At the suggestion of a friend of mine who knows my affinity for alternate history – a genre which takes a pivotal point in history and supposes what would have happened if history had turned out differently – I picked up the John Birmingham paperback Weapons of Choice when I ran out of books to read.
In Weapons of Choice Australian author John Birmingham blends what was (at the time he wrote the novel) our future with our past as a multi-national force of ships about to embark on freeing Indonesia from radical Islamists in the year 2021 is caught in an experiment gone awry. Instead of ending up at their intended destination, they are catapulted back to the year 1942 just as U.S. forces under the command of Admiral Spruance are about to do battle with the Japanese at Midway.
The result is a strange mixture as the technology of the present is mixed with the past. However, the bigger story here is really the culture clash as the ideals of 2021 clash with the sexism, racism, and prejudices of the past.
Once this technologically advanced fleet realizes that it is not only stuck in 1942, but that in the initial panic they managed to decimate the Pacific Fleet of the United States, the officers from 2021 commit themselves to integrating themselves with the forces of 1942 as well as trying to make up for some of the havoc they have wreaked. This won’t be easy as many of the commanders are women and minorities. Couple that with the presence of two Japanese ships as well as Germans in the multi-national force, and it’s a recipe for misunderstanding. Great Britain and Australia of 1942 attempt to lay claim to the ships sailing under their flag in 2021. Even more complications arise when it becomes apparent that the Japanese have managed to get their hands on the technology from the future.
However, even more important than the weaponry (which realistically is finite and cannot be recreated in 1942 once their stock has run out) is the information contained in the historical archives of the fleet from 2021. Armed with that information, it might be possible for Germany and Japan to change the outcome of the war…
Weapons of Choice is the first book of a trilogy Birmingham has called The Axis of Time. This is a terrific beginning as it roped me in right away. Birmingham does jump around in various perspectives between the various ships and people involved in the story. However, during the initial events of the two fleets merging (and I do mean “merging”) it’s important that it happens this way to give the reader a sense of events happening at the same time. Birmingham does a terrific job weaving the stories together and he drew me into the story. This is despite an abundance of military and technological terms which at times could be confusing.
Birmingham brings in the perspective of many historical figures in the novel, not shying away from them as other alternate history novels have done. In 1942 Birmingham brings in Eisenhower, McArthur, Roosevelt, Yamamoto, Einstein and others. Sailing with the British flag from the 2021 fleet is a certain errant Prince who seems to have straightened his act out…
There are some funny cultural references in Weapons of Choice. One of the aircraft carriers is the U.S.S. Hillary Clinton, named for “the most uncompromising wartime president in the history of the United States”. There are other funny references as to what will happen between our current time and 2021 – some of them sure to send people into apoplexy like the reference above.
What I also liked quite a bit about the book is that it made me think of how far we’d come. The conversations the men of 1942 have about the women and minorities who are the officers leading the forces in 2021 really shows the cultural chasm that has been closed over the years. The fact that a couple of black officers walking into a club in Hawaii causes a riot is almost unthinkable, yet the setting had the feeling of realism. Had they been immediately accepted into the military and society it wouldn’t have felt as realistic.
The only flaw is that many of the characters aren’t that deep. The embedded female reporter with the 2021 fleet has the characteristics I would expect from a typical airhead from the entertainment shows while at the same time she tries to come off as someone with a lot more depth. Many of the characters are like her – with great potential but lacking a lot of depth. I am hoping that as the trilogy continues they will be fleshed out better. The story is compelling enough that it’s not a he drag on the book now, but I can see that if the characters have the same level of depth by the third book it will be harder to get through.
For those who like military thrillers, the terminology and pacing here will satisfy. I don’t know how much of the weaponry Birmingham details is reality versus what he has envisioned for the future, but I found the depictions and details fascinating, even as someone who generally doesn’t go for a lot of military-type novels. Alternate history fans like myself will also be happy. The characters are the sort I do want to know more about and see what happens, both with the historical figures and the ones Birmingham has created. He’s also left the end of this book with a nice hook to make me eager for the next installment.
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