-first century and the Shongairi conquerors aren’t prepared to face modern human weapons. Fortunately the Shongairi are better hackers than Anonymous AND they have the capability to drop asteroids on Earth. So thanks to an Iranian cab driver with a weakness for Lady Gaga and an unsecured WiFi connect the attack begins with a near simultaneous space borne kinetic bombardment of every single military base on the planet.
This is where things slow down as Weber focuses on the guerilla war that humans are forced to wage since the bad guys control the sky. Mix in a few protagonists who lost their families thanks to the sneak attack and you have the recipe for some serious doings. Weber’s setup essentially sets up the human defenders from all over the world as terrorists fighting a superior power. And just to make sure you notice, several characters bring that up at various points. It does make for an interesting perspective to be able to read something where the good guys are terrorists. (Though if you really think about it, the heros from Star Wars Episodes 4-6 were a lot like terrorists too.) The fact that all the humans are using terrorist methods is pointedly mentioned several times, but to me it’s only a passing similarity. The main distinguishing factor between terrorism and legitimate guerilla warfare being that terrorists attack an enemy civilian population while guerilla soldiers attack military targets around a generally sympathetic civilian population. Fortunately there is no enemy civilian population since they live on another planet, so we don’t have to delve too deeply into the question of ‘justifiable terrorism’.
I just have to stop at this point and say…. this doesn’t read like the David Weber I’ve come to know and love. Weber has a tendency toward what his fans fondly refer to as an ‘info-dump’. Which is exactly what it sounds like. A huge glut of information dropped all at once during a meeting or conversation. These usually explain a bit of technology and/or the motives of various characters. While there are a couple of lovingly written gun descriptions in this book, info-dumps are largely missing this time. Probably because the human technology is pretty much what readers are used to in every-day life and there aren’t very many point of view scenes with the aliens.
That turns out to be a double edged sword. While an info-dump tends to slow things down and require some heavy thinking, they are also a way of getting to know the characters, which was a problem for me. The characters were very shallowly explored and I had trouble generating a lot of interest in their plight, which seems like a pretty odd thing to say given that they were faced with genocide. There was one group of characters I had assumed from the beginning were going to be a big part of the story because Weber spent a lot of time setting them up, but they were largely left alone. It felt a bit like back story for a sequel.
Starting the war off with a giant bombing of the entire planet had the welcome effect of largely being able to ignore the ‘world goes to hell’ part of most disaster/alien invasion novels where we see the futile fight against impending doom. Weber skipped over all that and just started when humanity was already at the bottom. The ‘world goes to hell’ portions can be entertaining, but it’s always like the origin story of any super-hero franchise. You know where it’s all going so sometimes you just want to skip ahead to the sequel and see some action.
I’m also happy to report, this particular story can stand alone and not take up time Weber could better spend dealing with Honor Harrington or the troubles on Safehold. The story was wrapped up pretty well, though there is a small teaser for follow-up volumes if he wants to go that route after finishing what he started with ‘Off Armageddon Reef’.
All told, I really enjoyed Out of the Dark. It was like distilling out Weber’s best parts. I don’t want to give away anything, but it’s safe to say the genre collisions at the end pretty much blew my mind even if there was some slight foreshadowing.