Thursday, 9 September 2010

After America - John Birmingham

After America
-John Birmingham

A world without America, five years on…

In the remarkably good Without Warning, John Birmingham introduced us to a whole new disaster novel, one where (in 2003, just prior to the invasion of Iraq) a wave of energy of unknown origin destroyed the continental United States overnight. The world went mad; global economies tanked, civil war and ethnic cleansing spread across Europe, all-out war in the Middle East led to the nuclear destruction of much of the Arab world, China fell into civil war and Russia started to reassert itself as a global power. The remains of the United States – the once-proud military machine and a handful of surviving locations – found itself struggling to survive in a demented world. It was a story where real-like characters such as Tommy Franks and Linda Lingle interacted with a fascinating cast of fictional characters.

A year after the Wave appeared; it vanished, leaving a devastated – and depopulated – United States behind. The American Government – under President Kipper – has moved to repossess its old territory, but powerful forces are preparing to strangle the reborn United States in its cradle. Four years after resettlement began, New York and much of the eastern seaboard is a battleground between different factions of illegal immigrants and the American military, while ethnic and racial strife threaten to shatter a fragile peace in Texas. The President of the United States goes to New York and barely escapes with his life, giving the order for a Fallujah-like push against terrorists and bandits within the remains of the once-great city.

In the meantime, a secret agent in Europe discovers a conspiracy to bring down the United States, one directed by a shadowy figure from her past. Caitlin (who is married to Bret, with one child) embarks on a tour through post-Wave Europe, from the fascist British state to the far too permissive Germany. Jules and the Rhino embark on a daring mission to recover a valuable item from the remains of New York before the American military destroys it. And other newer characters find themselves exploring the post-Wave world.

I should state at the start that After America suffers from being the second book in a trilogy. Some of the action seems largely pointless. Other action seems intensely focused on one particular battleground. Caitlin’s exploration of Germany is interesting, but Jules’s adventure seems completely pointless, particularly when the secret is finally revealed. All they do, it seems, is meet other characters. The story ends on a semi-cliffhanger with no clear resolution. The book is also wordy in the wrong places, with considerable attention being paid to irrelevant details. In short, the overall storyline is not much advanced.

Where the book shines is in its vivid description of the post-wave world. The image of a world without the one and only superpower – ‘oppressive everyone into behaving themselves,’ as one character points out in the first book – is sharp and depressing. Europe has fractured into a nightmare of multiple states, while Russia is growing more powerful and India and Pakistan have exchanged nuclear attacks. Some bits of the book are less believable than others, yet the overall effect is interesting and fascinating. Australia, it seems, has become considerably more powerful, while China simmers in constant ferment.

The descriptions of the various locations within the book shine; New York, the site of a complex battle between American soldiers and various fanatics, comes across as a ruined city. London and a German city come across as darker, warped by the post-wave world. I wished, however, that the author had looked at other locations in his work.

The characters have also grown and changed. Kipper, now President of the United States, comes across as slightly daunted by his new responsibilities. Caitlin combines motherhood with secret intelligence and commando work. Miguel seems to have grown the most, although part of me wondered at his sudden adoption of right-wing beliefs, contrasted oddly with his nemesis, the former CO of Seattle.

There are, however, a number of minor issues. One is the presence of jihadi fighters in New York, seemingly thousands of them. Just how did they get there with the USN covering the waters? Texas, it seems, is on the road to independence, something that is a little bit overdone in the AH world. The presence of green political factions makes little sense in the post-wave world, particularly when there is an obvious need to get as much food produced as possible. They come across as complete fools; quite rightly, IMHO. And, finally, what happened in the Caribbean, after Cuba had been occupied by Venezuela?

Most of the book is quite readable, but IMHO the entire Texas subplot should have been junked. It struck me as boring compared to the New York storyline. A subplot set in Russia or China might have been far more interesting.

Overall a good read, but not a great one.

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