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Review: 'Excalibur' a truly awful book

Review: 'Excalibur' a truly awful book

By L.D. Meagher

"The Excalibur Alternative"
By David Weber
Baen Books
313 pages

(CNN) -- The trick of successfully crafting science fiction is to balance the "science" with the "fiction." The best examples of the genre capture the reader's attention with an interesting or exciting speculation about the future, and hold that attention with a well-told story.

The Asimov "robot" stories, for example, are chock-full of fascinating hardware, but their real appeal lies in what they reveal about humans. Writers who can weld a good idea to a good story are hailed as "grand masters" of the genre.

That is not a distinction David Weber is likely to claim for his novel "The Excalibur Alternative." He got the "good idea" half of the equation right, but he failed to attach it to a good story. Indeed, calling the plot of the book a "story" at all stretches the definition of the term.

Here's Weber's good idea: a galaxy-spanning civilization decrees that commercial interests competing for trade rights on less-developed planets cannot use advanced technology against the natives. So an enterprising trader decides to dragoon a 14th-century English army to fight his battles.

The possibilities of such a premise are endlessly intriguing. There are inherent conflicts -- between a medieval society and a technologically advanced civilization; between humans and alien non-humans; between soldiers honor-bound to defend king and country and the trader who cares nothing about honor and everything about profit.

Alas, Weber declines to exploit any of these conflicts. Nor does he bother to develop any of his characters into fully realized beings, human or otherwise.

The trader doesn't even merit a name. He is referred to only as "the demon-jester", a shorthand version of his physical description. The protagonist, Sir George Wincaster, is a cardboard cutout, even though most of the story is told from his point of view.

Setting back the genre

"The Excalibur Alternative" loosely falls into the sub-genre of military science fiction, but readers interested in the military aspects of the story will be disappointed. Although the Englishmen are involved in an extended military campaign, hopping from planet to planet, very few of the battles rate more than a few paragraphs of description. More often, Weber offers only Sir George's observations of a battle after the fact.

"These natives," Weber writes, "like so many, many others he'd faced in the demon-jester's service, had never imagined anything like an English bowman. That much had been obvious." So much for the "military" aspect of the story.

And the author's attempt to pull off a grand plot twist fails miserably. The reader can spot the ending coming from a parsec away.

Science fiction as a genre carries the baggage of its beginnings, when writers -- and readers -- were more interested in the design of weapons and star drives than they were in offering insights on the human condition. Weber, on the other hand, seems more interested in the design of the longbow and plate armor than in the starship that carries the Englishmen from battle to battle.

Although he tosses around terms like "phase drive" and "time dilation," it's not clear that he understands the concepts any better than Sir George does. (He doesn't help his cause by filching jargon from "Star Trek.")

As an adventure story, "The Excalibur Alternative" is woefully short on action. As a military chronicle, it is woefully short on strategy and tactics. As science fiction, it is merely woeful.

Those who attempt to gain respectability for the genre would be horrified if this book became a success. Weber sets science fiction back 50 years, to the days of ray guns and bug-eyed monsters.


• Baen Books

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