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After America
John Birmingham
Del Rey, 469 pages

After America
John Birmingham
John Birmingham was born in 1964 in Liverpool UK and migrated to Australia with his parents in 1970. He grew up in Ipswich, Queensland. He attended the St Edmunds Christian Brother's College in Ipswich, and the University of Queensland in Brisbane. His only stint of full time employment was as a researcher at the Defence Department. After this he returned to Queensland to study law but he did not complete his legal studies, choosing instead to pursue a career as a writer. He currently lives in Brisbane.

John Birmingham Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Without Warning
SF Site Review: Axis of Time Trilogy
SF Site Review: Axis of Time Trilogy

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Nathan Brazil

'They would think nothing of killing a thousand nig nogs in a morning's work but became entirely discomfited if you referred to the nig nogs in any but the most delicate of terms.

He had come to a very peculiar place.'

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At the outset I should make it clear for anyone considering dipping into the works of John Birmingham for the first time, that this is the middle book of a trilogy and is intended to be read as such. It does not work as a stand-alone title. I reviewed Without Warning, the first title in this sequence, as 'an absolutely cracking read that was set to become a classic series.' But as many readers know, an author getting off to a good start is no guarantee that the next book won't splutter and die on its feet. Happily, this is not the case with After America, although some liberties are taken, and the story is presented in a manner that will leave more than a few readers slightly frustrated.

Set a mere handful of years from where Without Warning left off, the story opens with President James Kipper leading the effort to reclaim an America that is now free of the deadly energy wave which erased most of the living things within its borders. Gone, as quickly and mysteriously as it came -- and without any explanation -- what is left behind is a vast country in which most of the cities are burned out ruins. The remnants of the American people and their military are struggling to recolonise, due to severely depleted resources and manpower. In addition, there are two other obstacles to President Kipper's ambitions. One, is General Jackson Blackstone now based in Fort Hood, Texas, and slowly building what amounts to a fascistic alternative to the elected government of the United States. The other problem is on the eastern seaboard, specifically Manhattan Island, which has been infiltrated by large numbers of what are at first thought to be foreign criminal gangs; pirates who have come to loot the disappeared and all they left behind. However, in the aftermath of an assassination attempt on Kipper, it is realised that displaced Islamic fanatics from several countries have banded together with the intention of claiming the area for themselves.

The story is advanced episodically from six separate, at times intertwining, perspectives. All of which are given equal time by the author, which works well on some levels and drags on others. There's President Kipper, trying to do the right thing, but hampered by attitudes which are simply not what the times require. Also back from the first book are Jules and the Rhino, who are on a mission to salvage papers from deep inside Manhattan, which will make them millionaires.

There's Miguel Pieraro, and his daughter Sofia, who find themselves forced from the new start their family had made, and on the run across a largely lawless Mid-West. Former Echelon assassin Caitlin Monroe has now recovered from the illness she suffered in the first book, and is beginning a new, almost idyllic life in Great Britain, before the past reaches out for her. New to the story are Yusuf Mohammed, a former boy solider from Africa, now a fighter among the many bringing Holy War to the streets of New York, and Polish immigrant Fryderyk Milosz, now a front line soldier in the US Army. Also thrown into the mix are the deadly and ambitious machinations of Bilal Baumer, alternately known as the terrorist leader Al Banna, and the author's equivalent of Osama Bin Laden.

There's lots to like here. Birmingham's perspective allows him to write American characters both as how Americans see themselves, and as how others view them. Similarly, he is able to present mostly convincing characterisations of several other nationalities, avoiding cliché except where I am assuming that it is intentional. The story flowed well, and was almost always intriguing enough to sustain my interest, both in the subtle details and with action presented in a visceral, cinematic fashion. Birmingham does a good job of bringing his locations to vivid life, although it may be a disappointment to some readers that these locations are mostly limited to America and Great Britain. Only Caitlin Monroe penetrates into Europe, and her time there seems rushed and quite clumsily cut short the instant the plot has been advanced. There are some elements I would take issue with. Firstly, is President James Kipper, who spends most of the book dithering, and staking his claim as the most boring character ever to appear in a John Birmingham novel. It seemed unlikely to me, given the nature of the American people, especially when they're wounded, that someone as reluctant an indecisive as Kipper would ever have been elected. But, as I kept reminding myself, this is a middle book, and there are hints aplenty as to the troubles ahead. Notably those involving General Blackstone, and the sizable chunks of the US military who are illegally transferring their loyalty from President Kipper to Blackstone's area of influence, making a near future civil war within the US much more likely. The biggest problems I had with After America are firstly that none of the threads reach definitive conclusions, with all being left up in the air, in one case quite literally. Secondly, is the fact that very little is revealed concerning the international political, economic, cultural, ecological and other effects on the rest of the Post Wave world. In particular, I noted the absence of any data concerning the fate of Israel, which had launched a nuclear holocaust against its enemies in the first book. Focussing so tightly on so few areas was a choice which I felt diminished what Birmingham had achieved previously. The big picture, such a delight in the first book, was made smaller and less real.

Portraying the victims of Israeli aggression as seeing the largely uninhabited America as a place ripe for the picking was a reasonable extrapolation, but surely the survivors of devastated homelands would have been more than a little unhappy with those who had actually launched the missiles? Genuine history shows us that religious fanaticism rarely puts profit above bloody revenge. If there's a good reason why things are so different in this alternate take, it wasn't clear to me. These issues aside, and based on Birmingham's previous pedigree, I have every confidence that the final book will not disappoint.

Copyright © 2010 Nathan Brazil

Nathan Brazil
If Nathan Brazil were dyslexic, he'd be the dog of the Well world. In reality, he's an English bloke who lives on an island, reading, writing and throwing chips to the seagulls. Drop by his web site at www.inkdigital.org.


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