Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Review: Without Warning

Without Warning by John Birmingham (2009)

I'm not a great reader of airport trash fiction.  In fact, I don't read it at all–even on holiday.  My idea of beach reading is pretty much the sort of fiction I usually read, but in the form of an old paperback that's on its last legs, so it's no great loss if it gets washed out with the tide.  Last week, however, I broke habit and picked up John Birmingham's Without Warning from the public library.  This was largely out of curiosity after the novel's "The world without America" theme was used by political pundits as a way of describing the Obama administration.  Unfortunately, this was a curiosity that wasn't worth indulging in.

Without Warning's premise is that on the eve of the Iraq invasion in 2003 (it's not only sci-fi, but alt hist) the continental United States along with most of Canada and Mexico are enveloped in a mysterious "Wave" that destroys all life, or all animal life, or all primates, or all human life by reducing them to piles of smoking ash.  Or is it goo?  Birmingham can't seem to make up his mind about these basic plot points.  With the world's only superpower reduced to Alaska (which barely gets a mention), Hawaii, and (for some reason) Seattle, the geopolitical implications are earth shattering and threaten to destroy civilisation itself, so naturally Birmingham spends the first chapter rabbiting on about the adventures of a American female super-spy/assassin with a brain tumor. 

That's where the novel falls down; in the fist sentence of the first paragraph of the first chapter.  From the book blurbs, you'd expect Birmingham to give us an insight into what the world would be like if the United States just vanished.  How would the world cope?  Sorry.  Instead, Birmingham deals exclusively with how Americans deal with America vanishing.  His situations all revolve around America, American armed forces abroad, and the rump state that comprises the new United States.  All of his main characters are American except for some cartoon villains and an English lady aristocrat, but don't worry; she talks and acts exactly like an American.  For the rest, we have to content ourselves with tiresome and unedifying pronouncements about the dollar collapsing and the Muslim world rising up in an orgy of murder and destruction.  But we don't see any of that except as it impinges on the American characters.  Even then, Birmingham doesn't bother to explore beyond the superficial.  Seattle has power rationing.  Why?  The power is hydroelectric, so are the dams behind the Wave?  We're never told. Petrol is rationed, but Alaska is untouched and both Hawaii and Seattle have refineries, so why?  There may be good reasons, but Birmingham isn't interested in supplying them.

The novel seemingly follows a number of points of view, but it soon becomes clear that these subplots have literally nothing to do with one another and that Without Warning is really five short novels cobbled together like literary All Sorts.  As much to kill time as anything else, we get to follow the afore mentioned spy as she tries to escape counterespionage killers in Paris, the commander of Guantanamo Bay as he does nor much of anything except succumb to stress, endless meetings in Honolulu, Martial law in Seattle, an embedded reporter in Kuwait, and American refugees trying to escape from Acapulco on a luxury yacht.  As to the main plot, there isn't one; just a lot of excuses for characters to goggle at the destruction, emote, and rush from one cinematic action sequence to the next.  Sometimes it feels like a bad spy thriller, sometimes like a bad Tom Clancy pastiche, sometimes like bad science fiction, but mostly it's just bad.  The characters aren't complex, but they are "colourful".  I hate colourful.  Motives are simplistic, yet still incomprehensible.  The story just spins in circles for page after page.  It gets so bad that when a nuclear war breaks out halfway through my reaction wasn't the demanded horror, but elation that something had actually happened.

Then there are the action sequences that get a bit "samey" after a bit as one firefight blends into another.  By the last half of the book, the start lapping themselves as the yacht repels hijackers for the second time and the reporter is thrown unconscious from yet another exploding vehicle.  This isn't surprising, since this is a world where nothing can crash into anything without wiping out a cargo of innocent children–which also happens with monotonous regularity.  Still, we at least learn the valuable lesson that slim, hot women with ample bosoms stuffed into low-cut tank tops can fire heavy machine guns from their hips.

As to the Wave that caused all of this?  It hangs about through the book, but no one learns anything at all about it–not even the sort you'd expect to learn by poking sticks at it.  That is, even if you don't know what it does, you can figure out what is doesn't do and extrapolate from there.  But Birmingham has no interest in his device, so we're left hanging.

The worst part is at the very end when, after slogging through 528 torpid pages we discover that this is only the first doorstop volume in a series.    Nothing is resolved, there is no climax, and the only stop to running out of paper is a cliffhanger that reads like it was tacked on by the editor as an afterthought.

If you're going on holiday and get stuck in the airport without reading matter, pass this one up and see if there's a paperback Jan Austen somewhere.  If not, even the unending CNN broadcasts are a step up.

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