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.

Watch on the Rhine - Tom Kratman

Watch on the Rhine (Posleen War)
Tom Kratman, John Ringo

A few months ago, I was trapped on a train for several hours (owing to REALLY bad weather on the line.) Having run out of my own books to read, I was lucky enough to be sitting next to a Star Trek fan who loaned me his copies of Star Trek: Destiny, a three-book novel that brought together heroes from many Star Trek franchises. I have never been much of a Star Trek fan, but they featured the Borg and so I read them. The Borg have finally launched an all-out invasion of Federation space and billions of humans and humanoids are being slaughtered mercilessly.

What, you might ask, does this have to do with WOTR? The answer is quite simple; towards the end of the third book in the series, Captain Picard approaches the blind engineer (whose name I have forgotten and I can't be bothered looking up) and orders him to build a superweapon to use against the Borg. The blind engineer refuses on moral grounds and declares his willingness to go to the brig rather than build the hellish weapon. And my reaction, basically, was WTF?

Let’s put this in perspective. The Borg are the single most dangerous race in the entire Star Trek universe. Their ships are effectively invincible. One Cube chopped its way through an entire Federation fleet; another did the same, and then tried to rewrite time so humanity would no longer exist. They assimilate anyone they come across and (unless you have a patriotic scriptwriter) this isn’t just death, but permanent slavery as part of the hive mind. Defeat means the end of the world. Against such an enemy, there is no such thing as an immoral weapon. Picard should have thrown his idiot of a chief engineer out of an airlock, instead of forgiving him, which he does in an emotional scene at the end.

Watch on the Rhine is a spin-off of John Ringo’s famous Posleen War series, in which the Earth (around 2001) is contacted by the Galactic Federation. The Federation warns that Earth is in the path of a rampaging race of alien centaurs who will kill us, eat us and turn our world into yet another spawning ground for the Posleen. Owing to the nature of the Posleen, the war against them will be fought out on the ground (rather than having them throwing rocks at us until we submit) and every country on Earth starts building up a massive army. As of the opening pages of WOTR, Ringo’s Gust Front has concluded, with Washington lying in ruins after the first Posleen landings.

Unfortunately for the Chancellor of Germany, there aren’t actually that many veterans of Germany’s wars left alive. (One of the Federation’s gifts to Earth is rejuvenation technology, which can literally turn an old man into a teenage kid, complete with overcharged hormones.) Facing the certainty of an invasion that will devastate Germany, he makes the very brave (and very politically incorrect) decision to rejuvenate the surviving SS soldiers. Yes, you read that right; the SS. Hitler’s Black Knights. The Order of the Death’s Head. Naturally, this decision provokes massive resistance among the liberal side of Germany, some of whom are in the pay of one of the Galactic Federation races.

I must admit that when I first heard of this idea, I wasn't intending to read the book. The SS are a repulsive historical nightmare, a warning of just how low the human race can sink. Yes, there is no doubting that the SS fought bravely and very well, but they also carried out the orders of some of the worst mass-murderers in human history. The only modern army that comes close to the level of atrocities they committed was the Japanese Army of the same era. Even the Red Army’s horrific march through Germany in 1945 doesn’t come close. The second objection is more practical, than moral; in the words of Basil Faulty, who won the damn war anyway? The SS didn’t win the war for Germany. That may have been because Hitler literally bit off much more than he could chew. Yet, at the same time, Germany didn’t lose the war in spite of the SS, but because of it. The atrocities they visited on their victims were repaid upon Germany itself.

But I had enjoyed reading Tom Kratman’s first book and I decided to give Watch on the Rhine a try. I must admit that I enjoyed it more than I expected.

The book can be effectively divided up into two sections; the prelude to war and the war itself. Tom takes us from the early meeting between the Chancellor and the senior surviving SS officer, to the political manoeuvrings and outright treachery carried out by the Left in hopes of stopping the SS. Sometimes this has its amusing moments. Sometimes this descends into farce.

"Were this true," said the chancellor, mildly, "then equally guilty would be Heinz Guderian, Erich Manstein, Erwin Rommel, or Gerd von Rundstedt. They actually did the higher level planning for that war. The people I propose to bring back were low-level players indeed compared to those famous and admired German soldiers."

"They murdered prisoners!" shrieked another legislator.

"In that war everyone murdered prisoners."

Well yes, in that war everyone did murder prisoners, but how many murdered six million people while following a nutty racial theory? Further, none of the Field Marshals the Chancellor mentions were SS.

Part of the problem, as I see it, is that Tom was writing after 9/11. It is hard to see how that fits into the Posleen Universe, not least because 9/11 hadn’t taken place by the time John wrote the first two books in the series. Furthermore, WOTR takes place after the Posleen have torn Washington to shreds and made their presence indisputably known to the world. The level of denial is unbelievable. There might be a few nuts who don’t believe in the Posleen, but after Washington it would be impossible to convince the world that they don’t exist. Europe is painted as a completely insular society. The Posleen War is nothing like the Iraq War, yet the politics are the same. It makes little sense. WOTR Germany doesn’t feel like a society at war.

The book picks up rapidly as the first wave of invaders land in Germany. The German Army and the SS go into action against the invaders, hobbled by manipulations by the Federation – which secretly fears what humanity will do after the war. Tom’s military skill shows itself as the Germans contain and then drive back the Posleen. The harsh discipline of the SS comes to the fore as they deal with lines that were demoralised and broke. The traitors get swept up and jailed, while Germany goes onto a full war footing. The SS – now including French, Polish and Jewish units – makes a final stand as thousands of Germans flee to Norway and the redoubts prepared there.

Where Tom shines lies in the training and war-fighting experience of the young Germans who find themselves called to battle the alien enemy. Tom is an expert at training young soldiers (a theme he returns to in A Desert Called Peace) and the training sequences read out realistically. Once the war actually starts, Tom does an excellent job of portraying the fighting, although there are some odd points. The Posleen seem considerably more intelligent than Ringo depicts them in the original series, more than willing to comment on the absurdities of human nature and use our own weaknesses – such as human shields – against us. Human shields are a favoured tactic of the barbarians we fight these days, but I doubt that the Posleen could conceive of the tactic, let alone use it.

The portrayal of the SS does strike me as a slightly skewed, even though that may be because of my preconceptions and historical knowledge getting in the way. To the best of my knowledge, the SS never told Hitler and his goons to fuck off; in fact, the SS enforced Hitler’s increasingly foolish orders and certainly had a hand in prolonging the war. The assertion that the SS would have – eventually – had a Jewish formation within its ranks is almost certainly absurd. If there were any Jews serving within the SS, they were never identified as Jews. Furthermore, while the SS was good at incorporating non-Germans into their ranks, those units didn’t always perform very well. On the other hand, Tom is quite right to state that many in the SS – the early SS, at least – regarded Himmler’s devotion to racial purity and propagating the Aryan race as stupid.

(That said, even those who loathe WOTR for its politics have admitted to enjoying the battles.)

And yet, while the book is an enjoyable read, its political message is diluted by its own premise. The threat is overwhelmingly powerful; defeat means extermination. There are no rational grounds for opposing anything to help defeat the Posleen…

Yet are the SS the answer? As I said above, the Germans lost the war…and they lost it, in large part, because of the SS. The SS Himmler and his men created could not be separated from their nutty beliefs in racial destiny and the atrocities they carried out helped destroy Germany’s chance of winning the war. What if, one might ask, if the Germans had treated the Russians decently in 1941? Even as a tactical manoeuvre, with every intention of revenging on it after the war, it would have changed history.

WOTR is exciting, thought-provoking and provocative.