Without Warning by John Birmingham

Without Warning by John Birmingham

New edition by Titan Books January 2013 (Review copy received)

First published 2008.

640 pages

ISBN: 978 1781 166 031

Review by Mark Yon

How many times have you read a story or seen a film where all seems to be lost until the USA steps in to help? I’m thinking Tom Clancy’s novels, Armageddon, Independence Day, films about World War 2 perhaps even Team America: World Police and so on.

Much of this is because the books and films are written to please their target audience, of course. However, in this alternate history, the saving of the world is not an option for the Americans. You see, without warning (and hence the title) an energy wave has caused the majority of the USA to disappear, with no survivors.

Really does set up a new scenario, doesn’t it?

With such a global event, and as you might expect, there are a broad range of characters having to deal with the issue from a number of different viewpoints.

In Paris we have a covert agent, Caitlin Monroe, who is being hunted by followers of terrorist recruiter Al-Banna and has now been forced out of cover. In Kuwait we have Bret Melton, an American news reporter who finds himself with American troops who have to adjust to a new situation. In Guantanamo Bay, we have General Tusk Musso and the Marine Corps who with Jed Culver, a lawyer trying to bring order, as they find themselves the highest-ranking remnants of the American government.  In Seattle, James ‘Kip’ Kipper is the chief engineer of Seattle City Council who, with his family, has to deal with the social panic created by the Wave. In Acapulco, we have Julianne (Jules) Balwyn, an English cabin crew-worker who finds herself dealing with pirates whilst trying to coordinate refugees passage to a safe haven. Clearly, there’s plots and subplots all over the place, which is what a reader of such novels expects.

It is, all the same, rather strange to be set in 2003 whilst reading it in 2012/13, with Tony Blair the Prime Minister in the UK, George W. Bush about to be involved in the Middle East and Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein still around, whilst here in 2013 we’re entering the second term of Barack Obama. But, of course, this is an alternate timeline and therefore OK.

This is a BIG, meaty, novel, and as you might expect, it has big ideas and a broad canvas from the Iraq War in 2003 to Paris in Europe to Acapulco and Seattle. With America gone as primary peace keeper, the world soon descends into chaos as the remaining nations rearrange themselves in to some sort of new world order whilst the Middle East sees the event as some kind of miraculous, if not divine, intervention.

John has mentioned that much of the novel is a ‘what-if’ thought experiment, and two thirds of the book is about that. Without Warning is mainly about the consequences of ‘the Wave event’, which are scarily logical. Europe has to deal with the issues of pollution and a blocking out of the sunlight as a consequence of most of North America being damaged. India and China are in the wings waiting to reposition themselves. In the long term, the loss of global trade with a major superpower and the reorganisation of resources leads to famine, riots and unrest in what remains of the world.  

There’s a lot of comments around about this being a Tom Clancey-esque techno-thriller, and I can see why. There are lots of the trappings of the traditional Clancy thriller – a lot of characters in a variety of global locations, lots of technology and action. Admittedly there’s quite a few board meetings and strategic planning, and at times you need to know your Heckler and Koch from your Smith & Wesson. But to define this as such would perhaps mislead or at least do a disservice. Whilst there are many of the clichés you might expect, John manages to put a few twists in that keep the reader guessing.

In the end this was a surprise, and a pleasant one. It is very accessible and although it can be a little long in places, anyone looking for a big, bold blockbuster-type holiday read could do a lot worse than read this one. Might be time to try an alternative to the Clancy and try some John Birmingham instead.  

The book ends on a cliff-hanger, which no doubt leads to the next novel. There are now two sequels, After America and Angels of Vengeance, that will appear later in 2013.


Our interview with John is HERE.


Mark Yon, December/January 2012/13

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