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 🙂