Friday, January 23, 2009

A world without America...

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.


the ink-stained toe-poker said...

The idea for this book arrived in JB's brain while attending a protest in Brisbane in the 1980's when one foaming-mouthed, anger-frenzied, bugged-eyed protester told Birmingham that he wished America would... juuuuST GO AWAY!

The idea stayed in JB's brain all that time, like 20 years or more, before he eventually got to it! It says a lot about the value of a good idea. Or at least one you can make the most of.

The stuff in the book about Greg Norman's boat is apparently very very close to the truth - the specs are all available on the net or so I'm told.

And JB said -at a reading talk thing he did in the bookshop- that the reception in the US (this was BO (Before Obama) right enough) was very good, and while I can't remember exactly, I'm pretty sure it was for the reasons you mention in your blog Westie.

I think you'd also enjoy the Weapons of Choice series he wrote too. It's action packed, dark and very funny.

Linda Jacobs said...

Sounds like a scarey nightmare!

Your review, however, is excellent! Great writing!

Gustav said...

What an interesting idea for a book and one that is obviously timely in today's world.

I love ink-stained toe-poker's comment that the idea for the book originated from someone shouting out an idea 20 years ago.

Perhaps we all have a few of these ideas in ourselves and perhaps we should explore them the way JB has.

Bec C said...

This book has just jumped to the top of my 'To Do' list.

Sounds fascinating, and so relevant - come to think of it, when would the power and influence of the US not be relevant during the past 50, 60, 70...?? years!

It has been popular in recent times to love to hate the 'Yanks' (and, let's be honest, Bush made it easy and fun), this book sounds a bit like a 'Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it'? cautionary tale.

Placey said...

(formerly Bec C)
Nearly six months later, and I have finally got around to reading this book following your blog! And worth the wait for me.
It was action-packed and thought-provoking.
Whilst reading it, I found myself thinking of Nevil Shute's 'On the Beach' (written in 1957, and set in 1963, about a year after WWIII: the Northern Hemisphere has nuked itself out of existance, and the population of the Southern Hemisphere is waiting to die as the fallout drifts inevitably South).
I found the setting of an alternate and near-past, rather than the near-future, an interesting one - we all know it Didn't Happen That Way, but what if it had?
I felt quite comfortable thinking, 'Well, I don't think that would have happened' at any given point of the story, but then I had to come up with my own version of how I thought a certain nation or its people might have behaved in the circumstances.
I also enjoyed the real life character references from the amusing Greg Norman (sorry, Greg!)to the more disturbing Nicolas Sarkozy.
I'm now quite interested in Birmingham's 'Axis of Time' trilogy which I gather offers an alternate WWII - ah, add them to my ever increasing list!