Without Warning by John Birmingham
In Kuwait, American forces are locked and loaded for the invasion of Iraq. In Paris, a covert agent is close to cracking a terrorist cell. And just north of the equator, a sailboat manned by a drug runner and a pirate is witness to the unspeakable. In one instant, all around the world, everything will change. A wave of inexplicable energy slams into the continental United States. America as we know it vanishes. From a Texas lawyer who happens to be in the right place at the right time to an engineer in Seattle who becomes his city’s only hope, from a combat journalist trapped in the Middle East to a drug runner off the Mexican coast, Without Warning tells a fast, furious story of survival, violence, and a new, soul-shattering reality.
Genre wise, Without Warning could probably best be described as a bit of a hybrid. It takes the best elements from a standard Clancy-esque thriller as well as a nice, inexplicable science-fiction macguffin and throws them together to create a page turning mash-up of the two. Events begin to unfold in an alternate 2003. Large portions of the US Military are poised to invade Iraq when in a single second, 95% of the American population vanishes. In their place, is a huge impenetrable energy wave that covers most of the US mainland.
Chronologically, things are split into a number of sections that follow the moments leading up to ‘the Disappearance’, as it comes to be known, and its immediate aftermath. There are also chapters set a week after, a month after and finally, a year after. I was a little concerned at the prospect of this, fearing that these jumps were going to miss big chunks out of the plot. I needn’t have worried however, nothing feels jarring and the split over multiple time periods actually allows more ground to be covered. This allows for some good insight into the longer-term effects of the situation.
I was reminded a little of the premise from Flash Forward by Robert J. Sawyer, certainly events have a similar tone. An unexplained event occurs that effects the entire planet, and the story that follows covers various different reactions and perspectives to that event. It also feels like there is an episodic nature to the different strands of narrative, almost like you’re getting half a dozen short stories for the price of one. It’s particularly good when the separate character arcs intersect with one another. The moments when characters you are already familiar with meet for the first time is always fun.
The story focuses on various different section of society. Everything from the military, civilian infrastructure, crime and espionage get a look in. The author has obviously spent time considering how all these different facets of life would be effected. This attention to detail really pays dividends. Birmingham’s tale doesn’t shy away from asking difficult questions. How far will one country go to defend itself from potential aggressors in the absence of protection? Will economies survive when one of the world’s largest countries isn’t there anymore? Who should be in charge when the majority of a government are gone?
I like this approach. When it comes to apocalyptic fiction I want to get a sense that something HUGE has occurred. If everyone is effected by what is going on, I want to get glimpses of that. I always like when an author ensures that their apocalyptic action is truly globe spanning. Without Warning moves around all over the world following various characters, in the American Northwest, the Middle East, Paris, Cuba, Hawaii and even across the world’s oceans.
The chapters dealing with the situation in Paris are especially strong. Though not at the epicentre of the Disappearance Parisian society suffers just as much as everywhere else. The deterioration and collapse of society in the French capital is ultimately quite harrowing, things eventually devolving into something akin to civil war. Most of this is seen through the eyes of an American agent called Caitlin Monroe. Her realistic attitude and brutally frank assessment of how things are playing out is a real eye opener. She experiences some very grim moments and nothing is sugar-coated for the reader’s benefit.
On a larger scale, one of the most interesting aspects of this novel is the various political power plays that begin to play out. The global status quo has shifted in a split second and many people/governments quickly come to realise that the rules have changed. Some try to stave off the breakdown of society, while others attempt to grab as much power as they can for themselves. Old resentments bubble back to the surface, and in some cases escalate into all out conflict. America has often been described as being the bully in the playground when it comes to world events, but what happens when the bully is suddenly no longer there? Who steps in and fills the vacuum left behind? The events that occur in the Middle East offer some of the novel’s most jaw dropping moments. You can quickly guess where things are going when you hear phrases like pre-emptive strike getting banded about.
This book is the first in a series and its final moments are suitably cliffhanger-y, but also offer just the smallest glimmer of hope. Birmingham has an eye for action, but also knows how to leave a reader guessing which way things are going to go. Over the course of the six hundred odd pages of book one, I’ve came to empathise with some of the characters, Rhino Ross and Jed Culver are particular favourites. It’s the mark of any writer’s skill when they can create a story that is so massive, but still retain a human face on events. This series has the potential to be an apocalyptic classic and I’m very keen to find out where things go next. I’ll even admit a burning curiosity regarding the origins of the enigmatic energy wave.
Without Warning is published by Titan Books and is available now. The second and third parts of this series, After America and Angels of Vengeance will be available on 22 February.