Wednesday, 13 June 2007

Weapons of Choice by John Birmingham

John Birmingham is an Australian author who caused a bit of a stir in his homeland a decade ago with his cult debut novel, He Died With a Felafel in His Hand, a look at housesharing in Australia in the 1980s and 1990s. However, his latest work is an altogether different beast. The Axis of Time Trilogy is a high-paced, high-tech alternate history thriller, probably what Tom Clancy and Harry Turtledove would come up with if they were locked in a room together.


The book opens in the year 2021. The western world has been at war with terrorist extremists for almost two decades. London and Tokyo have suffered massive terrorist attacks which outstrip even 9/11 in ferocity, Iran and Iraq have fought a second and bloodier war, and the west's military forces have become used to fighting with ultra-high-tech arms and equipment against a shadowy enemy often hiding amongst civilians. When extremists seize control of Jakarta and begins executing foreign nationals, the United Nations authorises a massive military response. An enormous flotilla of ships from half a dozen nations assemble under the leadership of Admiral Kolhammer on his flagship USS Hillary Clinton (who in this timeline was President and a great champion of the US Navy until her brutal assassination). A research vessel conducting atom-smashing experiments in an attempt to create stable wormhole technology is caught up in the flotilla when her escorts are ordered to join it. Ill-advisedly, they continue with their experiments in the midst of the fleet, and accidentally destroy their vessel by creating a 15km-wide wormhole which sucks the entire fleet into it and dumps them in the North Pacific in June 1942. Right on top of Admiral Spruance's fleet sailing to relieve Midway Island.

Since the first ship that Spruance positively IDs is a Japanese reconnaisance vessel attached to the UN force, he orders his ships to open fire. In a matter of hours the course of history is changed as the retaliatory strike from the UN fleet wipes out the US Pacific Fleet before they realise what has happened. Once that realisation sets in, the UN force has to work very hard to keep history from unravelling and earn the trust of their new colleagues.

It's a pretty solid, high-concept basis for a novel, essentially a reverse of the 1980s movie The Philadelphia Experiment on a much bigger scale with a dash of Harry Turtledove's Worldwar saga thrown in for good measure. Birmingham makes several references to this series in his book: President Roosevelt, upon hearing that twelve thousand people from eighty years in the future have shown up with enough firepower to wipe out several dozen cities, states, "Next you'll be telling me the space lizards have arrived!" There are also references to Steve Stirling, another alternate history author.

At first it appears that the war is going to be pretty one-sided. As is shown in several engagements, the UN Taskforce possesses weapons so advanced they can obliterate entire Japanese fleets and industrial centres from hundreds of miles away. However, their weapons stocks are finite and the industrial base required to build new ones will take decades to establish. Also, in an interesting move, the incredulity which greets the arrival of the Taskforce is amended somewhat by it being in line with Einstein's own theories (Einstein has a couple of brief but amusing appearances in the novel, and in a funny scene is given a laptop as a gift). Unlike Turtledove, Birmingham tries to keep the famous historical figures restricted to brief cameos, with really only Admiral Yamamoto and Admiral Spruance receiving significant time on the page.

Birmingham's portrait of the world of 2021 is pretty grim, showing a world where the War on Terror has grown in size to endanger the lives of everyone, with suitcase-sized nuclear bombs destroying large chunks of major cities and the world militaries becoming hardened to the point of heartlessness with regards to mass casualties and suffering. Yet he also contrasts this nicely with WWII. WWII weapons may be vastly inferior, but in enormous quantities they maul the Taskforce quite badly on its arrival. And whilst the entire world may be at war, the clearly-delineated lines between good and evil, right and wrong give the people hope for survival and eventual victory, whilst the soldiers from the future are altogether more cynical and downbeat.

This interesting sociological portrait is probably the greatest strength of the novel and is what lifts it above other identikit military thrillers from the Clancy/Brown school of writing. The other thing is Birmingham's clever depiction of futuristic technology. Since the book is only set fourteen years hence, it doesn't go too overboard, although some may feel the use of implants capable of shooting medicine straight into soldiers and sailors at AI command is a little bit more advanced than that. The US fighter jet of choice is a more advanced version of the F-22 Raptor (which has just entered service in real life), whilst the new standard US supercarrier is the George Bush-class (actually, in real life, it's going to be called the Gerald Ford-class, but the novel was written before that decision was made).

Despite Birmingham's technical proficiency and his intriguingly bleak outlook of the future, he suffers from some weaknesses. Whilst the shock the 1942 US miltary feels at fighting alongside female, black, homosexual and Asian officers is perhaps understandable, Birmingham does repeatedly make the point about the period being casually rascist, sexist and homophobic to the point where it starts to get a bit tedious. There are also some leaps in logic in the middle of the book. The first half or so is pretty much entirely devoted to the shock of the Transition (as it is called) and its aftermath and barely covers 24 hours. The second half covers another month or so and ranges over a much vaster area, from Moscow and Berlin to Tokyo to Los Angeles and Brisbane. The transition between the two styles is a little jarring. Given the size of this novel (just shy of 800 pages) compared to the two sequels (450 and 380 pages respectively) one wonders if splitting this book in half to make the change in style work better would have been a better idea.

At heart, this book is an above-average military blockbuster with an interesting SF twist and better-than-normal characters. As the series progresses and moves further away from real history, I suspect the books will get less interesting (as happens with most Turtledove series), but the first book leaves enough cliffhangers and unresolved plot points to make the sequel, Designated Targets, worth a look when Penguin publishes it (presumably at the end of 2007. I'm particularly looking forward to seeing how Britain's Prince Harry - in the novels an SAS Captain in his late 30s - is treated in the sequels, where he apparently plays a bigger role.

Weapons of Choice (***½) is a solidly enjoyable if not revolutionary SF thriller. It is published in the UK by Penguin. It is available in the USA from Ballantine. The second and third books, Designated Targets and Final Impact, are already available in the USA and Australia and will be followed by two more books set much later in this alternate history.

1 comment:

Misanthrope said...

sounds terrible! ;-)