Aug 25 2009 3:28pm

Sea battles and grand emotion: David Weber's Off Armageddon Reef

Really, it’s astonishing the lengths some people will go to for a sea battle. In Off Armageddon Reef, David Weber has the indomitable alien Gbaba destroy the whole human race except for forty six starships which flee to colonise the distant planet Safehold and brainwash the colonists into settling for a life without technology that could cause the Gbaba to find humanity again. Fortunately one android with the programmed personality of a young lieutenant is left hidden with some useful gear by dissenters, to guide the colony back to the path of righteous tech and away from the stultifying false religion of Safehold—and all this in the first fifty pages.

The novel then settles down to what is familiar ground for Weber—aristocracies, politics, scheming, conflicts of duty and honour. This time he’s dealing with it at a much lower-tech level. The best part of the book deals with the introduction of new (to Safehold) technologies like milling gunpowder, trunnions on cannon and schooner-rigging galleons, and the kind of changes this makes. I have an insatiable appetite for this kind of historical technological detail, and there’s a lot of it here and it’s terrific. Also excellent is Weber’s use of grand emotion—he isn’t at all embarrassed by the kind of scene that many people wouldn’t be able to write without irony. I think that may be one of the reasons for his immense popularity—he throws his heart into scenes that many writers wouldn’t attempt, and readers respond to that. I certainly do. The whole book leads towards a huge climactic naval battle, in which the orthodox forces massively outnumber our guys, to make it fair, since our guys have much better technology and an invulnerable android who can fly and eavesdrop anywhere on the planet.

The way the planet was colonised and the fake religion set up is terrific. I mean, it’s a special case of stacking the deck, but it makes sense. One faction of the future space-navy fleeing the aliens wanted to start again and work on defeating the aliens, the other wanted to hide from them permanently and preserve the human race. You can’t help feeling them both had a point, until the “hide” faction brainwashed all the colonists into thinking the crew were archangels with orders directly from God. The bulk of the story takes place nearly nine hundred years later when a lot of history has happened and humanity has spread across the planet. One book of holy writ consists of satellite maps of the entire globe. Another explains how to treat disease, all practical and religious, no theory. The Inquisition examines any new inventions. The “archangels” wanted to keep everything static, forever. To do this, they imposed a version (or perversion) of the medieval Catholic church. It’s not surprising—or at least it’s arguably plausible—that what they got in surrounding society turned out like a version of medieval Europe, complete with dukes, earls, barons and kings. And that gives Weber a society to play with that’s like history but not specific to our history. Anything that’s the same, or different, can be explained as the way the “archangels” set it up. Given the set-up, the world is effective and realistic, with economics and logistics and communications that make sense.

I hate the names. Weber has used vowel and consonant shifts to take ordinary European names (although the original colonists came from all over Earth and her colonies) and change them just enough that you can see what they originally were. Cayleb is fine, Kahlvin is less fine, and Nahrman Baytz is unforgiveable. There are too many “aa” (Haarald) and Zhs (Zhan, Zhanayt, Zheraald), and too many “y”s altogether. I found this constantly grating and I’m sure I’d have been able to relax into my reading of the book more if they’d either been toned “down” to recognisable names or “up” to unrecognisable ones. This is made worse by the way that the placenames are all recognisable, because they were fixed in writing at the time of settlement, so you keep banging up against this kind of thing. If people really did change pronunciation, they’d keep the spelling the same, and we are reading, after all, so it should be Chahris to be consistent. I’m sensitive to this kind of thing, and I ground my teeth a lot.

I already mentioned how good Weber is on grand emotions. There are a number of set-piece scenes here that are splendid, walking the tightrope line between irony and sentimentality. At his best, Weber can be genuinely stirring. There’s a wholeheartedness to his speeches and declarations. The other thing he does well is set-up—all of the detail of fitting out the galleons and the difference between galleys and galleons and the sizes of cannon is setting up so that at the climactic battle nothing has to be explained and every detail is clear.

This story is deeply lacking in women. I noticed this more this time than I did the first time. True, the central character is a robot version of a female lieutenant—but she changes herself into a male form and is referred to as “he” throughout. Apart from Nimue/Merlin, there are brief appearances from two queens, a duchess and a whore, otherwise the cast is entirely masculine. Even the “devil” Shan-Wei (who is a character in the first section and a swear-word throughout the rest of the novel) is seen entirely through masculine eyes. In a book with as many viewpoints as this one, even in a male-dominated society like Safehold, it’s noticeable. It fails the Bechdel test even if you do count Nimue/Merlin as female.

Weber generally does about as well as it’s possible to do with the issue of having a central character be an immortal android surrounded by mortal people. Nimue/Merlin’s advantages are balanced by him being alone on a planet of people who believe what they have been told to believe. Weber lists the equipment Nimue/Merlin has, and plays fair with the capabilities. I expect some of it—the stockpiled tanks and laser rifles—will come in handy in later volumes. Off Armageddon Reef is the start of an epic, after all. Considering that, it has a surprisingly satisfying end. It’s possible Weber will write many many volumes, and there’s potential for him to do whatever he wants with the series—he can linger with the Charisians and the politics and technology of the 890s, or he can leap forward with Merlin and eventually get back to trounce the Gbaba aliens the humans fled from.

Nimue Alban is supposed to be half-Swedish and half-Welsh. I don’t know why American writers seem to think Welsh people are just like Americans, but I suppose she was born in the twenty-fourth centrury, and maybe by then the whole planet is America. Things have also changed such that it’s less unusual for Welsh people to be extremely rich, and her rich Welsh father gave her an android so she could have fun. And while “Nimue” is presently a pretty much totally unused name for Welsh girls, it is the future, and it does let Weber play with her having her robot called Merlin. And of course it’s true that all Welsh people have sparkling sapphire eyes, as anyone who knows me can testify!

I first raced through this in an advance reading copy before it was published, and I notice two more volumes, By Schism Rent Asunder and By Heresies Distressed, have come out in the three years since then. As with all Weber books there are lots of characters to keep track of, and I didn’t want to read the new volumes without re-reading the first one.

This series is closer to fantasy than the overtly science fictional Honor Harrington series, but they are both Napoleonic in their different ways. Those for whom this is a plus will find a great deal to enjoy here. It’s a lot of fun—and seeing the mechanics of how the universe has been wound up is part of what makes it fun, even if it does have me muttering that some people really will do anything to justify writing a Napoleonic sea-battle. Anything. Cool.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

Ralph Feldhake
1. feldhake
Oh, God, yes the names are annoying. It got better once I got used to mentally substituting in the "original" English names, but before that it was really hard to distinguish between "Churchman with unpronounceable name #1" and "Churchman with unpronounceable name #s 2-5"

And yes, the lack of female (or explicitly non-white, with the exception of Kau-Yung and Shan-wei) viewpoints does grate, and is disappointing from the creator of the Honor Harrington universe. I really hope Nimue addresses this whole patriarchy thing at some point as she uplifts Safehold.

Still, in my opinion this is Weber's best book. Action-packed, full of emotional intensity, and efficiently, tightly written. I eagerly await the rest of this series.
Garett Harnish
2. garett
Yes, the names are jus... wait, did you just say By Heresies Distressed is out! ...
Paul Howard
3. DrakBibliophile
I've heard that David Weber thinks that the changes to the names wasn't his best idea.
Mary Aileen Buss
4. maryaileen
The names didn't distract me quite as much in the next two, but that's damning with very faint praise indeed. Feldhake, I actually did better once I *didn't* try to substitute the "real" name.

By Heresies Distressed has been out for several weeks. It's as good as the first two.
David Dyer-Bennet
5. dd-b
Yes, names annoying.

Didn't mind the lack of important women because it seemed to me to be culturally determined, and to some extent determined by level of technology (although they should have had far lower mortality in child-birth, for example, given some very basic medical knowledge that they had).

I'm always happy to see a religion as the bad guys, especially a rigid authoritarian one, so that's certainly a plus.

This and the sequel were a lot better than some of the later Honor Harrington books, I think (the main-line ones; I think the Torch side-plot may just save that series).
Paul Howard
6. DrakBibliophile
I would like to note that Queen Sharleyan is a major viewpoint character in _By Schism Rent Asunder_ and _By Heresies Distressed_ (especially in BHD).

By the way, that 'whore' also becomes a very important character. I'd say more but my anti-spoiler collar is warning me.
Drew Shiel
7. Drew Shiel
I reckon the lack of female characters is intentional at this stage; by the end of the second book there are more, and I suspect Weber is using this as one of the benchmarks for the advancement of society.

Given the Honor Harrington books, and particularly the examination of a patriarchal culture in them, it's a subject we know he's aware of.
Ralph Feldhake
8. feldhake
even if it does have me muttering that some people really will do anything to justify writing a Napoleonic sea-battle. Anything.

It really is amusing how Weber hits all the "hottest" sci-fi topics (Nanotech? check. Uploaded consciousness? check. Post-human angst? check.) only to end up with an epic from the days of "wooden ships and iron men"--complete with "Charis expects that every man will do his duty!"

(Nimue really is shameless about stealing all the best lines in history.)
Drew Shiel
9. fgreig
Did anyone else notice the similarities of this book and the earlier Heirs of Empire (ISBN 0671877070) of the Dahak Series Webber wrote for Baen Books.

Most of this third book sees 5 characters visiting a "lost" outpost and being mistaken for angels and their holy warriors while the corrupt and false religion that runs the planet see them as devils. Again the introduction of technology by our heroes saves the day.

Not that I'm complaining, just that it seems this is a theme Webber wanted more space to explore these things - and with 700+ pages per book that is a lot of space!
Drew Shiel
10. Mike, the king nerd
I managed to avoid having to deal with the names by sticking to the audio versions.

BHD, adds Napoleonic land battles to the mix!
Drew Shiel
11. Mark Fox
>By Heresies Distressed has been out for several weeks. It's as good as the first two.

Unfortunately that can be seem as a warning. The talk to action ratio in this series is huge. I only managed to get through the third book by skimming over all the plot. I assume I didn't miss much - the fake Church is bad, I got that by the middle of book 1.
David Bilek
12. dtbilek
I also think Off Armageddon Reef was Weber's best book in some time. Unfortunately, Jo, the annoying stylistic quirks which are tolerable in the first book only grow in the later ones. You know that game with Donaldson's Thomas Covenant books where people open the book to a random page and the first person to find an instance of the word "clench" wins? You could play that with Weber and ellipsis except that you're lucky if you can find a page without an ellipsis, and are actually likely to find two or three and sometimes more. It's... annoying. There are some other quirks that have begun to grate upon me as well.

Furthermore, I think Weber lacked the courage of his convictions in two respects. One would be a spoiler for the next book so I will just say that it involves a certain priestly order and that it robbed the story of what I had anticipated to be a primary source of interesting conflict in the future.

Secondly, yes Weber makes the religion the bad guy but neither he, nor Nimuem makes the intuitively obvious leap from "this self-consistent religion which has a Holy Scripture proclaiming the word of God is a complete falsehood" to "maybe my religion which also has a Holy Scripture proclaiming the word of God (and with no more evidence in support of it) is also a complete falsehood". It's all "hey guys, your religion, god, and holy scripture is all a complete lie but don't worry I have this other holy scripture which tells me what god is actually like!".

Nimue is otherwise portrayed as a very intelligent, rational, omnicompetent so for her to not even consider the analogy to her own belief strains credulity.

And yet I own all of them in hardcover and will buy the next one in hardcover as well. Damn you, David Weber, for being such a storyteller.
Paul Howard
13. DrakBibliophile
Dtbilek, where do you get the idea that Nimue will ever say "hey guys, your religion, god, and holy scripture is all a complete lie but don't worry I have this other holy scripture which tells me what god is actually like!". I'd also point out that there is already a scene where Nimue is thinking about a time when she can open up the files in her library computer about *all* of Earth's Religions not just her Religion.

For that matter, Nimue is very worried about what will happen on Safehold when 'their only religion' which is backed up by plenty of written testimonies is shown as false including all moral teachings. We can see other religions with similar teachings. What will happen on Safehold? I doubt anybody could really predict what would happen in that sort of situation.
Jo Walton
14. bluejo
DTBilek, Drak: I was thinking something similar, which was that it's very convenient that Nimue was a Christian so she could say she believed in God and that God had a plan for everyone. If she'd been a Hindu or an atheist that scene with the Wylsyn the Inquisitor and the Holy Veridicator would have gone really differently.

I can't really imagine what would happen when they're presented with the truth behind their history and religion. Should be interesting though.
Paul Howard
15. DrakBibliophile
Yep, that would have been 'interesting' if Nimue hadn't been monotheist.

Of course, besides the fact that DW is Christian, I thought Nimue being Christian made the Safehold Church even harder for her to take than it would have been if she was not a Christian or monotheist.

I'm not sure how much harder it would have been to take if she was Hindu.

I do suspect that an atheist might not been 'hit' as hard by the fake Church but I'll admit that I might be wrong there.

On the other hand, David Weber has stated that he didn't want this series to be seen as anti-religious. Besides having religious Safeholders willing, due to their religious teachings, to fight the Group of Four, he may have wanted to have the 'outsider' relgious as well.
Jo Walton
17. bluejo
Another thought on this series: it's surprising how much like a very satisfying game of Civ it is. I mean that in a good way.
Paul Howard
18. DrakBibliophile
While I've never played Civ, I've heard enough about it that I suspect that David Weber would take your comment in a good way.

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