“(rank) (name) gazed grimly at the viewscreen, running his eyes over his 73 dreadnoughts, 54 heavy cruisers, 87 medium cruisers, 45 carriers, 675 fighters of all classes, and 17 new model super-huge-blow-the-crap-out-of-anything dreadnought prototypes. He hung his head momentarily, as he remembered the thousands of brave young men and women whom his orders had condemned to fiery cataclysms of horrific death, and he knew that their ghosts would forever haunt his memory. But he also knew that soon the enemy would emerge from the warp point in greater numbers than his own. There was no time to dwell on the fallen; he must concentrate on the coming battle. His own natural courage welled up within him, shining forth from his face in such an unmistakable way that the other officers on the bridge couldn’t help but be strengthened by it. Nevermind the lily-livered, useless politicians back home that clamored for peace in the face of implacable evil, the time for battle had come.”
If your eyes glazed over during the last (self-written) paragraph, you may want to skip The Stars at War (or anything by David Weber). If, on the other hand, your pulse quickened, your palms got a bit sweaty, and you caught yourself day dreaming of the glories of battle, well, have I got a series for you. The Stars at War is some combination of four books, depending on edition, number of volumes, etc. In chronological order they are: Crusade, In Death Ground, The Shiva Option, and Insurrection. In order of publication, Insurrection moves from fourth to first, and the rest stay the same. The books take place in the universe created for Starfire, a tabletop tactical spaceship game that I have not played. In case this wasn’t yet clear, Weber and White’s series is spaceship porn of the highest order.
Crusade chronicles the war between humanity (and allies) and the Thebans, a weird race of fundamentalist turtles. In Death Ground and The Shiva Option tell the story of the Bugs, some kind of xenocidal, hivemind spider. Finally, Insurrection is about a civil war in the human realm, some time after the war with the Bugs. The first three are archetypal space opera, while the last is a stab at a more politically complex conflict. All of them feature the usual Baen Books themes: epic battles, death on a grand scale, the meddling of spineless liberal politicians, Honor, and possibly Valor. No surprises here, and even less subtlety.
Since plot summaries can generally be reduced to “dastardly aliens come, crap blows up, giant spaceships wallow in awesomeness, good guys win,” I’ll stick with my reactions to the books. No sense launching into deep textual analysis when the analysis will only yield “planet destroying space battleships are cool.” Crusade is easily the quirkiest of the books, but it was my favorite. The authors even made a nod to it in a later book, describing the whole Theban interlude as “bizarre.” It is. That may be why I have fond feelings towards the book, since it’s not everyday that hyper-religious turtle-like creatures invade, bent on the mass conversion of godless humanity. I had all kinds of fun reading the book, which takes itself very seriously but is actually hilarious. Crusade also owes a debt to Larry Niven or two: the Orions are a carbon copy of the Kilrathi from Wing Commander (or vice versa, depending on which came first), which are in turn taken from the Kzin of Known Space. Also. Weber and White’s grim Russian commander reminded me of Niven and Pournelle’s grim Russian commander from The Mote in God’s Eye.
The Bug books are less weird, more proficient technically, more epic, and a touch less memorable than Crusade. I suspect that opinions vary widely on this, with many preferring the higher stakes and bigger battles. After all, the Bugs want to eat everyone, while the Turtles just want mass conversions. The Bug duology also benefits from more space to grow. The extra 500 pages or so (give or take a hundred) mean more battles, bigger navies, newer technologies, exciting twists and turns, new allies, and better ways to exterminate thousands. It felt a bit paint by numbers to me, but certainly delivered on its promises.
Insurrection is the most difficult to pin down. It’s the first book in the series and is much rougher around the edges than The Shiva Option. It also tackles the most difficult subject matter of the four. A split among humanity leads to civil war, but both sides have much to recommend them. Whereas the earlier books have a pretty black and white set up (the Bugs eat babies!), Insurrection tries to give a more nuanced view. There are heroes and villains on both sides, triumph and tragedy enough for all, and while the authors finally take sides in the end, readers could find themselves landing on either side of the conflict. I have to applaud Weber and White for setting the bar so high, even if I don’t think they flawlessly clear it. In hindsight, I’m not certain how to improve things, but it feels a bit like the pudding didn’t set, if that makes sense.
So to sum up, Crusade was my favorite and a good place to start. Anyone who likes it will probably enjoy the remaining three books. Insurrection is the weakest, but most ambitious of the lot. It’s probably not worth reading to someone who didn’t make it through the other books, but makes a nice epilogue after the grueling narrative of the Bug War. It’s all straight up space opera, with all that entails, and it’s David Weber, with all THAT entails, but stupendous fun.
Rating: The German National Team. It delivers what it promises, not perhaps with flair and artistry, but certainly with efficiency.