Instantaneously, a field of energy falls across most of America. Standing miles high, the field appears instantly, is completely permeable and absolutely deadly. Anyone trapped under it or who passes through it is rendered down to organic mush. Three hundred million Americans die in a heartbeat. It’s 2003. The world has just ended. This is what happens next.
I know John Birmingham’s work best from the splendid He Died With A Falafel In His Hand, a semi-autobiographical story of the gentle, and less so, horrors of house sharing. It’s a great book, very funny, very smart and based on my experiences, remarkably close to the truth. It was a surprise then to find that Birmingham has become best known in recent years for alternate history, and that this is his newest trilogy in the field. It was even more of a surprise to find out how good it is.
I’m not being snooty either, just cautious. This kind of story is, far too often, the sole province of the Christian right or the plain old Right, and it’s difficult not to see elements of the Rapture in the initial set up. The vast majority of Americans are dead. Those that are left behind are caught up not just in how to survive but in the shock wave of the world realizing one of its largest powers has gone, overnight.
It’s immensely refreshing then, to find Birmingham not only not going down that route but ploughing a remarkably well researched, pragmatic path. He cuts between multiple POV characters; a civil engineer in Seattle, a CIA assassin off the books and in the wind in Paris, an ex-Ranger turn war correspondent suddenly facing a very different Gulf War II and Fifi and Jules, two female smugglers who catch the sharp end of the New World Order. It’s an eclectic bunch and Birmingham juggles them expertly. He uses these four viewpoints, as well as Turk Musso, the officer left in charge of Guantanamo and Admiral Ritchie, one of the most senior officers left standing to not only explore the Wave from every angle but the effect it has. For Caitlin, the CIA assassin, it’s a minor inconvenience on an already blown job, whilst for Melton, the war correspondent; it’s the end of his identity, not only as a soldier but as a journalist. Melton has one of the most intriguing journeys of the book, shifting between both professions until a catastrophic ambush earns him a medevac seat home. Caught in the limbo of waiting for a flight, he finds himself in a colossal hangar filled with wounded soldiers from every Allied country. Too injured and too old to be a Ranger, his publication as a journalist cut out from under him Melton is faced with a choice between being a passive casualty and doing the one thing every writer, eventually, does and every writer hates themselves for doing;
He starts writing. Not just writing, he starts doing the one thing no one up until that point, has done; talking to individuals, listening to singular stories instead of staring, dumbfounded at the vast events that are consuming the world. In the middle of a horde of injured, grieving, in many cases terrified, soldiers, Melton stands up and looks the new world straight in the eye. It’s one of the most powerful, humane sequences in the book.
That desire, that need to re-make the world back into a shape that makes sense lies at the heart of every plot in the book. In the Pacific theater, Ritchie and Musso find themselves having to rebuild the military, and evacuate hundreds of thousands of survivors, with almost no resources to do it. In Paris, Caitlin, the assassin, discovers she has a brain tumor that’s aggressively deteriorating even as her every move seems blocked by a suddenly hostile French secret service. In Seattle, James Kipper contends not only with the horrors of rationing and environmental damage but two branches of the government competing to see who can be the most venal and incompetent. Finally, out at sea, Fifi and Jules stumble upon the biggest luxury yacht they’ve ever seen and in doing so, embark on a slow, meandering, violent path towards something approaching heroism, albeit with a hefty bill attached.
And always there, somewhere between the horizon and the middle distance, is the Wave.
Birmingham’s grasp of recent history is one of his strongest suits and its given full flow here, as we discover a very different reason for Nikolas Sarkozy to become the leader of France, and the second Gulf War degenerates into a nightmarish crossfire which sees hundreds of suicide bomber jet skis storming the Gulf and Israel making a horrific choice for reasons which are, if not understandable, certainly have context. None of it ever feels forced, or like Birmingham is trying to shove an established figure into a character-shaped mould and as a result the blending of real figures, like General Tommy Franks, with fictional ones works perfectly. This is the way the world ends, and the echoes of our world that Birmingham scatters along the way only add to the sense of imminent doom.
Arguably the only thing as impressive as Birmingham’s research is his flair for truly unpleasant consequences. All non-organic matter is essentially unharmed by the wave, meaning the thousands of planes in the air beneath the wave are still intact, even if their passengers aren’t Eventually those planes crash and that, combined with uncontrolled fires already in place, turn a sizable portion of the country into a firestorm. The catastrophic short-term environmental damage is a vital part of the plot, with Kipper especially struggling to deal with it, corrosive rain forming a sickly backdrop to his own, reluctant, battle for literal and political power. The same environmental damage sparks full on anarchy in much of Europe, which in turn leads to an engineered civil war in France which, in turn, spurs the UK to close its borders. It’s not that the falcon cannot hear the falconer in Birmingham’s 2003 it’s that he can’t see the falconer through the toxic smog.
It would be really easy with this sort of subject matter for the book to descend into either a right or left-wing screed about the evils of the other side, but Birmingham’s far too clever a writer for that. Instead he uses every character to explore the grey area we all live in. Each main character makes bad choices, some make horrifying ones and at the same time, each one has moments of real decency and heroism. The most poignant of these include the hangar scene with Melton I’ve already discussed, the closing gun battle and a deeply moving moment where Jules is faced with a choice between what’s right and what’s necessary. There are no real heroes here, just people in an impossible situation, doing the best they can.
Without Warning presents one of the most well-rounded armageddons I’ve seen in a long time. Every choice makes sense, every real figure is used convincingly and the small, human, desperate responses of the characters to the Wave have a real ring of truth to them. Balancing action with character against a backdrop of near total catastrophe, it’s a gripping start to a trilogy that begins with the end of the old world and is brave enough to explore what happens next. The world has just ended. This is what happens next.
Without Warning is published by Titan and is available now for £7.99