Review: Off Armageddon Reef (Safehold Book 1)

Author: David Weber
Publisher: Tor Books
Genre: Science Fiction

It can be very challenging to find God-honoring science fiction, especially from a “mainstream” author and publisher. At least part of the reason for this, I believe, is because it’s just easier to include descriptions of spirituality in a fantasy setting than in a science fiction setting. However, David Weber showed in his earlier Honor Harrington series that he’s not shy about writing his characters as people of deep faith, and that shows in his Safehold series as well. Off Armageddon Reef is the first book in that series, and it introduces us to a world forcibly limited to no more than water power.

Content Guide

Violence: Weber made his name as an author writing military science fiction, and the Safehold series follows in that pattern as well, albeit with more primitive weapons. Characters use swords, muskets and rifles, and shipboard cannons. Some characters, even some major characters, die during the story, and their deaths are described.

Sexual Content: There are courtesans mentioned and sexual relations referred to, but no actual acts are described.

Drug/Alcohol Use: Several characters drink and debate various liquors. Drug use is not mentioned.

Spiritual Content: There is a strong sense of faith in most characters, and religious officials, both good and bad, often pray and discuss their faith.

Language/Crude Humor: Occasional swearing, including the F-word and the S-word. “D***” in particular appears often.

Other Negative Content: At the beginning of the series, the world is under the domination of the Church of God Awaiting, which keeps control of the population and the allowed technology through the use of the Inquisition, both through visible and covert operatives. This may cause some readers some distress, seeing God’s name used to justify such brutality.

Positive Content: Quite a few of the main characters, especially the heroes (of course) seek a more personal faith that allows freedom of conscience.

Review

This is a series I looked at several times in the bookstore and the library because I am familiar with Weber’s work and thoroughly enjoy his Honor Harrington books. However, the fact that the Church is the bad guy kind of turned me away from it. I finally decided to read it based on the recommendation of a person in one of my Goodreads groups, who said it really is a good series and honors God. Now it’s my turn to reassure other people: despite the Church of God Awaiting being a dictator’s dream of controlling people through religion, there is a lot of good content in these books, which describe the fight to break the power of the Church and allow people of faith more freedom.

In a nutshell, humanity has been all but destroyed by an alien species that not only doesn’t want to coexist peacefully, they never even communicate with the human spaceships they encounter. The Gbaba, as they’re called, simply destroy every ship and every colony they find. In desperation, the last human spaceship fleet pulls a bit of misdirection to save one last terraforming and colonization fleet, which has orders to fly at faster-than-light speeds for at least ten years in a random direction before even starting to look for a suitable planet, which they are then going to colonize. The theory is that the long sustained flight will take the last humans far out of the alien sphere of influence.

The original idea is to hide with no detectable technology for a few centuries, then start developing the technology to defeat the aliens once and for all, to ensure the safety of humanity and also of any other peaceful intelligent species that might develop. Unfortunately, the leadership of the project falls to someone who believes that it’s better to just dig as deep a hole as possible and never come out, so he designs the Church of God Awaiting and its holy scriptures to keep advanced technology from ever arising again. He also institutes the Inquisition to enforce these religious laws.

There are, however, people among the leadership that know that an encounter with the Gbaba is pretty much inevitable, largely because the human spirit of innovation and discovery can’t be bred or controlled out of us. So they try several things to preserve the knowledge of the Gbaba and advanced technology, all of which are destroyed by the people that want a stagnant society. All except one, that is. That last gasp is in the form of a powered-down human-appearing android that is implanted with the memories and personality of a crewmember before the colony fleet leaves on its long flight. Secreted on the planet by conspirators with a timer to awaken her after several centuries, with whatever helpful tech they can stash, the android is to serve as mentor and guide to the colonists as they relearn all the things they’ve been forced to forget.

What follows is essentially the Safeholdians going through the Protestant Reformation and the Industrial Revolution at the same time. The android, who takes the name Merlin despite the fact that the person whose personality was used was female, gives the Charisians the initial push towards real scientific investigation but then lets them take things in their own direction because he wants to create a culture of innovation, not just hand them all the answers on a silver platter. Of course, the Church doesn’t like that idea and tries to stop them, and that’s when the fun begins. However, I should point out that the only time the Gbaba actually appear is at the very beginning where the stage is being set. The story is about the fight on Safehold against the Church of God Awakening, not about the war with the Gbaba.

Weber is not shy about killing off characters, even those we’ve come to know and love, but he always uses it to push the story forward, as a good author should. And the story is nothing short of magnificent. We get to see scientists rediscovering a lot of the science that we take for granted, but with a twist. Some ideas that never took off on our Earth actually get traction on Safehold and take things in a unique direction. In that sense, this could be considered an alternate history, even though it takes place on a completely different planet.

One thing that seems to bug some people, at least from reading the Amazon reviews, is Weber’s way of changing names. He begins from the truth that language tends to change over time and that in turn changes the spelling of names. Just read your old King James Bible and then read a more modern translation to see the way the English language has changed in just about 4 centuries. The Safeholdians have had about 9 centuries, so there have been quite a few changes. For example, Harold becomes Haarahld, Caleb becomes Cayleb, Benjamin becomes Bynzhamyn. While it has a logical foundation, it also allows Weber to sneak in some names that, once you unscramble them, are likely to be familiar. Baseball fans will recognize Zhan Smolth (John Smoltz) and Rafayl Furkal (Rafael Furcal), and just about everyone should be able to figure out Nahrmahn Baytz. Personally, I find it interesting to see how many names I can recognize.

Another thing that some readers might find objectionable is Weber’s pacing. He’s fond of information dumps and dialogue, though he does very well at describing both the operation of sailing ships and the intricacies of things like early firearms. If you want an action-packed romp, I’m sorry, this isn’t going to be your cup of tea, despite some large and detailed fight scenes and naval battles. On the other hand, if you’re looking for a fictional story that will make you think, and maybe question some of your own assumptions, you would be hard-pressed to do better than just about anything David Weber writes.

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David Fernau

Born the same year as Star Trek: TOS, and with a Navy electronics tech for a father, David was pretty much destined to be a geek. Coming to Christ as a young man, he has enjoyed combining these two facets of his personality. When not reading or playing video games, he works for the local hospital, enjoys cooking, baseball, photography, and videography

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