Off Armageddon Reef: Safehold Series Book 1, David Weber (Tor, 2007 {McMillan Audio, Narrator: Oliver Wyman})

Grade: Δ — A good enough read, but only buy it if you like the genre.

In brief:

Off Armageddon Reef by David Weber is a good enough read if you enjoy Military Science Fiction, but is likely to prove un-engaging if you do not already care for the genre. Taking its basic premise from A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, it is the tale of an android loaded with a young woman’s memories who is tasked with introducing technology into a secret space colony governed by a technophobic theocracy.

Weber has given it an overly long backstory and the text suffers from many of the complaints of MilFic in general, but also has very interesting twists and shows that as ever, Weber is anything but a simplistic author. 

Setting:

Far future where humanity is threatened by an alien society with superior technology and numbers, with the bulk of the action taking place on humanity’s last holdout: the planet of Safehaven.  Safehaven is a world where all memory of technology has been wiped out in order to ensure the aliens do not find it.

In Depth:

Off Armageddon Reef has both some of Weber’s best writing, and some of his most infuriating writing tied together in a single tale.  There is a very very long set up which, to be honest, could probably have been bypassed all together.  Indeed, I don’t even really know how far into the book it is before the actual plot begins to unfold, but it is a long way indeed. 

Once it begins, it has many enticing bits, but suffers from Weber’s tendency to tell instead of show.  There are huge sections that consist of nothing but talking heads describing and discussing issues, then formulating a plan.  These are followed by chapters discussing how the plan worked out, rather than actually showing the action as it occurs.  Furthermore, ideas are discussed and described to death rather than assuming the reader might actually remember the idea from ten pages before.  Thus, it suffers from the dread, GET ON WITH IT syndrome.

Having said that, there are also some very interesting and engaging elements of this book, and the combat scenes are very well described indeed.  Furthermore, the basic concept is quite intriguing, and well worth discussion here. 

No Spoilers I promise… well that’s not fair.  I won’t give spoilers about the actual plot, but there is an enormously overlong background bit that I will give away because one gets that idea from the jacket cover.[1]

While expanding into space, humanity discovers the existence of a race of extremely xenophobic space going aliens called the Gbaba.  The Gbaba have a tendency wipe out any other spacefaring aliens they come across, and seem to be able to detect advanced technology.  Before too long, humanity looks like it is the next casualty on the Gbaba’s list.  Except…

During the last desperate battle, humanity pulls off a daring ploy and manages to launch a hidden set of colony ships to escape to the far and beyond.  Their plan is simple, set up a colony that has no access to post-medieval technology so that they will go undetected.  They do this by wiping the memories of the settlers and creating a technophobic theocratic society designed to brutally suppress any advances in religion. Not everyone involved in this plan agrees with the way it is to be implemented, but those in power annihilate the opposition.

Unbeknownst to those in power, however, the opposition group created a fall back plan of their own.  Centuries after the colony is set up, a totally lifelike android with the memories of a talented young woman named Nimue Alban is awakened inside a secret stronghold that has a hidden cache of technology and weapons.  With this android’s technologically superior knowledge, and her nigh-on-indestructible body, Nimue is tasked with bringing down the oppressive Church of the Awakening, and reintroducing technology before the Gbaba find humanities last strong hold and wipe them out.

The premise is quite interesting, though the human ‘bad guys’ logic is so obviously flawed it is inconceivable that they could get into power.  Even so, Weber skillfully avoids many of the criticisms I have of other out-of-time type stories.[2]  For one thing, Nimue introduces many elements of superior post-medieval (though not yet industrial revolution) technology without actually making it.  That is to say, she introduces the lateen rig to ships, but doesn’t actually go about making it.  She just says how it works and the local artisans and craftsmen make it.  Similarly, she introduces diagrams and plans for better cannons and defenses, but it is up to the local gunsmiths to make them.  She shows the design of a cotton gin, but the locals develop it in a manner that is suited to native flora of the world. 

This use of local talent skillfully avoids the problems I’ve had with some books that show characters simply looking up how to build something and then building it without problem.  Indeed, it is something that always drives me nuts about many time-travel stories, very few reference books tell you how to actually BUILD a steam engine without use of modern accessories, and even fewer people know how to do it without the reference book.  But I digress.

Unfortunately, Off Armageddon Reef does still suffer from some ailments found in many MilFic stories. Most notably in this tale, the good guys are basically both Good and Right, and the bad guys (human at least… we never actually see the Gbaba) are both Bad and Wrong.  Whenever we meet someone working for the good guy King that Namue decides to support, they are good and intelligent people.  There are no stupid good guys working for the King, and no smart but skeezy people either.  I really do long to see the incredibly useful but just down right foul person working for the good guys… really really I do.

The combat, however, is really quite well described. Be it the sword fights at the start of the tale,[3] or the maritime naval battles[4] that are at the conclusion, the combat is reasonably well done and quite engaging.  Oh, the naval engagements are no Forrester or O’Brien, but they’re good fun.  Besides, I must admit that despite my own preferences, there are probably not that many people who would be interested in how the sails are rigged and what tack it taken while approaching an enemy ship sooooooo….

Added to good combat and some interesting politics, this story also answers some clear questions about the author:

  1. David Weber just really really really likes ships and naval battles.[5]
  2. David Weber really really really has a thing for hot chocolate.
  3. David Weber likes writing from the POV of strong female officers, even when they are forced to undergo a sex change. 

So, to sum up, I liked it, but the book could probably have lost a third to half of its length and been stronger for the process.  It also suffered a bit from the ubiquitous Good Guys Against Incompetence syndrome.  Even so, if you like Weber, I suspect you’d like this book.  If don’t, avoid this book as if it meant certain death.

Notes about the Audio Edition:

Oliver Wyman did a good job of narrating, letting the text do the story telling and using subtlety and skill to bring the story to life.  I found his pace a bit slow; slow enough that I could listen to it at 2x speed (which is not actually twice the normal speed) and enjoy it just as much.  Come to think of it, that might have added to my enjoyment because there were times the story dragged.

Beyond that, McMillan Audio did a good job with this book, though the music at the opening is a bit OTT.  Still, the audio quality was solid throughout and they let the story tell itself rather than spice it up with crappy sound effects.  In short, it was the kind of professional reading that I have come to expect and enjoy from McMillan Audio.


[1] Yes.  That’s right, probably a third to half of the book is summed up quite neatly in the three paragraph book description on Amazon… so why does it take hundreds of pages to get there in the story?  Because brevity is not Weber’s strong suit. 

P.S.  It’s not my strong suit either.  You may have noticed.

[2] Yes, yes I know.  This is not an out-of time story,  there is no time travel or anything vaguely like it, but this is a story about someone with superior technology going into a society with Medieval technology and giving them an advantage based on that.  It is, in a sense, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court… in space.

[3] The real tale… the very start of the story, the bit I outlined here, is filled with starships.

[4] As opposed to space naval battles… incase you were wondering.

[5] Me too!  .  Good on ya’ mate!

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About Thomas Evans

I'm a writer of mysteries, espionage, and speculative fiction. In my previous incarnation I was an archaeologist specializing in gender and identity in Iron and Bronze Age Europe. Mostly, however, I was known for my works with the use of geomatics, multiscalular spatial analysis and landscape theory within archaeology.
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4 Responses to Off Armageddon Reef: Safehold Series Book 1, David Weber (Tor, 2007 {McMillan Audio, Narrator: Oliver Wyman})

  1. This novel was actually the first I’d read by this author. While I think it better than you give it credit for, I do see your points. I saw it as an interesting bit of world bit, and yes not the best ever of the genre but not the worst by any means either.

    • Thomas Evans says:

      I certainly don’t think it was a BAD novel, and as you note, better than some, but there was a huge amount of superfluous telling rather than showing. Additionally, the good guys are all good and competent gets a bit old.

      Having said that, had this been the first of his books I had read I might have liked it better. I do seem to grant Weber more leeway on his Honor Harrington series, and this was in many ways a better book.

      • I gave him a bit of a pass on the “Good Guys without any Bad” thing because I didn’t really see any of the characters as bad– just at most misguided with good intentions.
        The idea that humans would come back against a technologically superior but culturally stultified aliens is an old notion within the realm of science fiction but Weber here seemed to me to be taking a very different approach to it for which I was willing to give him a lot of leeway.

      • Thomas Evans says:

        That’s a good point, though in this case for mr it was more the super competence and understanding of the good guys as opposed to the villainous nature of the opposing force.

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