Monday, August 03, 2009

Way out there alternate history

If you like completely gonzo over the top alternate history, then you probably have already read or heard about John Birmingham. In his Axis of Time trilogy a US-led naval task force from 2021 finds itself catapulted back to 1942 where it quickly disrupts the timeline by accidentally sinking a good piece of the US Navy. World war 2 changes quite a but as you might guess.

His latest is even crazier. Without Warning starts a few weeks before the invasion of Iraq in 2003. For reasons unrevealed in this book (part one of a new trilogy), most of the population of North America disappear. The area around Seattle, Guantanamo and southern Mexico escape but that is about it. As you can imagine, the world is initially stunned, but then the chaos starts. The world economy is shattered and the conflicts really heat up the world over.

Perhaps this was the only way to go, but the way the conflicts fall out reads like the neocon scare list. Again, it is not to say that what he comes up with is unreasonable, but it may sound a bit like the Corner at National Review when you read it. I don't think, especially based on some other plot lines, that Birmingham is advocating a particular political line here, but you will certainly take note of the fate of certain nations and locales.

The characters are a mixed bag, serving to anchor stories in Seattle, Cuba, Mexico, France and the Middle East. The character in France has the most exciting story. She is ultra secret assassin type who finds herself on the run in an increasingly nasty Europe. I liked the Mexico story as well which involves some smugglers becoming Han Solo-esque good guys as they assist refugees escaping the collapsing Mexican state.

I like how Birmingham ratchets up the action and chaos as the book progresses. I suspect the action will get even crazier in subsequent volumes (the next of which is titled After America). The book suffers from a bit of bloat, but this one feels much sleeker than the recent efforts of Turtledove, the reigning king of the genre.


Ryan said...

This was my first alt history novel, so I can't compare it but I though it was solid. The characters are a bit scattered but still rather enjoyable.

I didn't see any political bias like you said, I just thought his decisions were based off simply better storytelling.

Tripp said...


Yeah, I think I mis-stated the political bias. If there is an underlying viewpoint it is probably a realist one, in the international relations sense. That is to say, when a power vacuum is created, it will be exploited in often brutal fashion.

What I meant to say, but didn't say clearly, is that the conflicts chosen are remarkably close to potential threats identified by neocons. They have identified so many that it represents a rich field to exploit.

All in all a very fun read and one I will be happy to continue.

Ryan said...

Yes it was good, do you know any other alt fiction worth reading?

Tripp said...

Hmmm, tricky question Ryan. When you talk alt history you have to mention Harry Turtledove. He is like Birmingham in that he likes multiple character stories on grand canvases, but he is given to writing ENDLESS series. You might look for a single volume book, or you might try these:

Peshawar Lancers- S.M. Stirling. I quite liked this one. Global climate change wipes out much of the Northern Hemisphere around 1880 and a Anglo-Indian empire confronts Russia.

1901 - Robert Conroy. Germany and US go to war in 1901. If that sentence interests you, read it, if not don't. he has a few others too, but this one I liked best (of the ones I read)