Without warning, on the eve of the second Gulf war an unknown energy blast hits the USA - destroying all fauna while leaving flora and buildings intact. America as we know it vanishes in the blink of an eye.
It's 2003 and in Kuwait US forces are poised for the invasion of Iraq, in Paris a covert agent is close to cracking a terrorist cell while out to sea just north of the equator a pirate and a drug runner witness the blast first-hand. One of the few cities to survive within the continental United States is Seattle where an engineer may be the cities only hope for survival. From each of these places we will learn how the world could cope with the loss of the number 1 superpower.
This is the first time I've read a John Birmingham novel, although I have been aware of his work for some time; since his Axis of Time alternative history novels were released back in 2004. I love the idea of a sudden unknown event causing an apocalyptic catastrophy in the US; it's quite original in the way it's described and the multi-thread approach following American survivors from different parts of the world works very well. These independent story arcs provide a great way to explore different ways that this event would impact on the world and it's survivors. Apart from the arc that describes the remnants of the US Military, it's very much a man on the streets viewpoint, little is given away as to the cause or even nature of the catastrophe and this proves very effective as a draw and a way of relating to the characters. The way that each viewpoint switches between chapters works brilliantly, many times pausing on a cliff-hanger or otherwise heart-lurching event and creating a real sense of dramatic tension.
The book feels like a mainstream thriller for the most part, it's packed full of action and the pace is swift enough that I read all 400 pages within two days but it also comes across as a much more thoughtful one than the overly militaristic style that swamps the thriller genre (Tom Clancy I'm looking at you). Instead the focus is firmly placed on the people and their reactions to the big event. In counterpoint to this thriller style is a subtle satirical edge and running social commentary that creates a real sense of depth, elevating it above the standard thriller fare and preventing the subject matter from becoming overly horrific.
Through these characters we do get to see how the rest of the world fare's with the destruction of the number one super power and while this does feel like it's written from the viewpoint of an American bias (John Birmingham is actually Australian though) it does also feel balanced enough to be credible. Love them or Loath them, the world would be a very different place without the USA and that void in both power and economy would cause severe global disruption. I won't give anything away in exactly how the other countries react but suffice to say I can imagine each of them behaving as Birmingham suggests.
The book is clearly part of a larger story and the quite tension building end does leave you wanting more, the story continues in the follow up novel After America.
I enjoyed Without Warning much more than I thought I would - I'm not a big fan of mainstream thrillers but the balance between suspense and post-apocalypse styles is genius while the writing itself is quite exceptional. Recommended for anyone looking for a fast paced story of global calamity.
Written on 11 February 2013 by Antony Jones.
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