Book Reviews

Book Review: Designated Targets by John Birmingham – A Military Thriller with a Science-Fiction Edge

In the second novel in John Birmingham’s “Axis of Time” trilogy, he capitalizes on the events which took place in Weapons of Choice known as “the Transition” or “the Emergence”. In that novel, a multi-national force set on taking on Muslim extremists in the year 2021 gets caught up in a science experiment gone awry and is transported back in time to 1942, just before the battle of Midway. In fact, most of the ships end up right in the middle of the U.S. Fleet bound for Midway – and I do mean literally “in the middle” in one case.

You would think that the Allies having advanced technology from the year 2021 would make their victory over the Germans and Japanese a given. That’s not the case, however. Not only have some of the ships ended up in the hands of the Axis powers, but by showing what the future holds for them, Hitler is able to forge an uneasy truce with Stalin and keep the U.S.S.R. out of the conflict on the Allies’ side. This frees much of the German forces for a renewed push at Great Britain, including possible invasion forces. The Japanese, in the meantime, have invaded Australia and are committing atrocities there. How far will they push onto the continent? Is that their change in strategy, or is it more about to be let loose? Perhaps the most detrimental thing brought back from the future is the knowledge of what will happen.

Then there are the social ramifications. A completely integrated force where both men and women serve in combat along with embedded reporters of both sexes clashes with the societal structure of 1942. In addition, there is more known about the people of 1942 – such as J. Edgar Hoover’s homosexuality – that causes social changes. Riots break out when African-Americans and other minorities, used to their rights in the future, clash with the bigotry of the past.

As the people from 2021 try to settle into a country now in social flux. They manage to set up their own area out in California where they begin trying to figure out how to manage their depleting stocks as well as create more for the advanced weaponry. Led by Admiral Kolhammer, he tries to stave off the egos of those who resent his presence and his command of all the future weaponry.

All along, Birmingham weaves a tale that is well-written in so many ways. His detailing of military weaponry and tactics often goes way over my head but are written with enough detail that it makes the situations believable how the weapons and tactics work in the battles of the Second World War – well, this version of that war. The writing during the military and battle scenes reminds me greatly of Tom Clancy’s writings.

The characters Birmingham has created, both from the future and the past, are compelling. There are interesting situations such as the embedded female reporter from the future who becomes engaged to a high-level Navy commander of the past that sort of bridge the gap in a lot of places. Birmingham weaves together the historical characters well with his fictional ones. In addition to Hoover, he portrays Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Douglas MacArthur in much the same way they have been written about over the years. Couple that with some nice cameos from Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, John Kennedy, and more there are enough humorous moments in between the technical and military strategy that the book moves along at a great pace without being too intense. In addition, an heir to the British throne is among those transported back with the Multi-National force from 2021, just to throw another curve ball into the mix. After all, at this point, his grandparents haven’t even met yet!

Birmingham has left open enough loose ends to make me anxious for the third book in the trilogy. My interest was particularly piqued by the hint dropped about who committed a murder that took place in Weapons of Choice. It was a subject I thought was going to be written off as just another case of prejudices gone wild, but Birmingham hints here that there is a lot more to it.

Alternate history fans or those who like military thrillers will likely enjoy the series. Those who would break out in hives at the thought of an aircraft carrier named for “the greatest wartime President the United States ever had” – the U.S.S. Hillary Clinton probably will enjoy it less. There’s no real overt politics going on, but I think Birmingham probably enjoys those little digs. I also think he manages to subtly make the point that the often-reminisced “good old days” weren’t that good for women or minorities, a position I have held for quite some time. Some people might be bothered by having that illusion shattered.

To really get a good feel for what’s going on, I’d recommend you read Weapons of Choice first. Designated Targets is not the place to start. Birmingham’s first foray into this genre is a winner and I hope he either continues the series past the third book (last I heard due out in December 2006) or decides to stick with this genre again in the future.

Previous book in the series (link): Weapons of Choice by John Birmingham

Next book in the series (link): Final Impact by John Birmingham

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