Red Letter Day

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Review of John Birmingham's "Without Warning"

Without Warning by John Birmingham

"Without Warning" is a science fiction/military fiction hybrid in the "kicking over anthills" school of thought (see also "Dies the Fire" by S.M. Stirling), where the author make some enormous change to the world and then lets things plays out as they may. It is not strictly alternate history, although some may categorize it as such. The premise is very simple: an energy field of unknown origin wipes out all life - and makes impenetrable - the majority of North America. In one fell swoop, the United States is no more. What happens to the rest of the world, including the remnants of the USA (mostly the military, ex-pats, and citizens of Hawaii, Alaska, and Seattle, which are outside the field)?

The book follows several groups of people as they make their way in this new world, including portions of the military, an ex-war reporter working for the BBC, the Seattle city engineer, a group of opportunistic pirates (almost, but not quite, with hearts of gold, of course!) and other various dramatis personae from around the world. Most fiction of this type doesn't deal with the in-depth motives of the players or deep character development, preferring to focus on the nitty-gritty of "what happens" and of course, action sequences. Rest assured, there is plenty of both -- excellent scenes of military activity, fighting, and general "weapons and warfare" goodness, but also a nice attention to some of the wider geo-political consequences of the excision of America from the globe (including the internal political struggles in what is left of the USA).

In short, everything goes to hell (what else did you expect) but the specific descriptions and vignettes of various disasters, such as the descent into madness in Acapulco, the initial "day after" in Paris, and a horrifying series of events in the Middle East right out of some "end of days" preacher's fantasy should give pause to nearly any reader, and certainly had me alternating between deep thought and plain old chills.

This is a damn good book, and anyone who enjoys military science fiction ought to enjoy it. There wasn't much I didn't like, although I would have liked perhaps a little more description of the wave itself, and its actual causes and effects, beyond a few early glimpses. This isn't a deal-killer by a long shot, the book isn't about the energy wave itself, except as a plot device -- the story is what happens to the rest of the world (and I suspect the wave itself will get further attention in future books in the series).

"Without Warning" is highly recommended.



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