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Weapons of Choice by John Birmingham

Cover art by Bob Warner

Published by Del Rey Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

Many years ago I watched a movie called The Final Countdown, which was based upon the fascinating premise of what would happen if a modern carrier battle group were to be transported backward in time to the eve of the attack upon Pearl Harbor. I was just starting to get into the possibilities and becoming emotionally involved with the senior officers' effort to wrestle with the moral issues of interfering in history when the mysterious time storm reappeared to whisk them back to the present, leaving only the most minute of alterations in history (a secretary saved who otherwise would have perished, and a modern sailor who got left behind and who apparently used his knowledge of the future to become modestly wealthy while remaining an obscure private individual). I felt not only frustrated but betrayed by the movie -- instead of carrying through on their fascinating premise, they copped out at the last minute. It was as if they thought their audience couldn't possibly deal with the idea of history becoming other than what we know it to be.

Which was why I really liked Eric Flint's 1632 -- it didn't cop out and whisk the protagonists back to their own time. Instead, it logically carried through the consequences of a community of modern Americans trapped in the midst of an all-consuming destructive war, and amidst societies whose values are enormously different, even antithetical, to our most dearly-held values.

Thus I was particularly excited when several people on Baen's Bar mentioned this novel. I'd always wanted to see someone redo The Final Countdown the way it really should have been done, with the consequences of the introduction of anachronistic future technology dealt with squarely instead of dodged by a deus ex machina cheat at the end.

Upon reading it, I see that it isn't precisely a reworking of The Final Countdown. Instead of a contemporary carrier battle group, it's a multinational task force from about a decade in the future, with a decade' worth of advancement in military and civilian technology, not to mention ten years' worth of mental and emotional hardening as the War on Terrorism has continued relentlessly in a scenario not quite as harsh as Tom Kratman's Caliphate but certainly approaching it in the level of grimness and willingness to be utterly ruthless in one's rules of engagement with the enemy. Instead of being a mysterious deus ex machina, the event which propels them back in time is an ill-considered quantum teleportation experiment by a scientist whose experimental ship was supposed to provide a super-weapon. And instead of arriving shortly before the attack on Pearl Harbor and in open ocean, they arrive right in the middle of Ray Spruance's task force heading toward the Battle of Midway.

Which means that the sudden appearance of strange ships results in both sides assuming the worst and attacking -- and in the case of the uptime ships, whose human complements are down for the count as a result of temporal shock, it's the computers that respond to the perceived threat of unknown ships in close proximity. By the time the uptimers come around and realize that they're attacking historical American ships and get their computerized weapons technology sorted out, they've already destroyed a number of American ships, including the carriers Hornet and Yorktown, and severely damaging several others, with a resultant loss of life far worse than the actual Battle of Midway was in our time line. To be fair, the 1942 Americans (who are termed "contemporaries" as it becomes increasingly obvious that there's no way back home) manage to deliver some deadly blows, including the destruction of everybody on the flight deck of the uptime flagship, the USS Hillary Clinton by a lucky strike that turns their super-sophisticated fuel-air-explosive driven catapults into a firestorm.

This incident has three major effects: First, it immediately establishes in the minds of the contemporary admirals, especially Raymond Ames Spruance, the deadly power and efficiency of these weapons of the future. Second, by expending an enormous amount of the uptimers' available ammunition in a mad orgy of panicked violence at the very beginning, it reduces their long-term combat effectiveness such that they will not be able to simply walk over every enemy they may meet, but will have to work with contemporary resources and researchers in order to reconstruct at least some part of their super-advanced technology in order to win the war, as opposed to some initial battles. Third, it makes it more difficult for the uptimers to establish their bona fides with the contemporary force, and leaves scars of bitterness that will continue to cause trouble throughout the story. People who lost friends and buddies during that confused initial attack will not find it easy to forgive the people responsible for that attack enough to work with them tightly enough to become successful military units.

And it is not just within the military that there will be problems -- the uptimers will also have to interface with 1940's civilian society. And while the extraordinary firepower that their future technology represents may be welcome for its war-fighting potential, eight decades of enormous social change are not. A fact they discover very quickly after they arrive in Pearl Harbor, in spite of efforts to keep the uptimers somewhat separated from mainstream society. One morning a squad of Marines on a run discover the bodies of two uptime senior officers -- an African American woman captain and the sole surviving officer of the Japanese Self-Defense Force ship that was caught up in the Transition -- brutally murdered and left to rot on the shoreline. Right while the admiral of the uptime fleet is back on the mainland, meeting with President Franklin D. Roosevelt, so his second-in-command, a woman Royal Navy captain, has to deal with the situation until he can return.

And then a confrontation between an uptime sailor wanting to drink in the bar where his great-grandfather drank before leaving to be killed at Iwo Jima and the unthinking racism of the contemporary sailors who object to his black buddy turns into an uncontrolled riot. Suddenly it becomes obvious just how much culture shock there is on both sides of the temporal divide, no matter how hard the uptimers try to emphasize their solidarity with contemporary America.

Just to make it interesting, not all the uptime ships came through together. At least one, an Indonesian ship belonging to a government in exile opposing the radical Islamic fundamentalist government, has come through well away from the main group of the fleet and been captured by the Japanese. They may be appallingly racist toward the Indonesian crew, but they're not going to let it blind them to the value of the technology they've just captured -- if they can just sort out how it works so they can actually put it to use. Unfortunately, some of the crew are all too willing to help the Japanese, including one closet jihadist who sees only a chance to strike a blow for his religious beliefs.

The writing is very vivid, especially the combat scenes and the extrapolations of military technology, as well as civilian communications technology used by embedded reporters. The author even recognizes that super-technology isn't perfect, and has the more sophisticated technology being realistically finicky about working properly. My one quibble would be that Julie Duffy would've been working for Fox News rather than the more left-leaning CNN.

There are a number of in-jokes for people familiar with science fiction and fantasy, mostly in the form of the names of minor characters. And speaking of naming characters, I was very surprised to see Prince Harry as the commanding officer of one of the Royal Navy ships. As in the younger son of Charles, Prince of Wales. I have always been under the impression that it's not allowed to have living people as characters in a work of fiction, other than as brief cameos if they're sufficiently famous that it would be perfectly reasonable for them to be glimpsed at a distance by the fictional POV characters. But obviously he was able to get away with it, because it's published.

Since this book is the first of a trilogy, it ends with a very blatant lead-in for the second volume, making it plain that while a victory has been won, it is a battle, not the war. But that victory is sufficiently powerful that it really feels like it has concluded, rather than simply coming to a convenient stopping point as so many multi-volume story arcs have lately. At the same time, it makes us look forward to the next installment in the storyline.

Review posted March 30, 2010.

Buy Weapons of Choice (The Axis of Time Trilogy, Book 1) from Amazon.com

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