Published by Tor
Author Web site: www.davidweber.net
David Weber is one of the most popular authors of Science Fiction and Fantasy, best known for his Honor Harrington military science fiction mega-series. With Off Armageddon Reef, Weber launched a brand new Epic series that had been brimming in the back of his creative mind for many years. The novel and conceit is both grand in scope and human in its display of people and emotion. In many ways, this novel can be considered something of a social experiment as human civilization hits a very large reset button.
The novel begins in the 25th Century, during the twilight of human civilization on Earth. Although humanity has expanded beyond the confines of the Solar System, the alien Gbaba have nearly exterminated humanity in a galactic war that has lasted decades. In a last ditch effort to keep humanity alive, a great space Ark is constructed to transport humanity thousands of light years away to the planet that comes be known as Safehold, far beyond the reach of the Gbaba. With most of humanity eradicated by the Gbaba, only the highest ranking military leaders commandeer this mission. One of the sacrifices; however, is that in order to survive, the remaining survivors are implanted with false memories. These memories wipe away the knowledge of the Gbaba, advanced science and mathematics, bringing the level of technology to the age of sail. You see, the Gbaba are able to detect radio waves and other aspects of technological growth as civilizations approach the space faring technology and have wiped out civilizations in the past.
Like many things that start out with great intentions, the survival of the human race does not go down such an enlightened path of freedom. Initially, the plan was for humanity to bide its time and rebuild to fight the Gbaba. However, the people overseeing the implantation of the false memories, particularly a man named Eric Langhorne, took it upon themselves to become Archangels and the living voices of God. With the false memories and removal of true technological knowledge, these progenitors were able to utilize the technology of their 25th Century to be indistinguishable from magic, or the power of Gods. Not all of the military who lead the survivors to Safehold fall prey to the tease of power. Langhorne’s most prominent opponent Pei Shan-wei wishes to maintain some sort of technological archive and helps to lead a revolution. The resulting conflict is later referenced in biblical tones, with Shan-wei as the devil and Langhorne as a Christ-like patron.
All of the above occurs within the first 100 pages of this 750 page paperback novel. Clearly, Weber has big things planned for this novel, and this epic series. The story then jumps 800 years as society has come to know that God created them and placed them on Safehold 800 years ago. The story is joined at this 800 years later juncture as Shan-wei’s counter-plan takes form – he implanted the memories, perhaps even the soul, of one of his people (a young woman named Nimue) into a program that would awaken to help return humanity’s freedom of thought and knowledge of the past to the people of Safehold. As the personality of Nimue slowly reawakens and comes to learn about human history on Safehold over the prior 800 years, she realizes that because of the theocracy that has been established, her best bet at fitting in and having an effect on the people is to be a man, so she adopts the name Merlin.
Meanwhile, the humans on Safehold have spread out into different kingdoms all with loyalty to the Church of God Awakening, whose savior is the Archangel Langhorne. Merlin makes himself known to prince Cayleb, whose father King Haarald of Charis. Merlin is an interesting character and Weber does not fall into the easy trap of making Merlin a flawless god-like character.
While the setting is several light-years away and in the far future, Weber places the technological level of Safehold at the age of sail. This evokes the feel of a fantasy novel, though the intermittent reminders from Merlin about his (or her) true nature serve as a nice reminder of the truth of the situation. It is a nice dichotomy illustrating the conflicts of King Haarald’s conflicts on a national level against the potential conflict on a human racial level.
The novel is thick and Weber tends to relay the history of the characters and society in large chunks. If the storytelling wasn’t so compelling, one might call these large chunks infodumps, but since I enjoyed them so much, I just call them compelling narrative.
Although the external threat of the Gbaba is the impetus for humanity fleeing Earth, it is when they have firmly established themselves on Safehold that interesting themes really come to the fore. Religion is one of the strongest and Weber poses an intriguing thought – what if an accepted God is just a false deity imposed upon society by people with far superior technology. In some ways, a good chunk of the story can be considered just that, as well as the ramifications of that over the course of many years. I don’t think there’s a definitive answer, but the possibility that religion and faith can powerful tools be in controlling a society. Tangentially, fear and power can drive people to go beyond the limits they set for themselves, or society sets for them, once the first sips of power are consumed.
Off Armageddon Reef is a fantastic read, utterly compelling and a great opening novel to a larger saga. It balances epic and human and is a nice fusion of genres as it is an Epic Fantasy couched in a Science Fictional conceit. The novel ends with a nice sense of closure, but knowing what is floating in the background serves to raise tension and build anticipation for the story to continue in By Schism Rent Asunder. David Weber just might have another new fan.
© 2011 Rob H. Bedford