Mar 31 2009 3:06pm

Without Warning...in 60 Seconds

Australian alternate-history author John Birmingham told Tor.com that his latest book, Without Warning, explores the idea: what if one day before the invasion of Iraq, everyone in North America disappeared and was swept away by an inexplicable energy wave?

“The book looks at what happens on that day. One week later. And one month later,” Birmingham said in an interview. “Nothing good, if you were wondering.”

Birmingham has a fondness for multi-thread story arcs, something he picked up from Tom Clancy, Harry Turtledove, and S. M. Stirling. “So this one, being a global story, pulls in characters from around the world,” he said. “The story opens with a female assassin in Paris, hospitalized with a brain tumor. It moves to Seattle to take up the story of the city’s chief engineer. Drops down to the sea off the west coast of Mexico where three smugglers, an Australian, a white trash princess from Northern Calif., and a fallen lady of the British aristocracy are about to trade some stolen currency with a North Korean freighter. Then we jump over to Iraq, to catch up with a war correspondent for the Army Times, and back to Gitmo where a Marine Corp lawyer is dealing with the end of the world.”

The book was inspired by an old memory of Birmingham’s, from his days as a radical journalist. “Seeing as how I was always at this demonstration, or that riot, I got to know a lot of the full-time Far Left noodle brains around town,” Birmingham said. “I remember arguing with one of them, shortly after the Tiananmen Square massacre. He insisted it was all America’s fault. American foreign policy. American capitalism. American war mongering. It all led directly to Tiananmen Square.”

The man worked himself up quite a rage as Birmingham argued with him. “Finally, with eyes spinning like wheels in a slot machine ‘We’d all be a lot better off if we just woke up one day and they were gone! All of them! Just gone!’” Birmingham said. “At the time, I thought, ‘Jeez, you’re a moron, but what a great idea for a book.’ And twenty years later, scrabbling around for an idea, that memory suddenly jiggled free one day and you got Without Warning.”

When asked about the worldbuilding in the novel, Birmingham said that he’s more of a destroyer than a builder of worlds. “But even that requires certain techniques and templates,” he said. “For the disintegration of Paris, I spent a lot time researching the Islamist youth riots in Clichy-sous-Bois. A lot of the fine detail from those chapters is taken straight from news reports of the clashes.”

Christopher Key
1. Artanian
This one looked really interesting to me when I saw it. Unfortunately the kindle/e-book price is insane, so I won't read it for quite some time.
2. CliN0P1JSbkT
If he picked up anything from S. M. Stirling, I advise very careful hand-washing afterwards.
Bruce Baugh
3. BruceB
Birmingham is an odd one. I read his Axis of Time trilogy, in which a multinational naval task force from 2020 is accidentally transported back to World War II, and found it very satisfying. I thought he did a good job of capturing the tragic deformations inflicted on an entire future society by fighting an unnecessary war in unnecessarily bad ways, and took it as a good warning of why it's wise not to try exterminating ideologies with military power. His 1940s characters correctly see a loss of personal virtues like temperance and charity in their involuntary guests.

Then I discovered that he's gung ho for the war and occupation of Iraq. I boggled. I think he not only wrote books better than he intended, I get the impression that if he thought a lot of readers were getting the same experience I did, he'd go back and damage the books if he could to make them more ideologically conforming.
Christopher Key
4. Artanian
BruceB@3, I actually had the opposite thing happen with John Scalzi. It was amazing to me that he could write such decent military SF and be a wacko liberal.

Is it possible that you, and I both read the books with our own built-in biases?
Madeline Ferwerda
5. MadelineF
BruceB: I was wondering if the America-uber-alles impression I was getting from this interview had basis. Thanks for the further information!

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