Thursday, March 13, 2008

1003. Final Impact

"Final Impact"

This book by John Birmingham is the third novel in the "Axis of Time" trilogy. A fascinating alternate history / alternate reality science-fiction story set in the year 2021 (or rather beginning there), but actually taking place during the height of World War II (or '2' if you prefer).

But, first of all, let me set the stage for you: In 2021, an international Task Force headed by the USS Super-Carrier 'Hillary Clinton' is sailing off the Indonesian waters to enforce some sort of U.N. edict. There are various politics involved as to why this task force is in the area. Mention is made of 'The War on Terror' having commenced following the attacks of 9/11, as well as the fight against various terrorist organizations. In some sense, the world of the future, in the few pages allotted to it by John Birmingham, is just as fascinating as the world of the past he's about to build.

One of the premises that I always find 'funny' (in all its connotations) in Science Fiction is the 'mad scientist' invention. Mr. Birmingham doesn't necessarily stoop to the level of using it in this trilogy, but he embraces it.... BUT, I am not here to review the whole series or trilogy. Suffice it to say, that the ships of 2021 end up in 1942, and the history of World War II is changed forever. So, it's time to jump ahead (or rather back, if you'll forgive the pun....) If you have not read the first two books in the series, do yourself a favor, and go get those books: "Weapons of Choice" and "Designated Targets". And stop reading this review right here, before you spoil your enjoyment.

(this is called spoiler space !!!)

Events in the third book begin with the alternate 1944's D-Day landings in Calais. Why Calais and not Normandy? That's what Hitler would like to know. The Allies have brought into the fight a lot of modified weapons. These weapons are not from the future. Rather, they are what 1940s technology can produce with 2020s know-how. This gives them a clear advantage over the Axis powers, even though, the Axis powers also have in their possession some of these 'future secrets'. And of course the 'The Sword of Damocles' in this whole fight is the fate of one of the Task Force's 'lost ships'. Did the 'HMS Vanguard' slip through time and end-up in the hands of the Russians who at this time in history absolutely control the USSR and are in turn ruthlessly controlled by the brutal dictator Stalin and his cronies? And do the Soviets now possess sufficient modern technologies (aka, 21st century technologies) to oppose the emerging victory of the Allies?

If you've read the first two books, you will know that John Birmingham uses a cast of thousands and many historical figures as key players in his books. It's not as if other fiction writers have not attempted this method before. Harry Turtledove is well known for doing the same, and I have read simple short stories that fictionalized the lives of presidents and others. But the scope in which Mr. Birmingham does it, is breathtaking and awe-inspiring. How can you know the man and president, Franklin D. Roosevelt? How can you know the man and General, Dwight D. Eisenhower? Yet, somehow, John Birmingham has done significant enough research to pull of some magnificent characterizations for these people. This is one of the endearing features of this trilogy.

At the same time however, the author has enough 21st century characters who are completely fictional (but could be based on real people -- in the sense that a TV reporter in the book is inspired by a real life TV reporter), who are very prominent. And in this final chapter of the trilogy, the base characters, the ones who came to the past from 2021 with the 'Hillary Clinton' task force return to the foreground. Their adventures are the link in the important pieces that set-up the ending of the book and the ending of the trilogy.

The old girl, the USS 'Hillary Clinton' has been retrofitted to fight with an amalgam of 1940s/1950s technology. It is still the most fearsome weapon on the sea, except the sea it prowls is set in 1944. Finally, the other plot point that I can reveal here (bit of an annoying spoiler, I know, but you kind of knew that it was coming) is the existence of nuclear weapons. Many of the engineers and the technology that came back with the 'Clinton' are utilized by all the Powers in the World in the development of Nuclear Weapons. Who succeeds and who uses them first and with what kind of results is left for you to find out.

"Final Impact" works both as a Science Fiction / Alternate History Fiction novel, as well as a cautionary tell. All good Science Fiction novels must operate in this arena. You take some characters from our world and place them in a situation which is completely outside of our experience. What you hope to achieve with this ploy is the discovery of some new ways of looking at the world. Some new interpretations and analyses of life as we know it today. Why is that important? Well, how else are we going to learn something new? There are three main ways: a) We experience it for ourselves; b) We learn it from the experience of others (another form of learning) and finally, c) We imagine it.

In this book, John Birmingham successfully puts his characters in a highly charged and segregated atmosphere, the Second World War. Our people, 'our avatars' transferred for our sakes to the past, to experience the adventure for us, come face to face with 'the barbarians' (who are also us, our forefathers) who caused and fought the great war in the 1940s, of the greatest generation. The same place where a black man could not fight side to side with a white man. In a place with people that committed the atrocities of genocide and ethnic cleansing. Able to stop the people that caused the HOLOCAUST of the Jewish people. If we were to visit back then, given the opportunity to stop the atrocities, I wonder, like the characters in the book, how we would react... I wonder, if we were given the chance to stop the atrocities what we would do...

Yet, the most engaging feature of the trilogy, and in particular the third book is how John Birmingham turns the tables on us and shows another side. Are we that much more advanced with our high tech weapons and over the horizon rockets? Are we that much more brilliant since we can spy on everyone in the world, with stealth, and attack them 'at night' while they least expect it? Are we that much better for the way we fight our battles, especially in our so called, 'War on Terror' which for purposes of this book has been ongoing for 20 years (5 times longer that World War 2) ? In the end, the people of the 1940s, adapt our technologies and our freedoms with open arms, but also see our barbarism, and our 'advanced human morality' displaying the cynicism which we flaunted on them when we arrived in the past. And that's a great lesson to take from any book. Don't think, from all the strides that the 'Human Animal' has made, that we have advanced that much in 60 or so years.

I easily give this book 3 stars out of four. With a half star more for the whole trilogy.

John Birmingham is a writer to watch.

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