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.”