Saturday, March 19, 2005

Weapons of Choice, by John Birmingham, has been going 'round the blogsphere due to Glenn Reynolds' enthusiasm for the book. It's the first part of a trilogy, SF, sort of a post-9/11 Final Countdown scenario.

I'm of two minds on the book. On the one side, the writing is tight, well-structured, and the narrative holds together well. The theme - a consideration of the similarities and radical differences of the World War II generation and the Terror War generation - actually works well. Birmingham isn't nearly as inept as Harry Turtledove, and his purposes and ideas are different enough from the Baen collective and Steve Stirling to make what is in essence a "Nantucket in King Arthur's Court", unique and distinctive. It's well worth the time spent to read it, which is good.

The bad? The book shows strong signs of poor editorial decision-making at the outline level. The protagonists - the varied members of a Multinational naval task force from 2021 Indonesian waters - are flung by an accident on board a DARPA experimental vessel, into 1942. This is fine as it goes, but the narrative flings them *arbitrarily* into the middle of the American fleet bound for the battle of Midway, killing thousands in the world's largest blue-on-blue friendly fire incident. The time-travelers were nowhere near Midway at the time of transit, having been, as I said, in Indonesian waters. Why Midway? Why off Timor? It feels as if the author had originally outlined his catastrophe to disrupt the Battle of the Java Sea, or the Coral Sea, and that some well-meaning editor or beta reader told him "Nobody's ever heard of those battles! Pick something everybody will have heard of!" But the resulting plot is obnoxiously arbitrary. It happens because it's dramatically striking - not because it makes any internal sense.

The second source of irritation? The technology of our hypothetical coalition fleet of 2021 is preposterously advanced. For one, most of the fleet are operating with fusion plants. It took more than twelve years between the first controlled fission reaction and the maiden voyage of the first fission-powered military vessel, and nineteen years until the first capital ship. There are no current prospects for a successful controlled fusion reaction that I know of - controlled fusion is, as it has been through out my lifetime, at least twenty years away.

The ships operate with dubiously advanced AI - sufficient for autonomous battle operation, which seems unlikely given the current and projected state of AI research. The personnel are borged out the wazoo, with every member of the fleet apparently sporting spinal inserts. They use micronuclear weapons in tactical situations - something which we've been moving away from since at least the late Seventies. Worse, every member of the coalition other than the Indonesians have the same level of technology - Americans, Japanese, British, Australians and auxiliaries. This isn't the modern coalition force, in which the Americans are ten to fifteen years ahead of the rest of force. Somehow, in this future multinational military, our backward allies have been bootstrapped to the same insane level of military sophistication as the main force.

It's all rather improbable. They seem like they're from thirty years in the future, rather than fifteen. On the other hand, it's amusing to see UAVs, nanotube armor sheathing, electromagnetic railguns, F-22s and F-35s, solid-state small arms, combat lasers, and Metal Storm defensive batteries appearing contemporaneously with the improbable sci-fi elements. Those are all plausible elements of a military force of 2021, but they're equally scientifictional from the view point of the 1980s, let alone the 1940s.

I can't help but like the book, and I look forward to the next installment. But take it as a sign that I find myself feeling defensive about that liking. It's a book that requires more than a little suspension of disbelief.

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