RogerBW's Blog

Weapons of Choice, John Birmingham 23 February 2017

2004 alternate-history science fiction war story. In the near future, an American-led multinational naval force is approaching an Indonesia turned muslim-fundamentalist, when it finds itself hurled through time to 1942, just before the Battle of Midway.

Birmingham is clearly familiar with the way these stories usually go (all the good guys make friends because they're all American), and he's determined not to fall into that cliché. The arrival is right in the middle of Spruance's fleet heading for Midway: not only do some of the ships materialise inside others, it's a horribly chaotic situation, and people start shooting. By the time communications are established and the killing stops, we're a quarter of the way through the book and there are thousands of dead on both sides, which doesn't get things off to a good start.

And then we get what seems to be the main theme of the book: the future-people are happy to have people who aren't white men in their forces, even commanding their ships, and the past-people have severe trouble coming to terms with it. Yes, all right, this is a point that most authors gloss over; but Birmingham perhaps goes too far the other way, grinding it in at great and repetitive length. (He also seems to be stretching at times to find some virtues among the past-people that the future-people have lost, to try to get some sort of mutual learning going, and doesn't quite convince; most of his past-people are relentlessly stupid and unwilling to learn anything new, in spite of living in an era with rather more obvious change than the present day or the projected future, except for the few who are Good Guys and instantly adjust to all the new information and ways of doing things.)

Another change from the usual pattern is that one of the ships (a more primitive but still highly advanced loyalist Indonesian frigate) falls into the hands of the Japanese… and they're not stupid. They soon work out that, while missiles are all very well, knowledge of how the war would play out without intervention from the future is far more valuable to them, assuming they can get the supreme commanders to listen. In fact, that knowledge soon reaches both sides' commands, and it's clear that the future's history won't be a useful guide for very long.

While most writers focus on the naval action, the bulk of this book deals with the attempts of the future and past to reach some accommodation. The huge cast is soon scattered across the world, and I could have done with a somewhat smaller number of characters to keep track of; but where they don't always have very distinctive personalities, they do have sufficient context that it's not hard to pick up a story thread again. But Birmingham is trying to write a great big political history of a changed war, combined with a naval action thriller, and it doesn't quite hold together.

I think this might have worked rather better without the futuristic tech, since it's not all that clearly defined and has a tendency to be able to do whatever the plot needs it to. (And the futuristic tech could have been enjoyable to read about in itself without the time travel stuff thrown in – especially the 100kt+ supercavitating destroyer.)

There are some oddities of writing. Birmingham is an Australian author (presumably he's writing about Americans to get the larger audience), and makes errors like sometimes talking about an AWAC (rather than AWACS) aircraft, or the Girl Guides (should be Girl Scouts). And sometimes he just seems to go by the sound of the words rather than the meaning, like the destroyer commander who "surveyed the heaving ocean from his eyrie's nest", or references to "gated doors" swinging open.

It's… OK, I guess. It tells the modern-people-go-to-WWII story much better than anything else I've read that tries it. But too often it ends up feeling superficial. Followed by Designated Targets.

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  1. Posted by Dr Bob at 06:26pm on 24 February 2017

    I enjoyed this series. I was, however, bewildered by the local bookshop shelving volume 1 in "Crime & Thrillers", Volume 2 in "War" and volume 3 in "Science Fiction".

    On the logic that I'd like this, I tried John Birmingham's "After America" series and just couldn't get on with it at all.

    What should "eyrie's nest" be in reality?

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