Review: Without Warning (America is Gone) John Birmingham

October 27, 2008

This post includes spoilers. I’ll start with my conclusion (which includes the basic premise…which is available online anyway), then warn when we get to the real spoilers part. I finished the book 2 weeks ago and have been meaning to write this ever since, so my recollection may not be quite as fresh as it was.

John Birmingham follows up his excellent alternate reality come Sci-Fi series the Axis of Time with a book that posses the question: what happens if America was to disappear?

In this book, America (except some small parts), parts of Canada, Mexico and Cuba disappear in an unexplained energy bubble that wipes out people, but not places.

Here’s the official teaser for the book:

2003: In Paris, an assassin wakes from a coma. In Kuwait, American forces are assembled for their invasion of Iraq. In the pristine forest of the Cascades, a lone hiker watches a plane fly into the side of a mountain. And just north of the Equator, a modern-day pirate, a rogue Tasmanian, is witness to the unspeakable. A wave of inexplicable energy has slammed into America. And destroyed it. In one instant, all around the world, from Cairo to Canberra, things will never be the same.

Like Birmingham’s previous books, the narrative includes a strong emphasis on the military, and he’s been likened previously to Australia’s version of Tom Clancy in previous outings. Clancy isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I’ve long been a Clancy fan so I easily picked up Birmingham’s books. This one doesn’t disappoint. His geopolitical plays consider the what if in details that show researched thought, and like the previous Birmingham books, I couldn’t put it down. Recommended reading, although American’s will obviously find the premise deeply disturbing. It’s out now in Australia, and goes on sale elsewhere in January.

SPOILERS******* Don’t read any more if you don’t want to know more in the book.

Like the Axis of Time series before it, Birmingham takes a what if approach to this series. The “disappearance” may be a secret weapons test gone wrong or a terrorist attack, we don’t know. Where the premise lets us down compared to the last series is believability; yes, the thought of a multinational force from the future being sucked back in time to WW2 was a stretch in the Axis of Time novels, but it was about a future event then affecting the past, and the issues with time there in. Without Warning takes place just before the star of the second Iraq war, so it takes an extra leap of faith in the what if stakes. I understand why on certain fronts this premise was used, but I don’t believe it was necessary; the time placement may have been better suited in the near future without a specific date, making it a what if as opposed to a what if + alternate history book.

The environmental and political plays are well considered. Extreme greenies love to consider that a world without people would be a better place, but in Birmingham’s world without America, the lack of people creates an environmental crisis without parallel. Without people, America burns, including its nuclear reactors, causing a global nuclear winter that affects the rest of the world in serious ways. The political plays can be a stretch, particularly the narrative around France, and the idea of a race/ religious war; while not unbelievable in the book, it shows Birmingham’s right wing leanings. The plays with Britain, Israel, the Middle East and what’s left of the America’s is far more believable.

The various character streams are strong and mostly believable. You feel for the characters, you get inside their heads, and Birmingham paints a brilliant picture in words. There was one exception though: Caitlin in France. Birmingham uses his characters as a way of relating the broader picture in each location (Middle East, Gitmo, Hawaii, Seattle etc…) and as a tool it works well for him, but the French stream, except nearly right at the end of the novel was perhaps the worst character development ever delivered by Birmingham. I’ve never skipped pages in his books before, but it got to the stage that I did everytime the story switched to France, because page after page would describe the characters torment and a convoluted spy story line that is never really explained in the context of the book. I’m not suggesting everyone shouldn’t read these parts, but the Paris story line can be skipped until the introduction of the journalist in the last third of the book.

The ending wasn’t great, and set the story up for a sequel which Birmingham is already talking about writing. It’s a BIG book for a Birmingham novel, and an awful lot to cover, and the need to flip ahead into the future is understandable, but it didn’t conclude strongly.

One last thing: the energy wave is described in the book as being red, but on the cover, it’s blue…..

Overall though I’m happy to have read it, and I’m looking forward to the next one 🙂

11 responses to Review: Without Warning (America is Gone) John Birmingham

  1. Great review and I couldn't agree more with the French stream. I struggled with that one too and somehow it almost put me a little off all character in general. The balance between the big story and the fillings was just a little out of whack. He could have taken the book to a whole different level with drilling more into the effect on countries such as China but I don't want to complain.

    What I loved was that I was waiting and waiting for the explanation of the thing and whether there would be some kind of alien involvement. But having looked at Birmingham's other books I doubted that to happen. At the end I was somewhat flabbergasted that it wasn't solved but then it might be better that way as it's open to everyone's own interpretation.

    If you loved this you absolutely have to read Frank Schtzing's 'The Swarm' (…). He's a German advertising guy and author and that would have to be the best thing I ever read.

    Sorry for the long comment but I have to post the PR blurb:
    Whales begin sinking ships. Toxic, eyeless crabs poison Long Island?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s water supply. The North Sea shelf collapses, killing thousands in Europe. Around the world, countries are beginning to feel the effects of the ocean?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s revenge as the seas and their inhabi-tants begin a violent revolution against mankind. In this riveting novel, full of twists, turns, and cliffhangers, a team of scientists discovers a strange, intelligent life force called the Yrr that takes form in marine animals, using them to wreak havoc on humanity for our ecological abuses. Soon a struggle between good and evil is in full swing, with both human and suboceanic forces battling for control of the waters. At stake is the survival of the Earth?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s fragile ecology – and ultimately, the survival of the human race itself. The apocalyptic catastrophes of The Day After Tomorrow meet the watery menace of The Abyss in this gripping, scientifically realistic, and utterly imaginative thriller. With 1.5 million copies sold in Germany ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äù where it has been on the bestseller list without fail since its debut – and the author?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s skillfully executed blend of compelling story, vivid characters, and eerie locales, Frank Schatzing?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s The Swarm will keep you in tense anticipation until the last suspenseful page is turned.

  2. Looks like a good book to read…

  3. Looks like a good book to read…

  4. “Recommended reading, although American’s will obviously…” — You don't need an apostrophe there in “American's.”

  5. “Recommended reading, although American’s will obviously…” — You don't need an apostrophe there in “American's.”

  6. Daskalosistoria October 10, 2010 at 2:27 pm

    I think what I appreciated most about the novel was its utter unpredictability with the characters and their individual survival. *WARNING SPOILER* When Pete was killed early in the novel, I was stunned. When Fifi died, I was just as shocked, and went back and re-read that line several times. What this did was actually keep me in suspense from 'chapter' to 'chapter' or individual narrative. I honestly never knew which of the main characters was going to die.
    The lack of an explanation for the “Wave” I found both intriguing and frustrating, but not to the point of ruining the read. Explaining calculus to a five year old would be just as productive.
    The biggest problem I had with the entire premise was how quickly food shipments were ended in places far removed from the American agricultural machine. Why would Poles run out of food within days? They aren't dependent on American food shipments.
    Overall though, this was an excellent read, and I *will* be purchasing the next book. I hope its just as good.

  7. I liked the axis books very much but was dissapointed in the third book and thought that the ending was rushed and disjointed leaving the reader with a disatisfied feeling.

    Hope this trilogy doesnt die the same way

  8. I made my way through the book on the understanding that the characters would develop, and the plot would reach an interesting and plausible denouement, but alas…like many Australian stories of this genre, this one goes down the same path of improbability. The variety of sub plots was a good idea, however, they went their merry disjointed way and at no stage combined to strengthen the book as a whole. I actually question the value of the Caitlin Monroe sub plot. It did not appear to have any context whatsoever – who cares if she was AKA Cathy Mercure? What on earth was she doing? – and why did she have a brain tumor? Similarly, the whole “Aussie Rules” thing was a bit sad really. The good ship Diamantina and Old Pete Holder should have remained – they were far more interesting than “Jules”, “Fifi” (please!) and “Mr Lee”. Yes, no explanation for the “Wave” even though we as readers were expected to embrace the idea and react emotionally to it's catastrophic effect on America. Well I'm sorry, but it had the opposite effect and annoyed me to the point where I was hoping it (the Wave) would expand and envelope the globe, and therefore rid the world of the rest of the ridiculous characters – like “Rhino”, “Jed Culver”, “Larry Zood”, et al. I don't know if I should have a crack at the next instalment or not. Maybe Caitlin's tumor may get better and she stops running around in the rain?

  9. Sherwoodforest47 January 4, 2011 at 9:52 pm

    Please include excerpts with all your new books, you will sell more books that way. J. sherwood

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