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14 March 2003. The world watches on as the United States and her allies prepare for the controversial invasion of Iraq. What happens next is totally unexpected: a field of energy materialises over the North American continent, stretching from north-east of Newfoundland to just north of Acapulco, and from just south-east of Seattle to a few miles north of Guantanamo Bay. Virtually the entirety of the continental United States, most of populated Canada and almost all of Mexico and Cuba are affected. Within the 'Wave', as it becomes known, every single living being is instantly incinerated, but the cities are left intact. However, the Wave remains, sealing off the continent to outsiders.

The United States government is annihilated, leaving its military - the overwhelming majority of which is on deployment outside the affected zone - leaderless. Hawaii, Alaska and the tiny surviving portion of Washington State attempt to keep the American flag flying, but the effective loss of the strongest nation on Earth is catastrophic. The world economy goes into meltdown and elements in the Middle-East, proclaiming the Disappearance to be a miracle, prepare for a cataclysmic showdown with Israel, now bereft of its most powerful benefactor and protector. Smoke from the burning American cities turns into a massive plume of toxic smog which encircles the northern hemisphere. As the weeks pass, ethnic tensions begin to tear France and the United Kingdom apart. Iran musters its forces to destroy the US forces in the Gulf. China's threatening moves towards Taiwan are abandoned when its internal economy, dependent on exports to the USA, collapses. Japan and South Korea finds themselves overstretched having to feed Hawaii. Australia and New Zealand are swamped by American refugees. Venezuela makes threatening moves towards the former US possessions in the Caribbean. Saddam Hussein, given a reprieve by fate, musters his forces for a renewed invasion of Kuwait as the coalition pulls out and begins to head home. The world is falling apart and it is up to a few people scattered across half the globe to begin the process of pulling it back together.

Without Warning is the first of a duology. The sequel, After America, will follow next year. This book had the potential to be both a thriller and sociological study, attempting to ask what would be the effects of the USA literally vanishing off the face of the globe. Unfortunately, this approach is undermined by the book's thriller side, which demands subplots involving a US intelligence agent fighting a clandestine extremist organisation in the streets of Paris and a pair of beautiful-and-tough female smugglers in the Pacific engaging in major gun battles and speedboat chases with sinister Mexican maritime warlords. Around the time that Britain seals its borders and begins forcibly deporting third and fourth-generation Muslim immigrants and Israel starts dishing out the nukes like they're going out of fashion, any claim the book had to seriously analyse what would happen to the world in the absence of the United States goes out the window.

What we are left with is a somewhat trashy, although still enjoyable, techno-thriller with a batty premise. It's all fun, but a bit on the forgettable side. This is a shame as the author's previous work, the alternate-history Axis of Time trilogy, was much more successful in exploring its premise (if the military leaders of WWII, particularly the Axis ones, knew in 1942 the future history of the war, what would they do to change the outcome?). Without Warning is entertaining hokum, but fails to answer its questions in any real depth.

Without Warning (***) is a fast-paced read which passes the time, but could have explored its premise a bit more effectively.
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Genre wise, Without Warning could probably best be described as a bit of a hybrid. It takes the best elements from a standard Clancy-esque thriller as well as a nice, inexplicable science-fiction macguffin and throws them together to create a page turning mash-up of the two. Events begin to unfold in an alternate 2003. Large portions of the US Military are poised to invade Iraq when in a single second, 95% of the American population vanishes. In their place, is a huge impenetrable energy wave that covers most of the US mainland.

Chronologically, things are split into a number of sections that follow the moments leading up to `the Disappearance', as it comes to be known, and its immediate aftermath. There are also chapters set a week after, a month after and finally, a year after. I was a little concerned at the prospect of this, fearing that these jumps were going to miss big chunks out of the plot. I needn't have worried however, nothing feels jarring and the split over multiple time periods actually allows more ground to be covered. This allows for some good insight into the longer-term effects of the situation.

I was reminded a little of the premise from Flash Forward by Robert J. Sawyer, certainly events have a similar tone. An unexplained event occurs that effects the entire planet, and the story that follows covers various different reactions and perspectives to that event. It also feels like there is an episodic nature to the different strands of narrative, almost like you're getting half a dozen short stories for the price of one. It's particularly good when the separate character arcs intersect with one another. The moments when characters you are already familiar with meet for the first time is always fun.

The story focuses on various different section of society. Everything from the military, civilian infrastructure, crime and espionage get a look in. The author has obviously spent time considering how all these different facets of life would be effected. This attention to detail really pays dividends. Birmingham's tale doesn't shy away from asking difficult questions. How far will one country go to defend itself from potential aggressors in the absence of protection? Will economies survive when one of the world's largest countries isn't there anymore? Who should be in charge when the majority of a government are gone?

I like this approach. When it comes to apocalyptic fiction I want to get a sense that something HUGE has occurred. If everyone is effected by what is going on, I want to get glimpses of that. I always like when an author ensures that their apocalyptic action is truly globe spanning. Without Warning moves around all over the world following various characters, in the American Northwest, the Middle East, Paris, Cuba, Hawaii and even across the world's oceans.

The chapters dealing with the situation in Paris are especially strong. Though not at the epicentre of the Disappearance Parisian society suffers just as much as everywhere else. The deterioration and collapse of society in the French capital is ultimately quite harrowing, things eventually devolving into something akin to civil war. Most of this is seen through the eyes of an American agent called Caitlin Monroe. Her realistic attitude and brutally frank assessment of how things are playing out is a real eye opener. She experiences some very grim moments and nothing is sugar-coated for the reader's benefit.

On a larger scale, one of the most interesting aspects of this novel is the various political power plays that begin to play out. The global status quo has shifted in a split second and many people/governments quickly come to realise that the rules have changed. Some try to stave off the breakdown of society, while others attempt to grab as much power as they can for themselves. Old resentments bubble back to the surface, and in some cases escalate into all out conflict. America has often been described as being the bully in the playground when it comes to world events, but what happens when the bully is suddenly no longer there? Who steps in and fills the vacuum left behind? The events that occur in the Middle East offer some of the novel's most jaw dropping moments. You can quickly guess where things are going when you hear phrases like pre-emptive strike getting banded about.

This book is the first in a series and its final moments are suitably cliffhanger-y, but also offer just the smallest glimmer of hope. Birmingham has an eye for action, but also knows how to leave a reader guessing which way things are going to go. Over the course of the six hundred odd pages of book one, I've came to empathise with some of the characters, Rhino Ross and Jed Culver are particular favourites. It's the mark of any writer's skill when they can create a story that is so massive, but still retain a human face on events. This series has the potential to be an apocalyptic classic and I'm very keen to find out where things go next. I'll even admit a burning curiosity regarding the origins of the enigmatic energy wave.

Without Warning is published by Titan Books and is available now. The second and third parts of this series, After America and Angels of Vengeance will be available on 22 February.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 6 February 2009
John Birmingham's latest novel wastes no time launching its premise: on March 14, 2003, as the world awaits the impending start of the Iraq War, a massive energy bubble appears in North America, instantly wiping out every lifeform within it. In the weeks that follow, the world faces the consequences of the loss of the world's sole superpower. The military attempt to preserve order in the unaffected remnants of the United States, Saddam launches an attack on the now-stranded American forces, and a cloud of pollution created by the burning of hundreds of U.S. cities wreaks untold environmental damage.

The unfolding story makes for a sharp contrast with Birmingham's previous work. His "Axis of Time" trilogy: Weapons of Choice: World War 2.1 (Axis of Time Trilogy 1),Designated Targets: World War 2.2 (Axis of Time Trilogy 2), and Final Impact: World War 2.3 (Axis of Time Trilogy 3), told of the story of a near-future battlefleet suddenly transported into the midst of the Second World War with a tinge of levity. As in the earlier series, he tells of events through a collection of strongly defined characters: a spy, a civil engineer, a pair of military commanders, a smuggler, and a reporter. Unlike his earlier works, however, the humor is absent as he takes an appropriately grimmer tone in detailing the unfolding horror of a world facing disorder and collapse.

The events that follow make for a gripping read. Birmingham's novel develops a fresh premise in the alternate history genre into a well-realized tale of people caught up in the chaos of disaster. The global response he envisions is both well-reasoned and plausible, embodying the old adage of being careful of what one wishes for. He ends the novel with an appropriately dramatic revelation, one that offers great promise for a follow-up volume. If his last series is any guide, readers can expect it to be a promise fulfilled.
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on 4 February 2009
I keep thinking that Birmingham writes "thinking mans" techno thrillers. Without Warning is certainly in that category - most thrillers with the idea of "America disappearing" would turn out to be an Anti American polemic. The rest of the techno thriller market tend to glorify US military prowess with scant regard to foreign policy morality. WW like its author, refuses to be pigeon holed and is stronger for it. Just like the new battlestar galactica appeals to people who don't traditionally like Sci Fi, this should appeal to those who don't traditionally read technothrillers. And for those who do it does have some very gratifying hardcore moments. My only criticism is that it is clearly part of a two or three book sequence (I like my end of the world to come in one "The Stand" sized cataclysm) as a consequence Birmingham has yet to pull the trigger on some of the plot threads.
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on 13 January 2011
As a fan of the Weapons of Choice trilogy I was looking forward to this and it leaps into its principle plot almost immediately.

A huge sheet of visible energy appears over most of America and 300m Americans/Mexicans disappear.
What would the consequences be if the worlds most influential superpower simply vanished - militarily? economically?

A hugely complex topic but John Birmingham presents a very well constructed scenario in a very entertaining fashion.

As ever his story veers towards the militaristic but a good read.
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on 16 March 2013
The book has a very interesting premise, what would happen if the USA wasnt there anymore?

Now I bought this hoping for something a little deeper, thought it would explore a little more deeply what the world would be like if the USA was wiped of the face of the world. Instead what I got was a very good Future/alternative history, though it is a potted alternative history.
I thoroughly enjoyed the book, its a good piece of scifi and the only reason it didnt get 5 stars is its a little rushed at the end. Now there are 3 in the series but i really wanted a little more depth from the characters. If it was always planned to be a series then there was no need to rush the end, if it wasn't then that's unforgivable. A missed opportunity.

OK the story revolves round a sudden energy wave taking out the USA, you have a number of characters to follow and it all blends in very well. Ask yourself what Israel do if it was all alone and surrounded by enemies? How would the UK turn out? France would it celebrate or implode? as for the survivors in what is left of the USA what would they do? can the Constitution still be effective or will it be mob rule?

John Birmingham speculates on some of these answers, though not too deeply.

Its a well written story that could have been a brilliant story, Some of the characters I didn't care about but some i did. Its hard to tell a story from multiple view points and the characters I liked others wont and visa versa. that said I have bought the next one in the series and another book by Mr Birmingham. So no worries on his writing style.

But Mr Birmingham if only, if only.
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Author John Birmingham enjoys producing "what if?" novels with interesting themes. His first trilogy was about a modern battlefleet being caught in a time warp and dropped back in WW2. And the subsequent impact on WW2.

In this we have a mysterious energy wave that drops on the most of the US (and bits of Canada and Cuba) and wipes out all humans leaving an impenetrable barrier. That is the early set up and the book then gives us a perspective of a few set characters and a vision of what would happen to the world if the US suddenly was no longer in the picture. It is also set back in the time when the coalition forces were sitting in Kuwait about to kick off he invasion of Iraq, so this happens when significant American forces are outside the US but suddenly have no command structure.

So along with individual stories, we have how the world economy reacts, how different countries react and how the isolated elements of the US deal with their new position. It's very dark and felt very well researched with considerable thought. It essentially is the story of a world in collapse through the eyes of a number of individuals. The author also gives real people roles and reactions (for instance Blair as UK Prime Minister basically seals up Britain after chucking out any `undesirables') which made it feel very realistic. It is in essence a techno-thriller but a very intelligent one.

So I thought this was a well written page turner which also made you think a bit.
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I discovered John Birmingham's novels when I stumbled across `Weapons of Choice', the first part of his Axis of Time trilogy, long before it was published in the UK. Having enjoyed the first part of alternative history of the Second World War I picked up imported copies of both part two, `Designated Targets' and part 3, `Final Impact'. Although I felt that that the concluding part was rushed and unsatisfactory, the Trilogy as a whole was entertaining enough to convince me to pick up a copy of whatever Birmingham's follow-up turned out to be.

`Without Warning' is that follow-up and on the whole it's not a bad one. The central concept, that in 2003, on the eve of the second Gulf War, an energy wave of unknown origin suddenly covers the majority of the USA, destroying all animals instantaneously but leaving everything else untouched, is highly original. What Birmingham does with that concept then follows the Axis of Time model but focusing on a number of disparate, unconnected stories that explore different facets of the impact that such a sudden, calamitous event would have.

As with Axis of Time, Without Warning is part satire, part alternative history, part thriller and part social & political commentary. It is also part one of another trilogy so the stories it tells are left incomplete by the end.

Those stories vary in terms of how successful they are. This is not Robert Altman's Short Cuts; the stories do not necessarily interlink with each other (although a couple do to greatly varying extents). They are all very different in tone. Some are simple thrillers whilst others focus on more realistic human dramas. Some are small in scale whilst others involve wars and battles. They all however, have something to recommend them even if some, such as Caitlin the assassin's of Jules' & Fifi's, stretch credulity and others, like Kipper's, sometimes struggle to hold your attention.

A more significant problem is caused simply by the number of separate story strands the book tries to juggle. With the action switching, chapter by chapter, from one place to another, Without Warning struggles to keep you truly hooked to what is going on. Just as you become immersed in one tale you're forced to swap to another, which gives the book a frustrating, disjointed feel; especially if you favour one or more of the stories over the others. Despite the rapid pace of individual chapters I felt the constant switching made the book as a whole feel slower, robbed it of some dramatic momentum and meant that I took longer to finish it that I would have expected to. It simply didn't maintain that `can't put it down' vibe when it gave you a natural break at the end of each chapter.

Without Warning is also a rather humourless book. This is understandable considering the often horrific and apocalyptic events that are portrayed but the Axis of Time series was shot through with sly humour which leavened proceedings and increased the books appeal. That is complete missing here and the book is weaker because of its omission.

I will be returning for the next part of the series. Without Warning suggests that the whole trilogy will at least be on a par with The Axis of Time in terms of overall quality. If Birmingham combines some of the plotlines together, which events near the end hinted that he will, and the pacing picks up as a result it might even surpass the preceding series. I just pray that he doesn't let things slide for part three again.
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on 12 October 2010
Well not exactly twice... I bought the paperback and I enjoyed it so much I wanted desperatly wanted the to read the follow up, After America. Trouble is I'm a stickler for books in a series matching and I was not going to wait for the paperback of After America to sit next to the paperback copy of Without Warning so I bought the hardback so I could buy the hardback After America and have them match on the bookshelf.

Suffice to say a top read that moves at a great speed and it to be recommeneded.
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on 7 April 2014
The book is great, I've already read another.
However, as a native English speaker who has lived in France for several years I found Tom Weiner's narrative acceptable, except for the English and French accents; I can't comment on the other accents.
The first ten minutes were an experience in misunderstanding, surprise and amusement, ending in irritation at the accent. Every so often I'll hear something lifted directly from Steptoe and Son which makes me laugh.
The English accent seemed to be influenced by Dick van Dyke in Mary Poppins with additional cor blimey language from the pearly Kings and Queens of 1975. Unfortunately some Irish brogue and Australian accents are also included in the horrible mix, especially for the upper class British accent.
Some kind of golf balls in mouth pronunciation was used to try to make us believe that the speaker was from anywhere other than "laverlay Laaandan" in 1950, specifically the upper class accent again.
The French accent (speaking English) was full of undropped "H"s and pronounced "th"s that were something like a comedy scene.
A good book, but the audio book has been spoilt by the accents.
A pity.
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