Sunday, March 06, 2011

These dogs don't have their day

kw: book reviews, science fiction, space aliens, alien invasion, alien empires

It took Out of the Dark by David Weber a while to get going. There were several plot lines to establish, and I got a bit restive at first. Once the setup was out of the way, however, the book was a fast read, with plenty of action.

Consider a galactic web of civilizations that began over 70,000 years ago. In contrast to many space operas that are peopled mostly with humans in animal suits, this author's universe is full of bovines, on the premise that carnivores and most omnivores will bomb themselves to oblivion as soon as they invent nuclear weapons. At the beginning of the novel, set some 600 years ago, this planet is designated a Level 6 civilization, just a step or two up from spear-throwing savages. Then, in our near future, an aggressive doglike species, the only starfaring carnivores, are given permission to colonize Earth, as little progress is expected. These Shongairi, familiarly called "puppies" by humans, come expecting an easy takeover, but are surprised to find a Level 2 civilization has developed with unprecedented rapidity. They decide to take over anyway.

When you have the advantage of altitude, thousands of miles of it, you don't need advanced weapons to "soften up" a planetary target. Simply drop big rocks on it, which will come in like meteors and destroy with the force of megatons. So the puppies do just that, after stealthily hacking the loosely-defended Internet and the military computer systems connected to it. Having determined where most of the military resources of all major nations are, they destroy these in a matter of hours. Then they send in a force of 24 troop-carrying shuttles, and are aghast to find that these are destroyed in a sudden, five-minute attack by four fighter aircraft.

Things go downhill from there. We are so good at fighting one another, that turning against an alien invader is almost second nature. The puppies have never before tried to subjugate a Level 2 planet, and they find they've bit of much more than they can swallow. Finally, the Shongairi decide to create a super-virus and destroy the human species. At this point, humanity is found to have one more ace up its sleeve. To avoid totally spoiling a good read, let me just say that it originates in Romania.

An element that I like is that the invaders find a most peculiar (to them) element of human psychology, which is the secret of our fanatical fighting prowess: family values. We'll do anything to protect the family, and seek any revenge if they have been destroyed. Even among mammals on Earth, humans are peculiar in the intensity of our family attachments. Most animals will sacrifice their offspring if they must, pragmatically expecting to give birth to more. Humans are nearly unique in assigning to their living offspring "the future of the species." Animals consider only sunk cost; people consider future potential.

Of course the book is human chauvinist. Do you think an author could sell books about the defeat and extermination of humanity? It is nice to think we really could force the retreat of a seemingly superior race of aliens, even if they had thousands of years of head start. I wonder, though, whether the first aliens we meet will be more like millions or a billion years ahead of us. At such a juncture, I am not sure "meeting" is possible. Could we notice one another? It is not certain. So a comfy universe with a "mere" 70,000 years of sentient history is an easier concept to swallow (Actually, thinking it over, the aliens' "standard year" is twice an Earth year, so it is more like 140,000 of our years. Ho hum).

One of my tests of a book is how many hours of sleep I lose, reading half the night or more. Once it got going, this one ranks up there among the top page-turners of my experience.

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