Book Review: Hell’s Foundations Quiver
by David Weber
The premise of David Weber’s ongoing “Safehold” series is clever enough to be elastically seductive: in the distant future, human civilization has spread throughout a chunk of space when it encounters an alien species uncontrollably hostile to all advanced technology except their own; there’s war, and humanity loses – and the only way it can think to save some of its members and culture is to seed a distant planet with pre-technological colonists, to create the kind of low-tech backwater those tech-touchy aliens won’t even notice, and thereby to allow at least a small pocket of humanity to continue.
The world – Safehold – is given what those scheming humans consider the ultimate firebreak against ever developing advanced technology: a powerful and irreproachable theocracy, a superstructure of priests and bishops whose holy books explain everything and ruthlessly tamp down Heaven-defying inquisitiveness. And as Weber makes clear early on in Hell’s Foundations Quiver (the eighth “Safehold” novel), the rule of faith on this world is virtually unchallengeable:
Safehold possessed a complete, continuous, seamless historical record from the very Day of Creation, with no breaks, no point at which any researcher or scholar could find a fundamental inconsistency. Unlike the historical record available to the theologians of Old Earth, there were no blank spots, no prehistoric eras, no sacred books whose authorship might be debated, and no civilizations which pre-dated writing, used a different alphabet, or even spoke another language. There were no periods which had to be reconstructed without contemporary, written sources – primary sources – of unimpeachable authenticity.
(“Given that lack of inconsistencies, validated again and again throughout that enormous body of recorded history,” we’re told, “the very concept of ‘atheism’ had never existed on Safehold”)
But as the book’s title suggests, things have begun to change. Spurred in small part over the centuries by a sentient Founder computer program in the form of a man, Merlin Athrawes (one character calls him “quite a remarkable human being who just happens to live inside a machine”), technological progress is inching closer and closer to threatening the hold of religion, and the face of Safehold’s quasi-Renaissance city states is beginning to mirror the Industrial Revolution in all its positives and negatives, as, for instance, wealthy industrialist Ehdwyrd Howsmyn (a great many of the names in this series are likewise wearingly phonetically familiar) notices:
He looked up at the smoke cloud with his customary mixed feelings. On the one hand, he hated what it was doing to his workers’ lungs. On the other hand, it was the unavoidable consequence of producing the quantities of steel Charis needed for its survival. And whatever reservations he might have about it, those coking ovens and blast furnaces produced byproducts – from the coal gas lighting his manufactory floors and buildings and the Tellesberg waterfront to the creosote which would preserve the wooden sleepers Stylmyn’s railroads would eventually require – that were of almost incalculable value. Nd in a very few more months, some of those same byproducts would be finding their way into the production of Safehold’s first smokeless powder and artillery bursting shells.
And more forces than simply the technological are gathering in Hell’s Foundations Quiver, as the introduction of a kind of female counterpart to Merlin (naturally called Nimue) serves as a catalyst for potentially major changes in the next volume. Which isn’t to say this present volume is a prologue; Weber is a craftsman of the old school and knows exactly how to rivet together a watertight and exciting story-within-a-series. Newcomers will be less confused than might at first seem inevitable – indeed, such newcomers are more likely to be confused by Weber’s obviously worsening narrative dementia than anything in the story itself; Hell’s Foundations Quiver is so manically, so uncontrollably hyper-detailed in its pointless fussy details that the effect is genuinely weird. The “Cast of Characters” at the end of the book, for example, is 81 pages long and features well over one thousand names and brief identifications – a thing by itself so appallingly delusional as to defy English vocabulary words.
Luckily, however, as with so many such compulsively-serious epic fantasy series on the market today (Brandon Sanderson’s ongoing “Stormlight Archive” books, where every minor mushroom and beetle species on his invented world is given an exhaustive natural history, spring immediately to mind), our author manages to use good old-fashioned storytelling skills to salvage his books from their own wonky excesses. Despite its indexing and cross-indexing, Hell’s Foundations Quiver is foremost an exciting and multi-layered adventure story.