Axis of Time: John Birmingham’s excellent time-travel military thriller

In typical time travel stories like The Time Machine or Back to the Future or TimeCop, the protagonist goes back or forward in time and has to use his brains and skills to get back ‘home’ to his original timeline. The populace at large remain unaware of the time-traveller’s presence and at best there are a few people or a love interest who help our intrepid hero in his task. Even in the case of a Star Trek IV, where it’s not one person, but an entire spaceship and its crew who arrive from the future, they still manage to keep their presence a secret.

That is certainly not the case in Australian novelist John Birmingham’s Axis of Time military sci-fi trilogy, which was published over the period 2004-2007. I finally got hold of the books – Weapons of Choice, Designated Targets and Final Impact – and read them back-to-back over the last 3 weeks.

In Weapons of Choice, a US-led multinational naval battle group from 2021 is accidentally flung back in time to the middle of World War II, literally arriving in the midst of the US fleet heading for the Battle of Midway.

Unlike the time-travel novels mentioned earlier, there is no question here of the protagonist quietly sneaking around the past. Instead, their arrival – subsequently referred to as ‘Emergence’ or ‘Transition’ – becomes worldwide public knowledge within a few days and threatens to change the course of the war. Also, as Admiral Kolhammer of the 2021 battle group discovers, their trip to the past is a one-way affair, with no hope of getting back to their own time and their loved ones lost forever.

While it would appear that the Allied forces have gained a significant advantage by suddenly having access to advanced military technology from 70 years in the future, a couple of ships also experience spatial displacement along with the time shift, and land up in the clutches of Japanese forces and the Soviets. In a matter of weeks, the technological advantage of the Allies has been neutralized to a significant extent, with both the Germans and the Japanese desperately trying to adapt and adopt the future technologies. In addition, the Axis Powers throw men and materiel at the Allies in mass-scale suicide attacks in the hope of exhausting their limited supply of future weapons inventory.

The course of the war takes many twists and turns which are quite different from our own reality, but as they say, the more things change the more they stay the same, and by mid-1944, the end result broadly looks the same as it did in our timeline. The Allies win the war, but are faced with a long-drawn Cold War with a Soviet Bloc, which appears to be even stronger than it was in our reality.

And indeed, what turns out to be more potent than the advanced weaponry carried by the 2021 battle group, is the information carried in the libraries of these ships…the Americans, Germans and Soviets are all able to accelerate their nuclear programs, with one of the nations even getting into bio-warfare…men like Stalin, Hitler and J. Edgar Hoover are forewarned of their enemies and respective fates…enterprising con-men in the early days of the Emergence are able to sign-up future stars like Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe on long-term contracts…a number of companies, including movie studios race to patent their own products from the future…General Eisenhower and Lt. John F. Kennedy who are both fighting in the war, are faced with the uncomfortable public knowledge of their future Presidencies, along with the attendant uncertainty of whether their futures will still play out in the same way…most significantly, the Germans realize that their undoing in the original time-line was their ill-advised assault on the Soviet Union and Hitler quickly brokers a cease-fire with Stalin.

For the people of 1942, what is more shocking than the technological advancement of the 21st century time-travellers is the changes in society of the ‘up-timers’. When the American naval officers from the 1940’s come on-board the ships from the future, they are appalled to see a multi-ethnic fighting crew including women in leadership positions…or to paraphrase one of the characters, “they’ve got Negroes, Spics, Kikes and Broads running their ships”. Indeed, many of them wonder if this is the future that they are fighting for, while the 21-ers struggle to control their disgust and frustration with the segregation and sexist attitudes from the past.

Overall, the books are a fast-paced read, but also have a great deal of emotional depth. While Mr. Birmingham excels at descriptions of battle scenes and the use of 21st century technology, he is equally adept at diving into the personal lives of the large cast of characters. There are also some light touches with a number of references and ‘in-jokes’ related to scifi novels, novelists and other famous people from the present.

Thematically, this trilogy is very similar to Harry Turtledove’s alternate history Worldwar Series published in mid-90’s, which feature an alien invasion of Earth in the midst of World War II. In those stories, the arrival of the lizard-like ‘Race’ introduces advanced weaponry into the terrestrial conflict and also leads to unlikely alliances. Another series with a thematic similarity is Eric Flint’s 1632 series, in which a small American town is mysteriously trans-located through space and time into the midst of the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) in Central Europe. In fact, both these series are referenced in the Axis of Time books.

I can certainly imagine the Axis of Time trilogy being adapted one day into a big-budget TV mini-series. The battle scenes would have the savagery of Saving Private Ryan while the personal stories of the men and women fighting the war would have the dramatic intensity of movies like From Here to Eternity.

Meanwhile, Mr. Birmingham has continued in the same vein of speculative fiction with a new series starting with the novel Without Warning, in which the bulk of the US population mysteriously disappears on the eve of the 2003 Iraq Invasion. While I thoroughly enjoyed the Axis of Time, I think this new series is too similar in theme and risks branding the writer as a one-trick pony.

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