I complain about how divided genres have become over the years, and yet, when presented with a book that not only contains but relies upon elements of multiple genres, I have an immediate negative reaction. Well, okay, I was only super pissed off the first time I read it and had no idea what was coming, but my point still stands.
Out of the Dark by Davd Weber is science fiction. But it has other elements and I will admit that they are foreshadowed. I just didn’t even consider them the first time I read the book because they weren’t at all in line with what I expected. So that’s my fault more than the book’s.
This story, published in 2010, is a relatively straightforward alien invasion book. In fact, it could easily be made into a fairly standard action movie and I would pay money to see it. An alien race known as the Shongairi has decided that our planet would be perfect for colonization – not only is it livable, but it comes with a labor force! However, it seems they have no real understanding of just how advanced and innovative a species humans can be. Their psychology is very different from ours – we never give up, never surrender. They…do. And give us an inch and we’ll take a mile.
In Orson Scott Card’s Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus it’s theorized that the European invasion of the Americas could have been absolutely disastrous for the seafarers. Card goes into some detail about how the natives only needed to have a certain level of understanding concerning smithing and metals to be able to properly analyze the European firearms. Once that was achieved it would be easy for them to make life a living hell for the Europeans.
Weber’s scenario is fairly similar. The Shongair may be more advanced overall than humans, but the gap is small enough that it can be breached. More to the point, humans with our refusal to create a single world government have spent an inordinate amount of time developing weapons and defenses to function at the bottom of a gravity well. The Shongairi fleet may still be able to drop rocks in kinetic strikes, but if they want the planet intact they need to get down on the ground.
It’s a “feel-good” military underdog story where we get to root for humanity against the invading alien race. Sure, it’s easy to see that Weber is more informed about weaponry than most people and that he’s probably a bit to the right politically, but it doesn’t get in the way of his story or my enjoyment of said novel.
Now, Out of the Dark is originally based on a shorter work that appeared in the anthology Warriors, edited by Gardner Dozois and George R.R. Martin. In most cases where a shorter piece has been expanded into a full-length novel, I seem to find the latter first and always prefer it, this being no exception. My impression, as I recall from browsing that blog post, was that the big plot twist might have been less surprising if I read the novella first. We’ll never know, of course, but save for that possibility I find the book to be much a much better read.
THE REST OF THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!
So let’s talk about the big twist. The aliens have been getting hammered, they’ve decided it isn’t worth it to make humans into a client race and they’re about to release a bioweapon to kill us all. And the day is saved by Vlad Dracula and a (small) army of vampires.
I kid you not. This work of military science fiction has vampires. And the clues are there for anyone who’s paying attention and not averse to realizing that there are no rules keeping vampires out of sci-fi. Stephen Buchevsky (one of the four main characters) is stranded somewhere in Romania after the plane carrying him runs out of fuel. He meets up with a man calling himself Mircea Basarab who leads a small but dedicated force – all of whom are woodsman so skilled they aren’t heard and leave no trace of their passage behind. Basarab decides to make a point to the Shongairi after a battle and has his men impale the alien bodies on stakes. He even mentions that when he was younger, he would have preferred to have staked them alive.
Again, I probably only have myself to blame for the fact that the vampires thing took me by complete surprise. Mircea brings up Vlad the Impaler and Wallachia at least three times before the big reveal, and the rule of thumb is to repeat something three times if you want to make sure your audience remembers it.
This twist absolutely pissed me off the first time I encountered it. It was out of left field, it had no place in science fiction, it was a deus ex machina, etc. As I reflect on it now, it doesn’t piss me off nearly as much as The Wonder did. You may recall that was the first Book of the Month Club selection I received and I hadn’t been so infuriated by a novel since I had to read A Prayer for Owen Meany in school. I deliberately left The Wonder at my parents’ house, thinking my mom might find more to like in it than I did. Spoiler: she didn’t. I guess she was under the impression that 1. I thought she’d like it and 2. that I’d want it back when she finished. Both of those assumptions were dead wrong.
After discussing The Wonder with her, I think we’ve both come to the agreement that the book itself is not especially good. That the plot could have used more tweaking and some more clues as to where it was going. My mom’s impression is that the last chapter just grabbed the wheel and veered everything abruptly to a place that couldn’t really have been predicted. Both of us pretty much finished the book with a kind of trainwreck syndrome where we just had to see how it ended even though we weren’t enjoying ourselves at all.
In contrast, I do like reading Out of the Dark. I don’t regret the money I spent on it (and I own a hardcover copy!) and I reread it periodically. Given the subject matter and how close to home some of it still is, I think about it and refer to it fairly often as compared to other books. David Weber is a talented author, even if he’s a bit more militarily inclined than I need. In fact, all of the work I’ve enjoyed from him has been military sci-fi or fantasy. (Yes, the man writes actual fantasy too, and it’s great stuff.)
I’ll just never get over the whole “surprise! vampires!” thing.