A couple of Sundays ago, around midday, I splurged twenty dollars on a nigh-on seven-hundred-page book. By the evening of the next day, I’d made it to the back cover. Although I could put it down, I had a very hard time doing so; I devoured chapters during morning tea, lunch and afternoon tea at work. I enjoyed it so much that I decided to read it through again, much more slowly this time, something I don’t think I’ve ever done with any book before.
Although I din’t know it when I bought the book, it was written by an Australian. John Birmingham previously (well, twelve years ago) made a literary splash with his novel, He Died With A Felafel In His Hand, about sharing a house in Brisbane, which was made into a movie locally. He followed it up with Leviathan: An Unauthorised History of Sydney. He’s also a regular columnist for the current affairs magazine, The Bulletin.
The novel I read was a marked change of pace to say the least. It’s called Weapons of Choice: World War 2.1. It opens fifteen years from now, as a fleet of ships from the US, UK, Australia, Japan, France and Indonesia gathers off East Timor under the supercarrier USS Hillary Clinton, preparing to take Indonesia back from the radical Muslim sect that overthrew its government. Tagging along with them is a reserach vessel at work on a new form of weapon system. When the head researcher decides to try to break the speed of light instead, Something Goes Wrong – and the multinational force suddenly finds itself halfway across the world and eighty years in its own past, materialising in the midst of Admiral Ray Spruance’s task force en route to what ought to be the Battle of Midway.
To say the novel opens with a bang is an understatement. Upon being confronted with the high-tech Japanese destroyer Siranui, Spruance orders his task force to attack the mysterious ships – and while their crews are incapacitated, the networked Combat Intelligences of the multinational task force respond with hypersonic munitions and cruise missiles. Although the future ships take damage, Spruance’s Task Force 17 is almost decimated before the warriors of the future realise that the impossible has happened and order their ships to stand down. On top of that, the Japanese fleet bound for Midway has itself suddenly broken off its date with destiny, coming about and steaming for home.
I’ve read a few reviews that not only lump this book in with “airport thrillers” by Robert Ludlum (The Bourne Identity is apparently the book most commonly bought at airport bookstores) and Dan Brown, but also criticise it for not following such books’ established tropes. Quite frankly, such criticism is unfair; this book’s pedigree puts it alongside works by Harry Turtledove, who’s made his name as the maestro of alternate history fiction (Birmingham even inserts a presidential advisor named “Turteltaub” into the fiction and twice makes reference to “space lizards”, the antagonists of Turtledove’s Worldwar series).
So what do I like about this book? Well, it’s action-packed without descending into straight-up, adolescent male power fantasy (“Let’s team up and kick some Nazi ass!” “Sure thing, Joe Future!”). In fact, I felt as though the chapters where the ships of 2021 demolish Task Force 17 and the seamen of the USS Astoria, attempting to board the strange vessel (the USS Leyte Gulf) that has fused with their own ship, are shredded by ceramic bullets that go from pellet to porcupine inside a human body had dealt me a sucker-punch. Not because the text wallowed in gore – it didn’t – but because these were the good guys locked in mortal combat with each other thanks to a horrid, unforeseeable mistake.
It hits the expected anachornistic notes. The obvious statements about racism and gender issues are presented when the troops, commanders and civilians of the Allied nations are confronted with the mixed-race and -gender complements of the future battleships. Liberated twenty-first century women affront old ladies born in the nineteenth with swearing and open discussions about sex, and the crews of the future, reared on the Internet and handheld computers, start to guess what being thrust back in time to the era of telegraphs and Movietone newsreels will mean for them and the technology aboard their vessels.
Most interestingly, it uses its contrast of cultures to shine a light on the potential consequences of an ongoing War on Terror for ourselves and our children. Say what you will about the predominantly white and entirely male troops and commanders of the Allies; they fought in what’s broadly considered the last (possibly only) just war of the Western world. Are they entirely wrong to be horrified at ships that will engage with lethal force without their crew, with a people so used to war that they treat its horrors with blase professionalism, with a female reporter who’s seen as much combat as a frontline soldier and can handle an MP5 with equal proficiency?
Let it not be said that when Birmingham writes SF, he writes it dead straight, gritty and serious; after all, the head of the contingent of SAS aboard an Australian submarine is none less than Captain Harry Windsor, third in line for the British throne (who, as it turns out, has earned his rank and station among the UK’s hardest).
Weapons of Choice is the first in the Axis of Time trilogy, and Vickie’s bought me books 2 and 3 for Christmas, so you can guess what I’ll probably be doing over the Christmas break – in between eating and gardening, that is.