Friday, August 5, 2011

Review: After America

Grade: A-

This is the first book review I will be posting on Alternate History Weekly Update so I hope you all enjoy it. For my premier book review post I will be reviewing After America by John Birmingham. (Warning: There be spoilers)

After America is the second book in a trilogy that began with Without Warning.  That book involved the aftermath of an event known as "The Wave", an energy field that caused the majority of the populations of United States, Canada and Mexico to disappear on March 14, 2003 (on the eve of Operation Iraqi Freedom). All that is left of the United States is Alaska, Hawaii, a small enclave around Seattle and America's oversees possessions. For those who thought the world would be a better place without the United States, Birmingham responds with a horrifying depiction of global economic collapse, ecological disaster and genocidal war. Despite the use of alien space bat plot device, Birmingham created a plausible world from it, which is what I wish more alternate historians would do when using the device.

At the end of the novel, the energy field disappeared opening North America to recolonization. After America begins several years after that. The United States is trying to rebuild while dealing with pirates and scavengers operating out of the abandoned cities of America. Meanwhile, the UK and France are police states, Russia is dealing with a conflict in Central Asia, China is recovering from a civil war and the greater Middle East is a nuclear wasteland following the preemptive nuclear strike by Israel. This world is a dystopia and what is worse is that whenever a character has even a moment of hope it is ripped away from them...often violently.

The focus of the story is on the battle for the New York City. The United States is facing off against a coalition of pirates led by Muslim jihadists. We see the battle progress from the point of view of the President of the United States, a smuggler, an assassin, a Polish-American soldier, a child soldier from Uganda and others.  Vicious street fighting occurs as the United States tries to win back NYC block by block.

Now I generally do not like techno-thrillers. I tried a couple of Tom Clancy novels, but could never finish them. I did enjoy Vortex by Larry Bond, which may deserve to be called honorary alternate history, but it was the only one I enjoyed out of the several I tried.  John Birmingham, however, saved the genre for me with Without Warning and did not disappoint me with After America. The battle scenes are amazing and you can see the level of research put into the novel. More importantly, there is no forced optimism that some authors put into their novels. Bad things happen to our characters and even after victory many are left wondering whether it was even worth it.

If I had one major complaint to the novel it was the story of Miguel, the Mexican immigrant who takes the opportunity to settle his family in Texas...which is under the control of a rogue, genocidal general. As the story built to the explosive ending of the battle for New York, Miguel's tale would act as speed bumps when Birmingham switched to his point of view. It seems that his tale was meant to set up the story for the sequel Angels of Vengeance, but it meant that we were treated to a tale without a real conclusion and are now forced to wait until the next book in the series.

Nevertheless, I highly recommend this book for those who enjoy techno-thrillers, plausible alien space bat scenarios and post-apocalyptic dystopias.

Next week I will be reviewing Amerikan Eagle by Alan Glenn.


  1. How long was the energy field there? Right now, New York is important because everyone knows it's important. Money goes there because that's where the money is. People go there because that's where the people are. If the energy field was relatively short (1 generation or so) then New York would have immense importance as a symbol of what we were and what we could be. If it had been generations, then why are we fighting over New York? In a world in chaos as described above, I would think that foreign trade would be nil, and I for one would much rather fight over food-producing lands. Especially if all that is left of the US is in the west, I would be perfectly fine consolidating California, and the midwest first. I would likely also put the South on my list before the Northeast, because of the raw materials from which I can create a new superpower.

  2. The wave only lasted a few years. The exact year is unknown, but I believe the novel is set in contemporary times (Palin is governor of Alaska). Also New York is a strategic port on the east coast, another reason to repopulate it. Farming, however, is most important right now. There is a lot of talk throughout the novel of food shortages. Repopulating Kansas City was given precedence over NYC and the surrounding area, called Heartland, may become a state soon.

  3. How many Americans are there? Can they really repopulate KC, Chicago? and make their way to the East coast in any real numbers in a few years?

    On a somewhat related note, it may be that NYC didn't have to be the biggest port. I maintain that Charleston could have been a larger port if it had a more densely populated hinterland, and according to my research, (, Norfolk VA can hold the largest ships on the East Coast. That was a surprise to me, but might that be a better launching point if you only have 5 or so million Americans at most to populate the whole country?

  4. So the series worth a read you'd say?

  5. @Capo: There are not many. In fact the President once said it would take 100 years to get back to their pre-Wave population. That is why they are letting in so many immigrants. As for NYC, perhaps its not the size but the position that makes it important.

    @Korsgaard: Absolutely.

  6. Who are the primary immigrant populations they're letting in atm?

  7. They do not seem to be very picky. There is a former Polish special forces serving in the Army. There is mention of large groups of refugees from the India-Pakistan nuclear war also arriving. Miguel's story also points to large numbers of Mexicans as well.

  8. Probably Brits, Irish and Turkish as well, the latter due to Turkey's important NATO role.

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