Every Wednesday we sit down and you get to hear about something that I think is cool. Usually, it’s a book or series of books because, hey, I’m a writer and books are what I do. Sometimes it’s movies or theater but a lot of my cool things are books or their distant cousins, graphic narratives (which is like a graphic novel except it applies to things that are not novels as well as thing s that are.) While reading good stories is great for a writer we can’t read good stuff all the time. Bad stuff is going to sneak in sooner or later, it’s a statistical inevitability. Normally when I encounter something bad I just don’t talk about it.
There’s a lot a writer can learn from writing we find bad, but only if we take the time to dig into it and seriously ask ourselves what we don’t like about it. Let’s walk through that process today by looking at the novel Out of the Dark by David Weber – but before I start I want to warn you that
—->There Will Be Spoilers<—-
so if you’d rather not read them stop now. Normally I wouldn’t include spoilers but it’s impossible to really discuss what I felt was most disappointing about this book without them.
My disappointment with this book actually begins before I picked it up. David Weber writes a military scifi series known as the Honor Harrington books that focus on a female starship commander in a space operaesque setting. (I haven’t covered military scifi in Genrely Speaking yet, but it’s coming. For now, think of it as space combat with carefully analyzed tactics.) I’ve had Honorverse books recommended to me a couple of times before but I’ve avoided the series simply because it’s so large – thirteen novels in the main storyline, not counting spinoffs which add another sixteen published works to the universe. But I’ve been told it’s good.
So when I saw the name David Weber on a stand alone novel I had high hopes, since the overanalysis that goes into military scifi is fun from time to time. And to be fair, Out of the Dark did deliver, to an extent. At it’s core Out of the Dark is an alien invasion tale, where a race of overlarge doglike aliens invade for the purpose of stealing all of earth’s heavy metals and enslaving it’s people. They make a lot of miscalculations in building their strategy, some because of general genre blindness, some because of cultural unfamiliarity and some just because hey, invading a planet is a big logistical undertaking.
One of the best ideas Weber plays around with is that humanity is advancing much faster than the aliens are used to seeing. While only one race invades Earth, they represent a much larger group of aliens called the Hegemony. The Hegemony fist scouted Earth during the Battle of Agincourt (literally, the scouts took a lot of footage of the battle but apparently never did a solid analysis of what it might mean about humans both tactically and in general disposition) and show up in the modern day expecting a much lower level of technology to deal with. Drawing on their collective history the invaders determine humanity has been advancing several times faster than they would normally expect. The invaders have come with an invasion group equipped to suppress a civilization tinkering with steam engines, not one putting satellites in orbit.
The unexpected tech level, cultural and historical differences all result in the aliens loosing several rounds early and their invasion getting off to a slow start, but the promise of a race that could put them ahead of their neighbors on the technology curve is very tempting. But ultimately human resistance goes on much longer than the aliens expect. Even with all the major human cities bombed out of existence guerilla groups continue to harass the invaders and take a terrible toll. Eventually the alien commander decides to bioengineer a virus to wipe humanity out, deeming subjugating them to be too costly.
Now so far the book is decent but not exceptional. David Weber is a popular military scifi writer for a reason and he does a great job setting up believable exchanges between scattered human irregulars and semi competent alien invaders. (And again, to be fair to the invaders, competently invading a planet inhabited by creatures you haven’t studied much is pretty much impossible. Or at least it would seem so.) The characters aren’t compelling but the tactics and ideas are fun and I was legitimately wondering how he was going to dig humanity out of the hole it was in. After all, with most of it’s population centers gone there would be no facilities to try and create a vaccine for the alien’s virus.
Pretty much the only option would be to destroy the lab making the virus before it was deployed, a great opportunity for more scheming and great tactics, ploys and moments of breathtaking personal sacrifice, the stuff that is the bread and butter of the typical military history (and thus, military scifi.) At least, that seemed like the only option to me. It turns out Weber had another one in mind.
Vampires come out of hiding among normal humans and wipe out the invaders.
I never finished Out of the Dark, in fact this “plot twist” (coughdeusexmachingacough) actually made me so mad I closed the book, put it face down on my desk and didn’t touch it again except to take it back to the library. It really felt, to me, like Weber had written himself into a corner and just made something up to get himself out of it.
To be totally fair Weber does provide a little foreshadowing for this twist but even the idea of vampires isn’t introduced until the last third of the book. It feels tacked on. And I feel, as a writer, that it’s really the only thing wrong with Out of the Dark. It could be a great military scifi/alien invasion story if it just didn’t cheat. Worse, by using vampires – and not something like the traditional folktale vampires but the uberpower vampires of modern myth – it feels a lot like deliberate pandering to a new audience, as if Weber was making a play for the Twilight crowd.
My deep disappointment with the book, so deep that I did something I rarely do and quit reading it before the end, stems from three things. First, I went in with high expectations. There’s not much that I, as a writer, can learn from that other than beware overhyping yourself. But it’s still worth noting that I expected something I didn’t exactly get, namely a book that was military scifi to the core.
The second thing was the lack of consistency. Vampires and aliens from outer space? Yeah, you could put them in the same book. I get it. We actually have more evidence supporting the existence of vampiresque creatures than aliens. There are stories of bloodsuckers in pretty much every cultural tradition in the world, dating back thousands of years, while stories about aliens are rare and recent. (Let’s not go into ancient alien astronauts, m’kay?) But military scifi often leans very heavily towards the hard end of the scale of scifi hardness, trying to stay away from too much phlebotinum. Vampires, on the other hand, are pretty much made of the stuff.
Weber tried to take two incredibly disparate things – hard, well analyzed tactical military scifi and vampires-as-superheroes – and mash them together. If he had put as much work into that as he obviously did in all the human vs. alien encounters in the book it might even have worked. But it really feels like he was just hoping the rule of cool would make it work. And it doesn’t.
The third thing was he didn’t set up his biggest plot point enough. I said it before and I’ll say it again, we don’t see any hints of vampire activity until we’re approaching the climax of the book. That’s just too late to introduce the thing your entire story basically hinges on. In fact, if it doesn’t come up until then it’s probably not what your story is about and you should save it for another story entirely. There’s nothing wrong with that. It should have happened in Out of the Dark but it didn’t.
In short, I think that David Weber had a potentially workable story idea. But I think he put it in the genre he was comfortable with, not the genre it actually wanted to be, and it wound up being a worse story for it. Definitely a pitfall all writers should look out for.