After America. Book Review

After-AmericaAFTER AMERICAby John Birmingham

Titan Books, p/b, 512pp, £7.99

Reviewed by Pauline Morgan

At one time a trilogy was composed of three novels which told the same tale from different perspectives. They crossed or branched off from a particular event. What we now regard as a trilogy was called a triple-decker. There are times when an author ought to consider reverting to the old pattern. John Birmingham is one and the opus, of which After America is the second volume would have benefited from a different approach to the one presented here.

In the first volume, Without Warning, most of the population of the United States is wiped out by a phenomenon that covered the country and killed everyone within its limits. The rest of the world then descended into anarchy. Every petty dictator and terrorist group came out of the woodwork shooting. Israel nuked the Arab nations; India and Pakistan nuked each other; pirates infested the seas. Then the ‘Wave’ disappeared.      No-one knows where it came from, what it was or who was responsible.

After America begins about four years after the ‘Wave’. Some of the principal characters are in greatly changed circumstances. Caitlin Munroe who was a government assassin has married Bret Melton, a journalist who at the start of the first novel was embedded with the army on the eve of the invasion of Iraq. They now have a small daughter and run a farm in the British countryside. That is until someone ambushes Bret and the baby, forcing Caitlin to go after an old adversary.

Miguel Pieraro and his family were taken aboard as crew on the luxury yacht Aussie Rules and having survived storms and pirates has become part of the resettlement of Texas planning to make a living as a ranchero. Texas though is not as safe as he believes as the red-neck governor of the state is turning a blind eye to the actions of road agents and bandits. When all his family except his daughter Sofia are murdered he is determined to reach Kansas City and tell what he knows to the President’s men. He falls in with a group of Mormons who have had women and cattle stolen by road agents.

The woman who had become temporary captain of the Aussie Rules, Lady Julianne ‘Jules’ Balwyn has joined a salvage crew in New York. She and Rhino Ross are using it as a cover to try and recover some documents for a client who has promised them a sizeable sum for them. New York, though, is not the healthiest place to be as pirates from Africa and Europe have been raiding the place for goods to sell on the black market. It is also the place that President James Kipper comes to to announce some of his plans to help resettle America and make the country prosperous again. It is a job that has been thrust on him. While he is there, all hell breaks loose. He is fired on by sophisticated missiles and he barely escapes with his life. He has hard choices to make about the degree of retaliation he is prepared to take. He wants New York to be a symbol of America rising from the catastrophe; his opponents, led by a Muslin fedayeen, just want to control the city for their own ends. Jules and Rhino are caught up in the middle of it.

There are basically three stories here, taking place simultaneously – Caitlin’s, Miguel’s and Jules’s. Each one would make an exciting, fast past book on their own – a proper trilogy. For most of the 611 page volume, there is no connection between them. They are three stories set in a broken world.

Other than the size of the book and the apparent unconnectedness of the stories, there are issues with the background logic. While the trials and tribulations of the lead characters are well handled, the setting gives cause for concern. Many authors have set novels in the aftermath of an unspecified disaster that has set back civilisation by decades. I don’t have a problem with that. Given the initial scenario, I don’t believe in the subsequent world events but there are greater issues here. At the end of Without Warning, the ‘Wave’ disappeared as suddenly as it had come. No-one seems in the least concerned about the possibility that it may return. The focus is more of filling the real estate that has suddenly become available. The effects of this ‘Wave’ seem too arbitrary, designed only to enhance a plot without thought to real physics. For example, we are told early in the first volume that the effect generates heat, sufficient enough to melt down a human body. This is observed to happen. Yet once the ‘Wave’ lifts, it is only humans (and perhaps a few other primates) that are affected. Plants and other organic materials are untouched, yet these would combust at much lower temperatures than those required to liquidise flesh and bone. (All that is left of people is a heap of clothing stiffened by black residue.) Although this could be visually interesting, it is inconsistent with what we have already been told. Similarly at these temperatures all plastics would melt, rendering most of the pillaged goods shapeless masses if not vaporized. It is beginning to look as if Birmingham began with an interesting idea, found it was not quite workable and was unable to go back and remedy the inconsistencies without throwing away plot he was working with. This is a shame as it would have made a more plausible book if he had.