John Birmingham

Axis of Time, book 1

Pan Macmillan Australia (2006)

ISBN: 9780330421898

Reviewed by Lorraine Cormack (this review was first published in August 2007)

I was rather disappointed by this novel, in part because I’d enjoyed other novels by Birmingham and expected to find the same pleasure in this one. I didn’t; ultimately what let Birmingham down was his characterisation, rather than his ideas, plotting or prose. Weapons of Choice is a reasonably good novel, and many people will enjoy it, but I felt it fell short of what it could have achieved.

This is the first novel of a trilogy. In this novel, a near future military taskforce is accidentally thrown back in time by an experiment gone wrong. They land right in the middle of the US fleet heading to the Battle of Midway, and the fleet and the taskforce promptly proceed to shoot each other up. Once the initial confusion is resolved, it becomes clear that there are two essential problems. One is how to ensure the Allies win World War Two as they’re “supposed” to; and the other is the impact of the cultural attitudes of taskforce members on people of the 1940s. No-one seriously thinks the taskforce can be returned to their own time, so this isn’t treated as a problem.

The novel runs into trouble early. Birmingham transports the taskforce through time almost immediately. This makes sense; since the story he wants to tell is in the 1940s, there’s little value in hanging about the 2020s. Unfortunately, the shooting starts about thirty seconds after they arrive in 1942. We’re treated to around 100 pages of people we don’t yet know shooting at and killing each other. It’s probably an accurate rendition of what would happen, and it’s vividly written. But it’s also essentially boring and somewhat confusing as we simply haven’t had the chance to get to know these people or even sort them out completely.

Things do improve when the initial shooting stops and Birmingham gets into the meat of his story. However, it’s still a bit shaky. He’s dealing with a big cast, of both fictional and historical characters, and none of them really came to life for me. I had trouble keeping some of the lesser characters straight; others just seemed very shadowy. This was made worse by some unconvincing behaviour. For example, the senior officers from the 2020s seem to have little trouble working out and accepting that they’ve travelled back in time. But only a virtual thug from the 1940s thinks of possibilities like making a fortune betting on horse races using information drawn from the ships’ computers. In other places, Birmingham simply seems to be trying too hard. A particular example of that is the presence of (Prince) Harry Windsor in the taskforce. There appears to be no real reason for this, and certainly no use is made of it when the taskforce find themselves in the 1940s. Perhaps this will have plot value in the later volumes; here it just seemed smart-arse.

For all these weaknesses, the novel also has good things to offer. The best of these is Birmingham’s exploration of the impact of people from supposedly the same culture, but 80 years apart, coming together. Society and expectations have changed dramatically in that time – probably even more than technology – and Birmingham depicts this well. Despite the strength and effectiveness of his exploration of these issues, some details still jarred. The casual sexism and racism of the 1940s grated on me, even as they rang true. However, it was equally grating to see everyone from the 2020s depicted as above such behaviour. Such attitudes still exist, and it would be likely that at least a few people would take the chance to align themselves with those from the 1940s who are appalled by women in command, blacks in command, and people of different races and genders working together at the same tasks and without segregation.

The novel is at its best when exploring the sociological impact of these events, regardless of these details. Birmingham has clearly thought through the reactions of both the 1940s and 2020s characters, and the clashes are very realistic. They’re largely depicted from a male point of view; the only females that appear in this novel are 2020s females, and so the 1940s attitudes and reactions are almost entirely male. That’s not too surprising in a novel focused on the military side of war; in the 1940s there simply weren’t women in the armed forces.

Birmingham has also done a decent job of playing out the military consequences of the taskforce’s inadvertent intervention into not only one of the critical battles of World War Two, but the war overall. It didn’t feel particularly different to other alternate histories I’ve read, but the novel covers a relatively short period of time after the taskforce arrives in 1942. This means Birmingham has dealt with a relatively small number of events, and there hasn’t been much time for the impact of the arrival to spread too far. Presumably this will be explored further in the future volumes, and there may be scope then for more originality in the alternate events.

It’s worth persevering with the novel past that first boring and uninvolving hundred pages or so. The novel becomes more effective as it focuses on matters other than the initial battle, and it seems a good set-up for the rest of the trilogy to potentially be even better. The characterisation does remain a significant weakness throughout the novel, and means the novel seems to lack a climax – the reader simply doesn’t care very much about how some of the events have played out. But it’s intellectually interesting, and Birmingham writes well. His prose is smooth and it’s easy enough to read the novel, even without a high degree of involvement. Readers with a strong interest in military writing may find that some of the detail Birmingham provides about battle and weaponry (1940s and 2020s) offsets some of the weaknesses of characterisation.