Off Armageddon Reef
by David Weber

Review by
William H. Stoddard
Tor: New York; 2007
608 pages April 2007

An Age of Sail beginning

David Weber is best known for his Honor Harrington series, military science fiction that intentionally recreates both the historical situation of Napoleonic era naval warfare and the traditions of the British navy. Now, in Off Armageddon Reef, he presents actual naval warfare on another world, Safehold — and re-creates those traditions even more closely. His setting is a technologically regressive society, deliberately set up by its founders to operate at a medieval level, and dominated by a religion that forbids innovation. As a result, his naval technology is comparable to that of the very beginning of the Age of Sail, the era of Lepanto (the last great battle between oared galleys) and the Spanish Armada (one of the first great battles between full-rigged sailing ships).

In fact, this technological retrogression is the underlying focus of the novel's primary conflict. One of the nations of his invented world — a seafaring island nation, remote from the central religious hierarchy and mistrusted by it — starts pushing at the edges of permitted technological advances. A lone survivor of the technologically advanced past, hoping to break the grip of the world church, offers its rulers his aid. The changes that result both speed up its advances and make it the target of a global war. Off Armageddon Reef only shows the opening phases of that war, and leaves the underlying conflict unresolved; clearly Weber intends this to be the start of another long series.

Religion, for and against innovation

The theme isn't a new one to science fiction, of course; it's appeared in novels from Anthem to Lord of Light to Singularity Sky. It's easy for us to favor Weber's heroes. Weber seems to believe in English exceptionalism, the idea of the English-speaking nations as distinctively favorable to freedom and progress. His nation of Charis is a very close re-creation of England, and its naval traditions are almost exactly those of the British age of sail; close enough in both cases to be something of an obstacle to suspension of disbelief, though Weber takes some care to re-create the geographical and cultural factors that made England distinctive.

Note the choice of the name "Charis", from the Greek word for grace (the root of the English charisma): Weber is setting this up as a conflict between two different understandings of religion, one that turns its back on scientific truth and technological advance, and one that embraces them as one of God's revelations, and making it clear which view he favors — a theme with obvious applicability to our own world.

Intrigue, and naval battles

Mainly, though, Off Armageddon Reef is an action / adventure novel, without many subtleties of theme or characterization. The reader's attention is focused on the political and religious intrigues that lead up to the war on Charis, and on the naval battles that work it out. The viewpoint character is, in effect, a superhero, with an extraordinary origin story and superhuman powers, operating in secret under a false name — and, like proto-superheroes such as Zorro and the Scarlet Pimpernel, fighting not against street crime or megalomaniacal villains, but against an oppressive political regime, both with fighting skills like those of the heroes of Hong Kong martial arts films, and with subtle, mainly informational advanced technology. But Weber carefully limits this character's freedom to act, giving the human characters something meaningful to do in the story.

At times his plot seems a little predictable — it's possible to see some of its developments coming — but the machine works: the climactic scenes are still compelling reading. Similarly, though it's possible to foresee plot developments of future novels in the Safehold series, such as the relationship between Charis and the neighboring country of Chisholm, and between their respective rulers, it seems likely that they'll be entertaining.

Drama versus melodrama

Ayn Rand made a distinction [in The Art of Fiction] between melodrama, in which the conflict is between one person's values and another's, and drama, in which characters experience inner conflict among their own values; in those terms, Off Armageddon Reef is almost entirely melodrama. It has both David Weber's typical weaknesses — a contrived setting that's too close a fit to its historical prototype to be quite believable, and a protagonist with superfluous distinctive traits (in this case, the viewpoint character's anomalous gender) that don't advance the plot and that aren't explored in depth — and his typical strengths, the ability to write an action novel that never loses narrative momentum, and to evoke the naval traditions its author clearly loves. One might wonder why Weber doesn't write actual historical fiction, instead of historical fiction in outer space; on the other hand, his invented setting frees him from fussy concern with exact details of chronology and character, and allows him to shape the plot freely to his theme.

On the other hand, I have to note an astonishing slip, in a short passage about oared warships in Earth's history (p. 328 of the novel), that casts doubt on Weber's qualifications as a naval historian: He seems to have confused Xerxes with Xenophon. Checking this would have taken less than a minute online, and either Weber or his publisher ought to have made sure it was right!

Weber clearly aims to entertain readers, and he succeeds. Off Armageddon Reef isn't overburdened with theme, but it has enough to give direction to its story, and to point the way to sequels; and while it's not specifically libertarian, it's a theme that such readers will find sympathetic.


© 2007 William H. Stoddard

First published in Prometheus, Summer 2007
Libertarian Futurist Society (LFS)

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