Birmingham, John. Without Warning. New York: Del Rey, 2009. ISBN 978-0-345-50289-6.
One of the most common counsels offered to authors by agents and editors is to choose a genre and remain within it. A book which spans two or more of the usual categories runs the risk of “falling into the crack”, with reviewers not certain how to approach it and, on the marketing side, retailers unsure of where in the store it should be displayed. This is advice which the author of this work either never received or laughingly disdained. The present volume combines a political/military techno-thriller in the Tom Clancy tradition with alternative history as practiced by Harry Turtledove, but wait—there's more, relativistic arm-waving apocalyptic science fiction in the vein of the late Michael Crichton. This is an ambitious combination, and one which the author totally bungles in this lame book, which is a complete waste of paper, ink, time, and money.

The premise is promising. What would happen if there were no United States (something we may, after all, effectively find out over the next few years, if not in the manner posited here)? In particular, wind the clock back to just before the start of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and assume the U.S. vanished—what would the world look like in the aftermath? You ask, “what do you mean by the U.S. vanishing?” Well, you see, an interdimensional portal opens between a fifth dimensional braneworld which disgorges 500,000 flying saucers which spread out over North America, from which tens of millions of 10 metre tall purple and green centipedes emerge to hunt down and devour every human being in the United States and most of Canada and Mexico, leaving intact only the airheads in western Washington State and Hawaii and the yahoos in Alaska. No—not really—in fact what is proposed here is even more preposterously implausible than the saucers and centipedes, and is never explained in the text. It is simply an absurd plot device which defies about as many laws of physics as rules of thumb for authors of thrillers.

So the U.S. goes away, and mayhem erupts all around the world. The story is told by tracking with closeups of various people in the Middle East, Europe, on the high seas, Cuba, and the surviving remnant of the U.S. The way things play out isn't implausible, but since the precipitating event is absurd on the face of it, it's difficult to care much about the consequences as described here. I mean, here we have a book in which Bill Gates has a cameo rôle providing a high-security communications device which is competently implemented and works properly the first time—bring on the saucers and giant centipedes!

As the pages dwindle toward the end, it seems like nothing is being resolved. Then you turn the last page and discover that you've been left in mid-air and are expected to buy After America next year to find out how it all comes out. Yeah, right—fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, not gonna happen!

Apart from the idiotic premise, transgenred plot, and side-splitting goofs like the mention of “UCLA's Berkeley campus” (p. 21), the novel drips with gratuitous obscenity. Look, one expects soldiers and sailors to cuss, and having them speak that way conveys a certain authenticity. But here, almost everybody, from mild-mannered city engineers to urbane politicians seem unable to utter two sentences without dropping one or more F-bombs. Aside from the absurdity of the plot, this makes the reading experience coarsening. Perhaps that is how people actually speak in this post-Enlightenment age; if so, I do not wish to soil my recreational reading by being reminded of it.

If we end up in the kind of post-apocalyptic world described here, we'll probably have to turn to our libraries once the hoard of toilet paper in the basement runs out. I know which book will be first on the list.

March 2009 Permalink