David Weber. Out of the Dark (TOR 2010).
Weber is the ‘bestselling author of the Honor Harrington novels,’ works of military SF, a sub-genre I’ve stayed away from, & this novel lets me know it’s the right decision for me. Although he has perhaps created a new sub-sub-genre here: military SF/thriller + horror/vampire tale. Out of the Dark owes a lot to Robert Heinlein’s SF military thrillers, but what worked for Heinlein in the 50s & 60s feels a little dated to me now. At any rate, the novel is either based on the novella of the same title in Warriors or that novella was edited down out of the novel. Either way, the novella is the better, sharper work. And the why of that is what interests me.
The Shongai are the strongest & most warlike species in the Galactic Hegemony, & they have plans. A large fleet has gained permission to travel to 3 star systems & colonize the planets there. About six centuries after a probe by one of the more peaceful Hegemony species observed Henry V’s bloody victory over the French at Agincourt, & recoiled with horror at the violence of it, they arrive in orbit above the Earth. And are surprised to discover that humans have progressed technologically far faster than any species in the history of the Hegemony. They decide to colonize the planet anyway. And, of course, for a story such as this, that turns out to be a big mistake.
The novella concentrates on the major story of alien invasion & the attempts of one US marine, Stephen Buchevsky, trapped in Romania to fight a guerrilla war against them (after they have thoroughly ‘defeated’ the Earth from space). He meets the person who becomes the leader of their little guerrilla band, & who, when driven to it by the invader’s eventual decision to create a plague to wipe out the half of humanity still alive, remembers he is Drakula, to the everlasting sorrow of the Shongai. This story remains the core of the novel, but Weber expands his narrative to include other guerrilla groups in Ukraine &, of course, the US, where his heroes stand as a massive advertisement for the NRA. His writing may cause military thriller readers to slaver, especially with all the detailed descriptions of weapons (& their acronyms) & their precise firepower, but it is also awfully clichéd in these sections. The USA, of course, proves to be the most difficult part of the Earth to conquer, not east because there are more guns than people there & some of the heroes there are definitely survivalist types. I found the extensive descriptions of armor & weapons soon got in the way of the story (although I understand that fans of Tom Clancy thrillers will love it), & a lot of the characters’ dialogue & thinking veer into the overly banal & sentimentalized.
The marines & other military types, including a Ukrainian & his mostly Russian followers, are aware of the irony that they are now ‘terrorists’ or guerrilla militia (take your pick) just like those they fought in Afghanistan, & that’s an interesting little notion. As well, Weber proposes an interesting cultural difference between the Shongai, who are themselves unlike most of the rest of the Hegemony species, & humanity. They are a pack-oriented culture who find the humans’ resistance not only foolish but dishonorable, because they don’t understand (as Weber argues herein) that humans’ first loyalty is to their families & so they will fight on for them, even if they have been killed.
The best parts of Out of the Dark are what make up the faster, cleaner, & therefore more powerful novella; that’s the combined narrative of the invasion as the Shongai experience it & the story of how Buchevsky & ‘Basarab’ (Vlad Dracula) come to fight together & eventually take the battle to the Shongai’s interstellar battle cruisers. All that Weber adds in the novel is pretty well implied in the novella. And the stylistic difficulties I mention above do not intrude so much on this reader’s attention in the shorter work. In the end Out of the Dark is a pretty entertaining variation of the alien invasion trope, but it packs the hardest punch in the smaller package.