Out of the Dark, David Weber's new tale of alien invasion and human resistance, is a lot of fun, but it's no instant classic.
When we meet our protagonists—firearms instructor Dave Dvorak and Master Sergeant Stephen Buchevsky—they're going about their lives, minding their own business. And then the Shongairi show up, blow half the world's cities off the map, and demand the human population submit immediately. They're aggressive, predatory, and wholly devoted to expanding their reach by enslaving various client races. And the people of Earth are next on their list.
As you might expect, the United States military begs to differ. Buchevsky crash-lands in Eastern Europe and takes up with a local leader; Dvorak's mountain hideaway becomes a clearing house for the regional resistance. Various other military men and women scattered across the world do their worst against the Shongairi, and it's far more effective that you might expect because the aliens came woefully under-prepared. Humans quickly catch on to the aliens' lack of foresight and start attacking conveys and troop transports and forward operating bases all over the world.
In fact, you'll probably recognize the circumstances, because they're awfully familiar to recent experiences by the US military. At one point, Dvorak even thinks to himself:
"Was it possible the aliens—the Shongairi—were in an analogous situation? The problem in more recent US experience had been getting too caught up in advanced, heavy combat capabilities. They'd been slow to appreciate the realities of "asymmetric warfare," in no small part because of their duty to plan for worst-case scenarios."
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The parallels to the Iraq War offer some rich thematic material for an alien invasion story. But the comparison stops with the improvised explosive devices. Weber doesn't take the analogy to the next level. There's nothing like the Sunni/Shia conflict erupting.
In fact, we only see one story: Former military personnel—by and large Americans—seem to be the only people fighting back, and every other population on Earth just fades into the background. Military science fiction is, of course, Weber's bread and butter, and his depictions of military thinking and hardware and slang are all on-point and exciting to read. But this is a story that could have used a lot more civilian action, because there's no way civilians wouldn't be involved in fighting against alien invaders. There's a fantastic moment in the movie Casablanca, when Rick tells a visiting Nazi, "There are certain parts of New York, Major, that I wouldn't advise you to try to invade." And he wasn't talking about neighborhoods with a strong military presence, either. It doesn't take a former marine to mix up a molotov cocktail.
One missed opportunity is especially frustrating. Dave Dvorak and the other North Carolinian characters often talk about the governor, who is allegedly "cooperating" with the Shongairi. In fact, he and his entire state government are thwarting the puppies' aims at every turn. He could easily have been another of the POV characters, and his presence would have added much-needed variety to the story. Besides, how awesome would it be to watch an army of state politicos sabotage the puppies in inventive bureaucratic ways? Even aliens are no match for the Kafkaesque nightmare that is the local DMV. Viva la resistance!
To be fair, though, the only non-military character is thoroughly awesome. That's Mircea Basarab, the mysterious Romanian who enlists Buchevsky into his band of warriors protecting the local population. He's a bit of a creeper, sneaking up on Stephen and asking whether their carefully-planned ambush is "really a good idea." He's oddly aristocratic, his teeth glitter in the dark, he's utterly silent, and while he's reformed himself into a shepherd of the people of Wallachia, he's still a stone-cold killer. You know where this is going: Mircea is actually Vlad the Vampire. This could have been cheesetastic, but Weber's smart enough to give him a sense of humor. At one point, they hear wolves in the night and Mircea actually looks over at Stephen and says: "Oh the children of the night, what music they make!"
And the book is never, ever boring. The plot rockets along at warp speed for 380 pages, and it's hard to believe there's not another 500 pages of action waiting. One minute we're meeting all the characters, and just a few pages later the aliens have invaded, and then all of a sudden there's a resistance movement coalescing, then the aliens get serious about crushing the resistance, and then, and then... There's always another gunfight or ambush or explosion around the corner. It's not exaggerating to say this book is basically non-stop action.
But if Out of the Dark is fast-paced, it's also never quiet or particularly introspective. Given that we're supposed to be invested in these characters and their fight against would-be oppressors, this is a big problem. They often seem to be merely reacting. Buchevsky's a fighting man, so when the aliens show up, he fights them. But his children were killed in the initial bombardment, and it's just not dealt with in a serious way. He gets mad, and he kills some aliens—but he would have done that anyway. His grief doesn't really affect his actions and therefore feels oddly perfunctory. Out of the Dark is fun, but one good emotional scene could have elevated it to memorable.
Nevertheless, Weber has clearly set himself up for a sequel. Out of the Dark introduced the protagonists and laid out the world; hopefully, further books will deepen the characterization started here.