I actually read Out of the Dark by David Weber last December. While I usually try to write a review soon after reading a book, so the details are still fresh, I didn’t for this one. Since then I have not been able to stop thinking about this book, that it’s been flitting around the back of my head like a moth trapped inside a jar, and I’m hoping that finally writing this review I can excise this book once and for all.
I also wish that this was going to be a favorable review.
Out of the Dark is, from the dust-jacket blurb, an alien invasion story. Essentially, there exists out in the cosmos a federation of alien species who have banded together to explore and divvy up space for themselves. A research vessel, piloted by a peaceful, herbivore race, is doing an exploratory scan of a solar system with nine planets (I don’t care what scientists say about Pluto; it’ll always be a planet to me). They get to the third planet from the sun and are witness to one of the most brutal military massacres ever, the Battle of Agincourt. The alien race, appalled by our brutality, writes our planet off as populated by psychopaths and flies away.
Fast forward nearly six hundred years. In that time the alien races have gotten together and parceled up more space and have given authorization to the
CatDog People ( I don’t remember their name, just that they resembled cats from the description and in my mind’s eye I picture anthropomorphic catsdogs, not cats, thanks for the correction) to settle a number of planets, including a certain blue/green planet in the third spot from the sun.
The Dog People are noteworthy because they are one of two races of carnivores who, apparently, managed to make it to the stars (most carnivorous races nuke themselves back to their relative Stone Ages and never get to such an advanced state). Now, considering the fact that it took them so long to get to the stars the Dog People still expected humanity to be riding horseback and claiming leadership by divine right and are very surprised to find us harnessing nuclear energy and making our own awkward forays into space. This poses a problem; the Federation has rules where an advanced race can “help” (i.e. enslave) a less advanced race and claim the planet for their own but only if the natives are below a certain technological threshold (because if they’re above then they don’t need help anymore). While they were expecting us to be below the threshold, and thus free to waltz in and plant a flag on Earth, they found we were instead above it.
However, rules are made for herbivores and the Dog People decide that since the last thing anyone heard about Earth was murder and carnage that the Dog People could come in, level our civilization, wipe out all traces of technology that should’ve made invasion out of bounds, and no one would be the wiser. They start this off by obliterating a third to a half of the population by orbital bombardment, destroying most major population centers and military bases the world over, and then invade. There was just one small thing.
They didn’t factor in the fact that we’re human and that makes us awesome.
Now, in general, the parts about the invasion and humanity fighting back I liked. Weber writes some decent action in a way that is easy to imagine and, really, who doesn’t love a story featuring plucky human resistance fighters kicking alien canine ass? The problems with this part of the story slowly became more and more evident, especially when I found out about the novella.
You see, originally OotD, I believe, was a novella or at least that was the feeling I got. It appeared in the short form in George R. R. Martin’s Warriors anthology and the reason why I think the novella came first is how Weber made the story longer. He introduced a couple new threads and included what I consider to be a lot of filler.
For one, he adds in a bunch of scenes that really don’t do anything to advance the plot. There’re two longish scenes involving a US tank battalion in the Middle East. They make a successful attack and then are wiped out. Similarly there’s another group of tanks from Russia (I think, or some other Eastern European country) who are also wiped out. These scenes don’t push the story along, they don’t involve any of the main characters; they just felt like filler.
Then there are the technical details. Weber gets down into the minutest details of the weapons and equipment the humans use to the point where it felt like he copy and pasted technical stats from Wikipedia or manufacturer websites. Do I really need to know what the muzzle velocity of a particular kind of rifle is or the sensor suite package on a particular kind of US tank? No. These details, also, didn’t really do anything for the story except pad out the word count although someone who was really into military hardware might get more out of it.
The characters, by and large, are also an issue. It always seems like no matter what the situation is, the characters are ok (well, the main ones anyway; many of the secondary characters die), capable, and come out on top. The aliens, on the other hand, despite doing massive intelligence gathering to know where all of our military bases are (everywhere) apparently aren’t so technologically advanced to keep from getting wiped out by a bunch of hairless apes. They came expecting bows and arrows and spears and instead got missiles and sniper rifles and land mines and weren’t prepared. Which begs the question that if they were able to scout the majority of the military instillations the world over, why couldn’t they then get some intelligence on our weapon capabilities? It just doesn’t make sense.
Worst. Invaders. Ever. I mean, even the Martians from War of the Worlds kicked more ass until that pesky cold got them.
The aliens get their asses handed to them again and again. The Dog People commit more and more of their forces, putting on hold and then scrapping their plans to conquer the other planets they’ve been authorized to “help” ,in order to continue to try to subjugate Earth until finally they’ve had enough. They concoct a plan to develop a bio-weapon that will wipe out humanity and will claim the Earth once we’re all dead. There’s just one problem to the plan. They didn’t account for the vampires.
Yes, I said vampires. As in Transylvanian, turn-into-mist, red-eyed children of the night. And their leader?
No, I’m not making this up.
This is my main beef with the book. There are no hints that vampires exist at any point before they show up, not really. Yes, there is a character that is from Romania who appears to have some sway with the people but, unless I’m misremembering, he’s walking around in the sun Now, it is implied that there may have only been just one vampire, Drac himself, or it could be read that Drac’s group that he travels with are also vamps. Either way, no warning that, “Hey, we’re going to get some Bram Stoker in your sci-fi. Cool with that?” to which my answer would be “No.” Especially when you consider that vampires can turn into mist and cling to the outside of space shuttles (apparently with mist hands, I don’t know), survive the heat of passing through the atmosphere, and somehow get inside vacuum-sealed ships to slaughter crews of Dog People. The vamps turning the tide in humanity’s favor (because these are benevolent blood suckers) takes place in the last fifty (or maybe fewer) pages of the book.
They are nothing but a deus ex machina. Honestly, it feels like Weber got to the end, saw that there was no real way humanity was ever going to beat the Dog People (because eventually they were going to pull their heads out of their butts and just raze the planet) and needed a way to reverse it.
Furthermore, there are these machines which implant knowledge into people; sort of like forced speed-learning. And of course humanity is compatible with this alien technology and of course the vamps get a hold of these learning boxes and use them to learn how to fly Dog People ships and fire Dog People weapons and thus obliterate Dog People fleets.
Because, you know, alien invaders would totally put the instruction manuals for their world-destroying technology in the magic learning boxes they were going to educate their slave race with.
That just makes all kinds of sense.
All of my other issues with the book aside, the introduction of the vampires is what killed it for me. Patrick Rothfuss at a reading talked about how books are like a conversation with the reader and that in order to get the reader to buy into the idea of the story you have to manage, in some ways, their expectations. The reveal of the vampires, and their ability to overcome every obstacle in killing the Dog People, just ruined it for me; I expected plucky human resistance and instead I got Vlad the Impaler riding in to save the day.
It feels like I was having a perfectly normal conversation with someone who then started speaking in tongues in the tones of baby speech. I don’t recommend this book in any way, shape, or form.
Like the joke about the line “If it wasn’t for that horse, I wouldn’t have spent that year in college” hopefully now that I’ve gotten that out of my system my head won’t explode.