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May 07, 2007
David Weber takes readers on a tour Off Armageddon Reef and discusses writing, religion and responsibility

By John Joseph Adams

David Weber is the best-selling author of the Honor Harrington series, the Heirs of Empire series, and several standalone novels, such as The Excalibur Alternative and In Fury Born. He frequently collaborates with other authors, having written several novels with Steve White, John Ringo, Eric Flint and Linda Evans.
His latest novel, Off Armageddon Reef, is the first of his new Safehold series. To avoid detection by the vicious alien Gbaba, a world christened Safehold is setup as a colony that will be perpetually stuck at a pre-electric level and never advance technologically beyond that. The colonists agree to have their memories altered so that they won't remember advanced technology, but they're also programmed to believe something they never agreed to have programmed into them—that the command crew are archangels and that they were each one of them created by God.

Weber was born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1952 and currently makes his home in South Carolina with his wife and three children.

SCI FI Weekly interviewed Weber via email in January.
The protagonist of Off Armageddon Reef, Nimue, seems fairly unique; she's a once-dead tactical officer whose memories and personality have been downloaded into an android known as a PICA (Personality Integrated Cybernetic Avatar), who later reconfigures her body into that of a man named Merlin Athrawes. Tell us more about her.

Weber: Nimue ... is charged with breaking the Church's stranglehold on human freedom and technology and preparing humanity to re-encounter the Gbaba on terms which will at least ensure that the human race is not exterminated.

... [A] faction of the command crew which was horrified by the colony administrator's decision to brainwash the colonists with his false religion. They believe in human freedom and human dignity...and that eventually, no matter what the Church of God Awaiting may do, advanced technology will reemerge on Safehold. In time, Safeholdian humanity will venture back into the stars, and without knowing that the Gbaba are out of there, they will run right back into the menace which almost exterminated the entire human race the first time around.

As I've told people at conventions, my hero doesn't really do anything until she's been dead for about 800 years. Nimue is a brilliant tactical officer, only about 27 years old at the time of her biological death, and has never known a time when humanity wasn't fighting a losing battle for its very existence. She volunteers to serve on the escort force's flagship, knowing it will be destroyed, rather than continuing to Safehold with the officer upon whose staff she serves. In other words, she chooses to die when there's finally an excellent chance that she could actually live, marry, have children. She does this because her PICA is essential to the success of the people conspiring to defeat the colony administrator's plans. Only by officially taking the PICA with her to a ship which is going to be destroyed can she and her fellow conspirators drop it off of the equipment list and allow it to be "lost" until it is needed.

I think the decision she makes in this regard pretty much sums up her character. One of the ironies of the book is that Nimue—or, rather, Merlin—realizes at one point that he/she is the last Christian in existence ... and that he's a machine. Of course, he's also the last person in the entire universe who's ever heard of Islam, Shintoism, Hinduism, Buddhism or any other genuine religion, as well. Yet just as he doesn't really know if he's technically "alive" at all, he doesn't know whether or not he has a soul? Or if Nimue took it with her at the time of her biological death?

Obviously, Nimue/Merlin is a person adrift, outside the time and place which created her. She's also effectively immortal, and ... she has to deal with the mortality of those she allows herself to love. Not to mention the fact that however laudable her final objectives, and no matter how essential to the long-term survival of the species they may be, the consequences of her actions are inevitably going to lead to an incredibly bloody and vicious cycle of religious warfare.
What are the other characters like?

Weber: There are several other Safeholdian characters who should probably be considered co-protagonists. Cayleb Ahrmahk, the Crown Prince of Charis, is certainly one of them. Just as Nimue becomes the Merlin analog, Cayleb is the Arthur analog, although there are at least as many dissimilarities as similarities between him and Arthur. Cayleb is young, smart, tough-minded, and aware of the fact that a showdown between the Kingdom of Charis and the Church of God Awaiting has become inevitable. He's also the Safeholdian character who comes closest to truly beginning to realize what Merlin is. He's still only groping towards the truth, but by the end of the book he's accepted quite a lot of that truth and its implications.

Cayleb's father, King Haarahld, is another critical figure, as is Archbishop Erayk Dynnys, a thoroughly corrupt member of the Church of God Awaiting's hierarchy who happens to be the Archbishop of Charis.
Off Armageddon Reef is an epic tale in every sense of the word, with sword fights, naval battles and a totalitarian religious regime, not to mention the vicious marauding aliens who conquer the Earth. What was the genesis of the story?
Weber: The basic concept for this book, or for one very like it, has been rattling around in the back of my brain for a great many years. When I signed my first contract with Tor Books, I sketched out the concept for this series and for a couple of others, and Tom Doherty and Patrick Nielsen-Hayden both like this one best.

I'm very seldom able to actually say "this is where Book A came from." The "genesis," as you put it, is only very rarely that clear cut for me. Generally, for me a book begins with a question. For example, when I wrote Mutineers' Moon, 15 or 16 years ago, the question that started to me going was "Assume that Earth doesn't actually have a Moon, but rather a giant starship disguised as our Moon which has been there for at least 50 or 60,000 years. Where did it come from, why did it come here, and why hasn't it left?" Answering those questions, built the book (and the foundation for its two—so far—sequels).

In the Safehold series, unlike Mutineers' Moon, I was deliberately setting out to create a series, and I knew that I wanted to come up with a sort of fusion of high technology with the feel of a "last defender of elfland," but without the urban fantasy matrix. The notion of a hero/heroine living in a cybernetic body, not even certain in his own mind that he's really still alive, grew naturally for me out of that initial basic premise. However, that left me with the question of why? What set of circumstances could create a situation in which my PICA hero came into existence? And given those circumstances, and the personality of Nimue Alban, how was "Merlin" going to react? What sort of strategy could he devise? What sort of flesh-and-blood humans would he end up working with? How much would they know? How much would he—could he—tell them?

And, of course, there are the moral dimensions. What decisions does Merlin make? What choices? And what price is he prepared to pay ... or to demand of the people about him?
Off Armageddon Reef could be read as an anti-religion book. Would that be fair?

Weber: I'm sure some people will read this book as an attack on organized religion. After all, the primary force for the restriction and manipulation of human freedom and character, not to mention corruption, on Safehold is to be found in a world-wide religion. I think, however, that reading this book that way would be a mistake. Yes, the Church of God Awaiting is a monstrous, deliberately fabricated, enslaving lie imposed upon the people of Safehold. But the very impetus for reform coming out of places like Charis is coming out of men and women who follow the logical implications of the Church of God Awaiting's own moral teachings. Off Armageddon Reef is less about the evils of religion than it is about the use of any ideology or belief structure to manipulate, control and coerce. In the case of Safehold, it's religion; it could have been communism, fascism or any other brand of authoritarianism or totalitarianism. I said that my books are about choice.

To my mind, anything which removes or denies the right, ability and responsibility to make choices is evil, destructive and a perversion. Religion that closes off, that demonizes or dehumanizes the "other" as the first step in destroying him in the name of some intolerant, oppressive, thought-denying process can be a terrible force for evil. The cynical use of religion, of man's belief in God, as a self-serving means of manipulating others is despicable. And yet religion can be an equally powerful force for good. The people who support Merlin in Charis believe firmly and fervently in God; they simply can't accept that God is as small and mean-spirited as the Church of God Awaiting's current leadership apparently believe He is.
Considering how complex the novel is, was it especially difficult to write?

Weber: Actually, the book wasn't particularly difficult to write. I did have to do some research here and there, but my own lifetime interest in military history gave me most of what I needed. Most of the research I did was actually restricted to ferreting out specific numbers for the weight of round shot of various diameters, for example. By far the greater challenge, which wasn't unique to this book by a long chalk, was the creation of the planet of Safehold and its society in first place. It occurred to me a few years go that the person who really got me interested in world-building was Annie McCaffrey. Her world of Pern fascinated me from the day that I read the very first novel in serialized form in Analog (I think; it was a long time ago and my memory may not be exactly correct). She'd put together an entire society, built around a completely different (and yet completely understandable) set of survival imperatives, and clearly developed the geographical matrix as well as the societal matrix in the process. I'm not saying that other people hadn't done the same thing; I'm simply saying that in my own case, it was Annie who first made me really think about all of the thought she'd put into the project.
With so many elements going into one novel, where or how did you get started?

Weber: In my own writing, I always begin by building the literary universe in some detail. In the case of Off Armageddon Reef, I generated the entire map for the planet before I decided were any of the political units were going to be placed, where Nimue/Merlin was going to find her allies, etc. Then I built the Church of God Awaiting and its hierarchy. Then I began laying out the major political units, deciding what their internal political arrangements were going to be, how their economies were going to be organized, and what technological toolbox was going to be available to the characters on the planet. That was actually tougher than any specific research I had to do to put the book together. And, of course, I also had to work out in some detail where the technological development of the planet was going to go once Merlin succeeded in breaking the stasis.
Most authors say all their stories are personal. If that's true for you, and what way was this story personal do you?

Weber: In the most fundamental sense, almost all of my stories are about choices. I believe that the best measure of anyone's character is to be found in the decisions they make in the face of adversity. Do they act responsibly? Do they place their own convenience or survival ahead of their moral obligations to others? Are they prepared to accept the consequences of their decisions and their actions? Are they prepared to pay the price of their decisions and their actions?

In my books, the heroes are almost always the responsibility-takers, the ones who step up when a problem has to be confronted. They don't usually worry about who's responsible for the problem in the first place—or, at least, that particular concern is completely secondary to the question of how they fix what's wrong. Quite a few of my characters are not particularly safe people to be around, for a lot of reasons, but the villains are those who don't care about their responsibility to others, or who simply don't see that they have one at all. I suppose you could think of it as the conflict between those who are prepared to give whatever it takes to meet a recognized need and those who are simply prepared to take whatever they can get for their own personal benefit. That's a gross oversimplification, of course, but it's a pretty decent thumbnail of how it works.

Nimue Alban/Merlin Athrawes is pretty nearly the ultimate in responsibility-takers. Merlin is the electronic copy of the memories, beliefs and emotions of a young woman who voluntarily sacrificed her own life so that Merlin could be available to defend and restore human freedom and dignity. The allies Merlin recruits in Charis are also responsibility-takers, prepared to put their lives on the line for the things in which they believe. Indeed, the Charisians are prepared to confront the corruption of the Church and the restrictive manipulation to which they and everyone else on Safehold has been subjected without benefit of Merlin's knowledge of what's really happening and why. I think that actually requires even more moral courage than Nimue/Merlin's decisions do.
What is it about writing that draws you to it as a profession?
Weber: The really neat thing for me is that despite the occasional bouts of fatigue (my wife prefers the word "exhaustion") and deadline panic, I really, really enjoy what I do for a living. The fact that total strangers are actually willing to pay perfectly good money to read my stories only makes it even better.

I remember reading a comment from another science-fiction writer to the effect that fandom and fans were the worst things that could happen to a writer. What he seemed to be saying was that if the fans were capable of discerning what constituted good writing or the direction a story should go in in the first place, then they'd be writers themselves, not "just" readers. Since they obviously can't write (since they aren't), then it's our task as writers to produce what we know they really ought to be reading. Hand, of course, to be "true to our own art."

I've never have a lot of patience with that particular viewpoint, or perhaps I should say with the mindset behind it. First, because I think of myself as a storyteller first and an "artist" only second, or even third. And, second, because it strikes me as both arrogant and shortsighted, or perhaps I should say self-limiting.

I do believe that any writer has to be the final determiner of what stories he's going to tell and how he's going to tell them, and that he has no business essentially handing the keyboard over to his readers. But I also think that writers in general, and series writers such as myself in particular, do have a responsibility to at least listen to their readers. I've discovered that quite often something a reader says causes me to look at the story which I wrote in a different light, and if I'm not going to allow them to dictate to me were the story should go, I'm entirely ready to hear their views on where the story's already been and how they feel about it. The bottom line is that while no self-respecting writer is going to surrender his own judgment to someone else, our readership is—and ought to be—our most important editors and critics. That being the case, it strikes me as ... foolish, at best, not to listen to them.
You've collaborated with several authors on a number of books—what do you get out of the collaborative process that you don't get out of the fiction you write solo?

Weber: The really neat thing about collaborating with another writer whose work you respect is that the final product is different from what either of you would have produced alone. My rule of thumb for doing a collaboration is that I won't do one simply to increase the amount of "product" I can get before the readers. I'll do collaboration when I expect to have fun working with the other writer, when I think that the final product is going to be stronger—in at least some ways—then what either of us would have produced alone, if there is a mentoring relationship involved (going either way), or if there's a story that I really, really want to tell and don't have time to tell entirely by myself.

To give you a recent example, the multiverse series I'm currently working on with Linda Evans is a story that I've wanted to tell literally for 20 years. I've never found the time to fit it into my other writing commitments, but it's been kicking around in the back of my brain for all those years. I finally decided that I wasn't going to get it told at all unless I enlisted someone to help me do it, and there were aspects of Linda's writing, areas in which her creativity takes her and different and (I think) more richly in directions of developing societies, the internal intricacies of religious structures, and characterization than I would get on my own. That's precisely what happened in the current books. I'm not saying that any collaborative partnership is necessarily going to work. The only way that you find out is to actually try, and there are times when the first book or two out of the chute aren't exactly what either of you wanted. But if it's a collaborative partnership it's going to work in the long run, then those bumps and swerves get dealt with and the final product is, indeed, something that both of you can be proud of, and in which each of you can point at something the other person brought to the final product and say, "I like that!"
What's up next?

Weber: Eric Flint and I [recently turned] in the sequel to 1633, for Baen Books. As far as Armageddon Reef is concerned, this is the first in what is currently in open-ended number of books, which we should be bringing out at the rate of about one per year. And, of course, I need to keep the Honor Harrington novels coming out, as well. The old saying about being as busy as a one-armed fiddler comes forcibly to mind when I look at my writing schedule over the next few years, but I suppose it's a lot better to have too many stories to squeeze into the time you have need to be unable to decide what you want to do next!

... I'm currently working on the sequel to Armageddon Reef, which I'm calling By Schism Rent Asunder. Hopefully I should have [that] turned in very shortly, at which point I'll begin work on the sequel to The Shadow of Saganami in the Honor Harrington universe. Eric Flint is going to be working on his part of our second Honor Harrington collaboration, the sequel to Crown of Slaves, and by fall I hope to be working on the third book in the Safehold series, By Heresies Distressed.