RogerBW's Blog

Designated Targets, John Birmingham 06 March 2021

2005 alternate-history science fiction war story. The "uptimers" from 2021 are helping their Allied counterparts from 1942, but both sides have future tech and people to exploit.

The book starts off slowly, reintroducing us to a bunch of viewpoints from book one and adding plenty of new ones. But it picks up soon enough, and keeps a balance between individual stories and the big picture development of the war… nearly. So very nearly.

A side issue is that general knowledge from the future has got out, and people are judged by their future histories. Hitler has purged people, or not, based on their counterparts' performance at Nuremberg; all of a sudden everyone's laughing at J. Edgar Hoover; Kim Philby is only still around because he went into hiding faster than Burgess or Maclean; and apparently only one person has thought of signing up Elvis Presley or Frank Sinatra (mostly as a legal fiction, to make money on existing recordings brought from the future).

A continuing concern, also handled well, is that stocks of high-tech ammunition (anything from bullets to missiles) are strictly limited and irreplaceable, and it's reasonable for the enemy to send just-barely-threatening attacks that still need be knocked down, in order to reduce the future-Allies' supplies. Fair enough.

Where my disbelief ceased to be suspended and plummeted into the depths, though, was the German invasion of England. Which is a good excuse to link to the late Alison Brooks' analysis of Operation Sealion. Yes, sure, the Germans have made a very temporary peace with Russia and switched back to bombing British airfields rather than cities, and have advanced technology to help… but even without the expense of high-tech weapons, the historical German forces just didn't have the transport capacity to make an invasion work, nor the naval forces to defend that transport capacity. (And there's some evidence that they knew it: much of the invasion preparation of 1940 seems to have been hollow theatre for the benefit of both the English and the lower-ranking Germans.) Anyway, that's not where we're told the sexy new tech is going: it's going into small numbers of ground-attack Me262s and anti-ship missiles, and some hand-held anti-armour weapons for the infantry. But as Brooks says, "[t]he difficulty facing the Germans was not beating the British Army, but it was getting across the Channel in the face of the RN and the RAF". But better transport boats don't go whoosh and zoom.

So while some of the characterisation is pretty decent (though I'm unconvinced by Hoover turning traitor just to try to cover his embarrassment) I can't help feeling that Birmingham is losing his grip on the bigger picture, the industrial economics that are a vital part of a war at this scale – especially since militarily he really only looks closely at the Japanese invasion of Australia, their attack on Hawaii, and the German invasion of England.

There's a third volume dealing with the conclusion of the war, and a second trilogy covering Stalin's invasion of Europe ten years later (spoilers?), but after this (and seeing some suggestions that the third volume is the weakest and most inconclusive of the trilogy) I fear I feel no enthusiasm for them.

Indeed, I may be being harsher on this series than it deserves, perhaps because it would only have taken fairly minor changes to make it something I could really have enjoyed.

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Previous in series: Weapons of Choice | Series: Axis of Time

  1. Posted by John Gordon Dallman at 11:01am on 06 March 2021

    But ... the problem with the Me 262 wasn't lack of technology, but lack of the nickel and chromium needed for turbine blades. The 2021 solution is to make them of alloys that are mainly nickel, rather than steel, so future knowledge doesn't help much.

    Presumably many of the problems are like that? We're a tough audience for this kind of thing, but it does sound as if Birmingham hasn't really got to grips with WWII.

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 01:19pm on 06 March 2021

    One of the less-glamorous projects that gets shunted aside in favour of the jets:

    "Brasch had worked with engineers at Messerschmitt on CAD/CAM programs that employed early twenty-first-century propeller designs, to extend the range of an ME 109 and give it forty-five minutes over England, rather than twenty."

    (and on the other side they talk about "an extra 20% efficiency" for similar props; I'm not entirely convinced you get this if you're still making them out of cunningly-wrought wood or magnesium alloy rather than exciting composites.)

    There is a general feeling among the smart Germans that the 262 is a waste of resources compared with other things, but Göring's overriding them in favour of the zoom – fair enough and in character for him. But even the other things they're trying to do are spot improvements like that better prop efficiency and the anti-shipping missiles, rather than the boring logistical stuff that actually wins wars. (Of course part of the problem, and being fair Birmingham clearly realises this, is that Germany still has Hitler in charge. Japan has Yamamoto who seems to have a pretty free hand in the Pacific, and they do rather better.)

    I think he comes closer than anyone else I've read to getting it right, and this may well be why I found the book so frustrating.

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