It’s a provocative idea to tackle in a novel, and definitely one guaranteed to attract attention.
Australian writer John Birmingham, when he’s not writing more literary fare like He died with a felafal in his hand, pens fast-paced alternative history thrillers. His latest is Without Warning, in which the vast majority of the continental United States is inexplicable covered in a giant wave of energy from space.
The result is the instant disappearance of more than 350 million people.
Not only has the Wave (as it becomes known) devastated the bulk of the US population, it shows no signs of leaving. And while machines and electronic devices are unaffected by the Wave, all humans who come into contact with it instantly disintegrate, meaning the bulk of the continent is a no-go zone.
What starts as an inexplicable mass tragedy – disturbingly celebrated in certain parts of the world – quickly turns into a chaos that threatens the downfall of the industrial age.
The novel is less concerned with the cause of the phenomenon (as one character puts it, “we’re like ants whose nest got hit by a kid with a magnifying glass on a sunny day … we’re probably a thousand years from understanding…”) and more interested with the social, political and economic impact it would have on the globe if the US was to suddenly “disappear”.
Without Warning is told from multiple perspectives (almost too many, as it’s hard to keep track of everyone). The most interesting are a former US Ranger-turned war correspondent, embedded in Iraq with troops suddenly without a Commander in Chief; and a female American assassin in Paris, cut off from her controllers and hunted by terrorists.
In Birmingham’s scenario, with the might of the US gone – and its remaining military forces scattered across the globe – the world begins to unravel.
Jaded assassin Caitlin, frustrated by the attitude of an extreme left-wing Frenchwoman explains the inevitable impact America’s disappearance will have on the global economy and availability of oil:
“Think about where it (oil) comes from… Think about what’s going to happen there now the evil global overlord is no longer around to oppress everyone into behaving themselves. Think about what’s going to happen to the evil world financial system now that the planet’s greatest debtor nation has winked out of existence and won’t be meeting its mortgage payments to anyone.”
The alternative history offered here is frightening because, in many ways, the novel's twists and turns are realistic consequences of the current geo-politics and cultural clashes dominating our headlines in this reality.
In Without Warning, things go wrong in so many ways: Paris erupts into civil war when its cultural divide meets head on in the streets; fires break out behind the Wave, where nuclear power plants and unmanned vehicles and appliances – left running when their human operators disappeared – are igniting and burning freely, creating a toxic fall-out that starts to move across other continents.
There are startling images of American citizens in the untouched outposts (Seattle, Alaska and Hawaii) lining up for food stamps, and the remaining millions of US citizens scattered across the planet suddenly seeking asylum as refugees.
Birmingham gives us some great moments (Seattle’s City Councillors are put under house arrest by the military when they decide to vote on whether or not they should still get biscuits during meetings when the rest of the city is on food rations).
He also gives some us blood chilling ones: Israel using its nuclear arsenal to remove the Arab threat closing in, wiping out another 300 million people.
Without Warning is a cautionary tale about globalisation (actually, it makes the current global financial crisis look pretty tame) and picks at the fragile nature of our industrialised society.
It’s hard to know how this book will do in the US. On the one hand, it reinforces the (increasingly unpopular) dogma that “the world as we know it would fall apart without America”. On the other, it shows America at is most vulnerable, and how quickly the rest of the world might turn on it in that state.
Politics aside, Without Warning is a cracking read. Birmingham’s characters have depth, the dialogue is excellent, and the story a page-turner. It’s a tad long, but the journey is worth it.