Nov 10, 2010

Yeti Review: Out of the Dark - David Weber

In A Few Words: Though it feels more like a popcorn movie than a fully developed novel, Weber's tale of alien insurgency provides a few hours of escapist fun.

1) Weber writes action well, using military detail to underscore the human propensity for destruction;
2) The aliens vs humans setup is refreshingly pulpy in an "shades of grey" media culture.
3) Prose is smooth and fast-paced, well suited for the tone of the story

1) Out of the Dark fails to live up to the potential of it's first act with some plot and pacing issues
2) The Shongari and humans are built from similar character stock, leading to character confusion;
3) The "twist" ending is telegraphed and poorly executed.

The Review: Out of the Dark is a strange title for David Weber's newest novel. While certain elements do emerge from unexpected places, their existence fails to be a revelation to anyone who has read the back cover (although I won't ruin them here). As a result, the kinetic account of humanity's resistance against an alien invasion rarely manages to surprise or innovate. However, like the your favorite popcorn movie, Out of the Dark suggests that sometimes you don't need to do anything extraordinary to still have a good time.

The curtain rises as an alien scouting expedition assesses the population of Earth circa 1066 AD. The verdict is not good for humanity - not only is Earth a planet ripe for colonization, it's exceptionally aggressive inhabitants are a danger to themselves and a potential danger to the other sentient races of the universe. But when the Shongari return with their invasion force almost a millennium later, they find that in addition to being brutally violent, humanity is also incredibly inventive. Compared to the other galactic civilizations, the denizens of Earth are progressing technologically at an unprecedented rate. But should the Shongari invade a civilization now capable of fighting back or do they let one of the most dangerous civilizations in the universe to continue to evolve unchecked? It's an interesting premise and one that is smartly setup, culminating in an attack that leaves a vast portion of humanity dead and the remainder wishing they were.

From there, the middle portion of Out of the Dark settles into a rhythm that may be best described as Independence Day as written by Tom Clancy. This is slightly disappointing as Weber's tight focus on disparate characters around the globe could have been to alien invasions what World War Z was to zombie hordes. But rather than presenting a comparably diverse set of characters, Weber uses the global reach of the American military complex to place soldiers (or equally militarized white males) into unimaginative situations. I was left wondering how the street gangs of Detroit were reacting to an invasion of their turf? Or what about a suburban soccer mom would do if her children were threatened by the wolf-like invaders? What of the men and woman of the Israeli Army? Or the citizens of Afghanistan who have known nothing but rebellion? What of the highly decentralized third world countries of Africa? The vast populations of India or China? There is so much unrealized storytelling potential. To be fair though, the tendency toward homogeneous male character stock is not a problem limited only to Weber - it is just particularly frustrating to see such a strong opportunity wasted.

While Weber's characters are mostly limited to militarized males, there is no debating that he is writing what he knows best. Weber goes into exquisite detail when describing weaponry, most likely with the intention of selling our military technology as a legitimate threat to the Shongari raiders. With an almost encyclopedic knowledge of armaments, Weber accomplishes this easily and the destructive ingenuity of the human race is a theme infused into in scene after explosive scene.

Though violent, the action conveys a pulpy innocence, creating a tone largely missing from an overly serious genre landscape. The heroes are actual heroes, the bad guys are undeniably alien, and while life on Earth definitely sucks, other homo sapiens are finally not to blame. Out of the Dark could have been a lot more but Weber isn’t trying to construct a bleak portrait of decades to come, he’s just to provide a little escapism in a world that is all to often repainted in shades of gray. Even if seems like a mismatch on the scale of Return of the Jedi sometimes it's fun to sit back and watch the Ewoks kill the Stormtroopers.

Like any good cinematic adventure, it’s important to sit back and enjoy it rather than dissecting it too much. A large portion of the book is spent developing the premise that humanity is a profoundly unpredictable culture and one capable of adaptation at an alarming rate. This is certainly true - the problem is that Weber fails to put a similar level of thought into the culture of the Shongari. They come across as cardboard creations and it's far too easy to forget who is who in the strangely Earth-like Shongari chain of command. As they fail to adapt to the humans' guerrilla methods time and time again, they quickly lose the threatening nature seized in the initial attack. This trend continues until the Shongari are all but caricatures of their original depiction. How does a species capable of travelling among the stars fall for the same tricks again and again?

It's these and other obvious questions that may ruin Weber's latest for many logic minded readers. Others may be turned off by the perverse (and thinly veiled) reflection of recent invasion/insurgencies. But despite my qualms, I couldn't help but enjoy the fast-paced novel. I will definitely be picking up the sequel, if only to see where the series goes after the frenetic conclusion. Not every book needs to be perfect to be worth reading, but a book's strengths should always outweigh its failings. Luckily for Weber, the pulpy "good vs. bad" atmosphere and high octane action contained in Out of the Dark manage to more than balance its inadequacies resulting in a popcorn novel that refuses to play in the shadows.

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