Sep 202010

I recently read Empire From The Ashes, an omnibus edition of the three novels of the so-called “Dahak Trilogy” by David Weber: Mutineer’s Moon, The Armageddon Inheritance, and Heirs of Empire. I had read several other of Weber’s works, including most of his Honor Harrington novels and 1633. A reader had suggested these books to me, as an example of science fiction that “got the science right.”

The story begins 50,000 years in our own past, with the human captain of the Imperium starship Dahak in the midst of a mutiny. Realizing he can’t fend off the mutineers, he orders the advanced computer running the ship to give a countdown, then release deadly radiation into the ship, forcing all the mutineers off the ship — and killing himself in the process. He also orders the computer to destroy any mutineers trying to return to the ship before his loyal crew members restore control.

His plan removes everyone from the ship, but the mutineers have sabotaged Dahak and left it too helpless to retrieve the loyal crew members’ lifeboats, but with automated systems that will destroy the mutineers’ warships if they come close. So the mutineers and other crew members descend to a nearby planet named Earth where they populate the planet. With the aid of “stasis fields” and bio-enhanced longevity, they mostly sleep through a 50,000-year stalemate. Dahak rebuilds itself, but is stuck between its captain’s last command to suppress the mutiny and the prerogative not to destroy half the Earth while doing so.

Fast-forward 50,000 years, and humanity’s recent forays to the moon — did we mention that Dahak is a “planetoid,” a stupendously colossal starship somehow posing as Earth’s moon for all these millennia? — enable Dahak to capture Colin MacIntyre, an astronaut and descendant of Dahak’s loyalists from so many years ago. Thus begins the battle between Dahak (commanded now by Colin) and the mutineers.

The first book chronicles the fight against the mutineers; the second follows humanity’s attempts to contact the remainder of the Imperium and fight off the advances of a hostile alien race; the third book details a madman trying to take over the new government.

I really enjoyed the first two books. While I found the premise a little implausible (our moon is actually a giant, camouflaged, unimaginably powerful, semi-sentient starship waiting 50,000 years to suppress a long-dead mutiny?), there was plenty of action and I enjoyed some of the philosophical questions a semi-sentient computer posed. In fact, as the book went on, Dahak quickly progressed to full sentience, to the point where it could think on its own, make decisions, philosophize, and tell the difference between right and wrong (even if it did lack a bit in human intuition). It even learns to feel emotions, and becomes one of the main characters in the story.

The second book was probably my favorite — it focuses much more on space combat and the threat of a destructive alien race. The characters from the first book grow and take on positions of power in the new unified Earth government that must race to catch up to the “Imperial” technology of Dahak before the aliens arrive in a couple of years. It’s a story of combat and strategy and individual bravery, with the survival of Earth at stake. There is plenty of tension and a surprise twist at the end.

The third book, unfortunately, fell apart a bit for me. First of all, the conflict is wholly internal, and the thought of so much mayhem and death being sown by one crazy human just doesn’t appeal to me as much as the idea of a threat from a warlike alien species. Also, I knew with 100% certainty the identity of “Mister X” (yes, that’s what he’s referred to) literally the first time he was introduced. (Big hint: he’s the only new guy in a position of power that wasn’t a proven veteran from the first two books.) Therefore, the book lost most of its punch, and I found it hard to believe this guy could orchestrate so many things that obviously required the highest levels of clearance (like destroying an entire planetoid starship by sabotage and killing 80,000 people) — and all the smartest people on the planet and this super-smart sentient Dahak never even ONCE considered him as a suspect … to the point where they put him in charge of the operation to find himself. Ugh.

The other glaring problem with the third book was that Weber stuck a whole extra book in the middle of it. Weber is clearly a military history buff (like his book 1633, which detailed pre-industrial battles of pikes and cavalry and cannons — but with the twist of modern technology thrown in to tip the scales). However, this book suffers from a bad case of Weber exulting in his hobby: the book is twice the length of the previous two, and at least half is taken up by a side adventure of the main characters’ young adult children marooned on a primitive planet … and details how they use modern ideas and technology to raise an army and tip the scales in fights against pikes and cavalry and cannons. (Sound familiar?) A one-chapter diversion may have been OK … but this is a whole BOOK with detailed accounts of multiple battles — an entire campaign, actually — and I just found myself wanting to get back to the “real” action and finding out what was happening in the main storyline. The whole thing just felt like a huge pointless diversion, and out of place in the book I thought I was reading.

I think Weber is at his best when he’s describing epic space battles and tactics — I’m personally less interested in the pre-industrial footmen and artillery battles he likes so much, which is part of why I didn’t finish 1633. But his space battles are done very well, and I enjoy the epic scope of his stories, the heroism of his characters, and the moral issues he often grapples with … which isn’t surprising, since those are elements I use in my own books.

I’ve heard Weber’s works described as “hard sci-fi” with a focus on detailed science and technology, but that’s not really the case (I’d call most of his books “military sci-fi”). In this series, Weber mentions “gravitonics,” “Enchanch drives,” “warp grenades,” “hyperspace,” and other science-fiction hand-waving … and it doesn’t bother me a bit. Weber simply gives something a cool name, tells us what it does, and doesn’t bother with pages of pseudo-scientific “explanation” for technologies that humanity’s best minds don’t know how to create and that might even be impossible. The important thing to me is how he USES his technological framework to advance the story, play out large space fleet battles, and place his characters in dramatic situations, and Weber does that very well (there are a couple of minor problems, like heroes dodging laser beams). I do have to admit that I found the idea of a monstrous “planetoid” starship orbiting Earth and passing, undetected, as our moon for millennia hard to swallow.

All in all, I’d recommend the series, with the huge caveat that half of the third book seemed extraneous (if you feel the same, I’d recommend you skip all the side-story chapters, as I wish I had — there’s not even a satisfying payoff at the end to make it worthwhile). I’d give Mutineer’s Moon 7 out of 10, The Armageddon Inheritance 8 / 10, and Heirs of Empire only 4 / 10.

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