Without Warning by John Birmingham
(Del Rey, 528 pages, $26)
What would happen if most of the people in the United States, together with those in southern Canada and northern Mexico, were suddenly killed? That is the question asked and answered by John Birmingham’s novel, Without Warning.
The book does not play well with others. Its subject matter and pedigree make it an example of alternate history, but the masters of alternate history with whom I am familiar (principally Robert Harris, Tom Clancy, Douglas C. Jones, and Harry Turtledove) rarely get as apocalyptic as Birmingham does while imagining that only Alaska, Hawaii, and the northwesternmost sliver of Washington State are spared from the ravages of a monstrous and mysterious energy wave that remains unnervingly stationery after killing people and leaving buildings unscathed, except for fires that no one within the wave print is alive to extinguish.
Birmingham looks at the implications of an unexpected end to the United States from military, social, and economic points of view. His most compelling chapters follow American soldiers as they come to grips with the idea that Uncle Sam is suddenly out of the superpower game, and that everybody in the Constitutional line of succession to the office of the president is gone. By tracking characters in Paris, Seattle, Guantanamo Bay, and Honolulu, Birmingham shows how much of a catastrophe the sudden loss of the United States would be, even for people disinclined to think well of American influence.
Events in the story use real history from 2003 as a point of departure. The book opens as American-led forces are days from invading Iraq at the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom. This shrewd choice of timeline allows Birmingham to incorporate several known personalities, including Army general Tommy Franks and Hawaii governor Linda Lingle, into his narrative, where they add a measure of plausibility in peripheral roles while interacting with fictional characters.
Like the American assassin whose infiltration of an Al Qaeda cell goes badly wrong early in the story, Birmingham understands human nature. The chaos that follows what comes to be called “The Disappearance” tests a handful of characters whom Birmingham lets us get to know with skillful exposition. The only discordant note I could find among his collection of soldiers, smugglers, fixers, and civil servants is that, apart from a few glimmers of faith discovered posthumously, no one prays when the world as they know it comes to an end.
Violence in the story is measured but not sugar-coated. I cringed at some of what Caitlin, the assassin, is forced to endure. On the other hand, a war correspondent’s conversation with a group of Polish commandos moved me deeply, as did a faceoff between American and Venezuelan military officers, and conversations that Caitlin has with a grudging ally while Paris spirals into civil war around them. The friendship between beautiful smugglers Fifi and Jules — one of them a redneck American, the other a daughter of old British money — is likewise more believable than it has any right to be, thanks to character development in chapters set aboard a stolen luxury yacht.
The novel uses gallows humor to good effect, as when a long-suffering city engineer and the military officers making his life more difficult describe municipal grandees in Seattle as “nimrods” and worse for arguing about whether to serve cookies at council meetings while food rationing is in effect.
Birmingham is more interested in how people cope with the lethal energy wave than in explaining something surreal enough to take down a once-formidable country, which means that there are no heroic scientists in this story. More curiously, given his premise about Alaska and Hawaii as America’s two surviving states, there are no Alaskans, either. What we get instead are confrontations that comment on the balance of power between civil and military authority, using Seattle as an unwilling laboratory of democracy under fire.
Sensitive to the multicultural reach of apocalypse now, Birmingham works to ensure that even his secondary characters are an ethnically diverse lot who move the story forward, and he deserves special kudos for making French colonial history important to a plot point.
Despite its few shortcomings and the ferocity with which it resists categorization, Without Warning must be reckoned a significant success. While not as memorably austere as A Canticle for Liebowitz or as imaginatively pastoral as Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Wild Shore, it beats the tar out of most beach reads, and provides a compelling setup for Birmingham’s next book, After America.