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Written by John BirminghamAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by John Birmingham

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On Sale: October 25, 2005
Pages: | ISBN: 978-0-345-48606-6
Published by : Del Rey Ballantine Group
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

It’s World War II and the A-bomb is here to stay.
The only question: Who’s going to drop it first?

The Battle of Midway takes on a whole new dimension with the sudden appearance of a U.S.-led naval task force from the twenty-first century, the result of a botched military experiment. State-of-the-art warships are scattered across the Pacific, armed to the teeth with the latest instruments of mass destruction.

Nuclear warheads, rocket-propelled grenades, AK-47s, computer-guided missiles–all bets are off as the major powers of 1942 scramble to be the first to wield the weapons of tomorrow against their enemies. The whole world now knows of the Allied victory in 1945, and the collapse of communism decades later. But that was the first time around.

With the benefit of their newly acquired knowledge, Stalin and Hitler rapidly change strategies. A Russian-German ceasefire leaves the Führer free to bring the full weight of his vaunted Nazi war machine down on England, while in the Pacific, Japan launches an invasion of Australia, and Admiral Yamamoto schemes to seize an even greater prize . . . Hawaii.

Even in the United States the newcomers from the future are greeted with a combination of enthusiasm and fear. Suspicion leads to hatred and erupts into violence.

Suddenly it’s a whole new war, with high-tech, high-stakes international manipulations from Tokyo to D.C. to the Kremlin. As the world trembles on the brink of annihilation, Churchill, Stalin, Roosevelt, Hitler, and Tojo confront extreme choices and a future rife with possibilities–all of them apocalyptic.


From the Trade Paperback edition.

Excerpt

TUPELO, MISSISSIPPI

Lordy, thought the boy. It’s a miracle for sure.

He was seven and a half years old—the man of the house, really, what with his daddy being away in Como, and he had never seen anything like the fearful wonder of the newly chiseled monument.

here lies jesse garon presley.

deeply beloved of his mother gladys, father vernon,

and brother elvis.

a soul so pure, the good lord could not bear

to be apart from him.

born jan. 8, 1935,

taken unto god jan. 8, 1935.

Despite the unseasonable heat of the evening, gooseflesh ran up his thin arms as he read the words again. Whippoorwills and crickets trilled their amazement in the sweet, warm air. With a pounding heart, the boy inched forward and muttered hoarsely, “Jesse, are you here?”

The stone was cut from blindingly white marble that fairly glowed in the setting sun. The inscription had been inlaid with real gold—he was almost certain of that. He ran his fingers over the words and the cold, hard stone, as if afraid to discover that they weren’t real.

It must have cost a king’s ransom . . .

An enormous bunch of store-bought flowers had been placed upon a patch of freshly broken earth that still lay at the foot of the monument. Hundreds of tiny beads of water covered the petals and caught the last golden rays of daylight.

He dropped down on his knees as if he were in church and stared at the impossible vision for many minutes, heedless of the dirt he was getting on his old dungarees. He remained virtually motionless until one hand reached out and his fingers again brushed the surface of the headstone.

“Oh, my,” he whispered.

Then Elvis Aaron Presley leapt to his feet and ran so fast that he raised a trail of dust as he sprinted down the gravel lane, away from the pauper’s section of the Priceville Cemetery, a-hollerin’ for his mama.

“He’ll probably get his ass whupped, the poor little bastard.” Slim Jim Davidson smiled as he said it, peering over the sunglasses he had perched on his nose.

“Why?” asked the woman who was sitting next to him in the rear seat of the gaudy red Cadillac. You didn’t see babies like this every day. Slim Jim had seen to the detailing himself. The paint job, the bison leather seats, everything.

“For telling lies,” he said. “Headstones don’t just appear like that, you know. They’re gonna think he made it up, and when he won’t take it back, there’ll be hell to pay.”

The woman seemed to give the statement more thought than it was really due. “I suppose so,” she said after a few seconds.

Slim Jim could tell she didn’t approve. They were all the same, these people. They’d bomb an entire city into rubble without batting an eye, but they looked at you like you were some sort of hoodlum if you even suggested raising your hand against a snot-nosed kid. Or a smart-mouth dame, for that matter.

And this O’Brien, she was a helluva smart-mouth dame.

She’d kept her trap shut, though, while they’d been watching the Presley kid. In fact, she seemed to be fascinated by him. They’d been waiting in the Caddy up on Old Saltillo Road for nearly an hour before he showed. Long enough for Slim Jim to wonder if they were pissing their time up against a wall. But the kid did show, just as his cousin said he would. And he’d heard O’Brien’s stifled gasp when the small figure first appeared, walking out of a stand of trees about two hundred yards away.

“It’s him, all right,” she said. “Damned if it’s not.”

Slim Jim had grabbed the contract papers and made to get out of the car right then and there. He’d had enough of sitting still. His butt had fallen asleep, and he was downright bored.

But O’Brien shook her head. “Not here.”

He’d bristled at that. His temper had frayed during the long wait. Long enough even to make him feel some sympathy for the cops who’d had to stake him out once or twice. But he took her “advice” because it was always worth taking.

Her advice had cost him a goddamn packet, too, over the course of their relationship. But along the way, Slim Jim Davidson had learned that you had to spend money to make it. Problem was that up until recently, he didn’t have no money to spend. None of his own, anyway. And spending other people’s money had sent him to the road gangs.

Mississippi was a powerful reminder of those days. The air tasted the same as it had in Alabama, thick and sweet and tending toward rotten. The faces they’d driven past in town had brought back some unpleasant memories, too. Hard, lean faces with deep lines and dark pools for eyes. The sort of uncompromising faces a man might expect to see on Judgment Day. They’d sure looked that way to Slim Jim when they trooped in from the jury room.

Well, that felt like a thousand years ago. Now he could buy and sell that fucking jury. And the judge. And his crooked jailers. And the whole goddamned state of Alabama, if he felt like it.

Well, maybe not the whole state. But he was getting there. This Caddy was bigger and more comfortable than some of the flophouses he’d crashed in during the Depression. He had an apartment in an honest-to-goddamned brownstone overlooking Central Park back in New York, and a house designed by some faggot architect overlooking the beach at Santa Monica, out in L.A. He had stocks and bonds and a big wad of folding money he liked to carry in his new buffalo-hide wallet—just so’s he could pull it out and snap the crisp new bills between his fingers when he needed to remind himself that he wasn’t dreaming.

Hell, he was so rich now that when those C-notes lost their snap, he could give them away and get some new ones.

Not that he ever did, of course. Ms. O’Brien would kill him. And she was more than capable of it. No doubt about that.

She’d insisted that he pick up the Santa Monica house as a long-term investment, too, even though he thought it was kind of down-market, given his newly acquired status.

“You can stay at the Ambassador if you don’t like rubbing shoulders with your old cell mates down on the piers,” she’d said. “Believe me, Santa Monica will come back, and you need to diversify your asset base. Waterfront property is always a sure bet.”

Yes, indeed, and Slim Jim was fond of sure bets. After all, they’d made him richer than God. They’d also delivered him a conga line of horny babes, a small army of his own hired muscle, and the slightly scary Ms. O’Brien.

Thinking about the slightly scary Ms. O’Brien sitting next to him there in the Caddy, however, led naturally to thinking about the slightly scary Ms. O’Brien sliding her body over his in a king-sized hotel bed. But that was a dangerous line of thought, he knew. Because Ms. O’Brien wasn’t inclined to get anywhere near a bed with Slim Jim Davidson, naked or not.

He’d tried feeling her up once, and she’d nearly broken his arm for it. She’d snapped an excruciating wristlock on him without even breaking a sweat, no doubt a party trick she’d picked up back when she was a captain in the Eighty-second MEU. And she’d kept him locked up, gasping for breath and nearly fainting away, while she explained to him the facts of life:

One, she was his employee, not his girlfriend.

Two, she would be his employee only for as long as she needed to be, and she would never be his girlfriend.

Three, she could kick his scrawny ass black and blue without bothering to lace up her boots.

And four, she . . .

“Mr. Davidson?”

Slim Jim jumped, feeling guilty and worried that she might have figured out what he was thinking. But no, luckily she was just dragging him out of his slightly bored daze.

“Elvis has left the cemetery,” she announced. She said it in a singsong way, and it seemed to amuse her more than it should have. But Slim Jim had given up trying to figure her out.

“Let’s go over it one last time, just to be sure,” she said, pulling out a flexipad.

“Oh, please,” he begged. “Let’s not.”

O’Brien ignored him, and his shades suddenly flickered into life. Windows opened up on the lenses and seemed to float in the air in front of him. Some carried photographs of the boy they’d just seen. Others were full of words. Small words in large type. She’d learned not to burden him with too much text.

Bitch thinks she’s so goddamned smart . . .

Slim Jim sighed, and read through the briefing notes again. Some of his reluctance was for show, though. He never really got tired of the amazing gadgets these guys had brought with them.

“Elvis Aaron Presley, age eight and a half. Mother’s name, Gladys. Father’s name, Vernon,” he recited. “Dead brother, Jesse. Attends school at East Tupelo Consolidated. Father jailed for fraud. Asshole tried to ink a four-dollar check into forty . . .”

O’Brien shot him a warning look, but he hid behind the shades, pretending he couldn’t see her.

“Daddy’s out now, away in Como, Mississippi, building a POW camp for the government. Mama takes in sewing when she can get it. Local yokels call ’em white trash behind their backs . . .”

Slim Jim laughed out loud, glancing out across the ragged fields of corn and soybean that stretched between the cemetery and the edge of the town. “Ha! There’s a fucking pot calling a kettle black if I ever—”

“The notes, Mr. Davidson. Just review the notes,” said O’Brien.

Slim Jim returned to the readout for what felt like the hundredth time. He’d heard about some big-time grifters who worked like this. Getting so far inside the heads of their marks that they knew what was going on in there before the chumps realized it themselves. He could sort of see the point.

O’Brien had helped him close some amazing deals these last few months. But damn, it was hard work. Nevertheless, he plowed on, reciting most of the notes from memory even though the words still hung there in front of him.

“Gladys drinks in private. She finds her comfort in the church. Her first love was dance, her second music. But she’s kind of a fat bitch now so . . . Sorry! Sorry . . . She gets around in bare feet and old socks so her kid can have shoes. Elvis, he’s aware of his family’s low standing. It eats him up and he wants to rescue them. It always tickles him when his mama says she’s proud of him.”

In spite of himself, Slim Jim couldn’t help but warm to the little prick. They’d listened to his music all the way down here, and you had to admit, the kid had a gift. Or would have.

Then again, maybe he wouldn’t. If Slim Jim bought him a ticket out of Tupelo now, gave him enough money for a comfortable life, maybe the kid would never sing a song worth a tinker’s crap. Not that the thought really bothered him. Those songs were recorded by an Elvis from another time. No, this was all about who was gonna get paid for them.

Not some asshole called Colonel Tom Parker, you could bet on that.

Nope. “Slim Jim Enterprises” would be latching itself on to this particular money tit. And if the kid never became an actual recording star, just because he grew up rich instead of poor, well, who gave a damn? Slim Jim had grown up in a town a lot like this, with a daddy a lot like Vernon. And if some asshole had turned up on their doorstep, offering to buy them out of poverty, Daddy would have been trampled to death by the entire Davidson clan rushing to sign on the dotted line. And to hell with the consequences.

Slim Jim was only vaguely aware of the deepening dusk as he sat in the Caddy, chanting his way through O’Brien’s notes like some kind of mad priest. Yeah, Tupelo is a lot like home. Besides the two main roads in the center of town, every street was a strip of dirt or gravel. Clouds of dust would rise from them in summer. They’d turn into rivers of mud during the spring rains. Most folks would have worked the Roosevelt program during the Depression, cutting brush, fixing roads. Most, like Gladys Presley, wouldn’t ask for handouts, but would accept what was offered. The men would all be factory workers and sharecroppers.

Now most of them would be in the army or working in the war industries. Poor but honest, they’d think of themselves. Screwed and stupid was how Slim Jim would have put it.

A guy like Vernon Presley he could understand. He knew the type. He’d have had good intentions, but not enough character to see them through. Slim Jim wished they could deal with Vernon rather than Gladys. It was a laydown that they could sneak a signature out of old Vern, just for a crate of beer and a hundred bucks.

But O’Brien had been a real ballbreaker on that particular subject, even more so than usual. There’d be no grifting the Presley family. They’d get the industry standard percentage, and Slim Jim would take the industry standard cut. It was a shitload of money to be tossing away to a bunch of dumbass crackers, at least to his way of thinking. But she’d given him that stone face of hers again, and he’d buckled. She was a scary bitch—and bottom line, he was rich because of it.

“And then Vernon told Elvis he was responsible for his mama’s ill health because of the bad birth . . . ,” he continued, only half his mind on the task.

“No,” O’Brien said. “We don’t know for sure that that’s happened yet, so it’s better not to bring it up. But it’s supposed to happen around about now, so just keep it in mind.”

“Right.” He nodded. “So are we gonna fuck this puppy or what?”

His lawyer rolled her eyes, but she leaned forward to tap on the glass partition that separated them from the driver.

“Okay,” she said, raising her voice. “Let’s roll.”

It was a short drive from Priceville Cemetery to East Tupelo, a pissant little rats’ nest of meandering unpaved streets running down off the Old Saltillo Road. A couple of creeks, two sets of railroad tracks, some open fields, and a whole world of dreams separated the hamlet’s beaten-down inhabitants from the good people of Tupelo proper. Slim Jim wasn’t bothered none driving into such a place.

Nor, he noticed, was Ms. O’Brien. He figured it was just another one of those things about your dames from the future. Not much seemed to rattle them, unless you tried to cop a feel without being invited.

“That’s it,” she announced.

She indicated a small wooden frame house, a “shotgun shack,” they called them. This one stood about a hundred yards up the street they’d just entered. Dusk was full upon them now, and the car’s headlights lanced through the gloom and the dust and pollen that always seemed to hang in the air, even at this time of year.

“You sure you don’t want to do the talking?” he asked, suddenly nervous for no good reason. That wasn’t like him at all.

“You’ll be fine,” O’Brien assured him. “It’s just business. Be sure and treat them with respect.”

“But . . .”

“No buts. You’ll nail it. I’ve never known such a rolled gold bullshit artist. If you’d been born any luckier, you could have been a senator or a televangelist.”

Slim Jim wasn’t sure what she meant by that, but she didn’t seem to mean it as a compliment.

His driver pulled over into the gutter. As soon as he stepped out, the smell took him by the throat. Sour sweat. Outdoor toilets. Woodsmoke. Corn bread, grits, and boiled spuds. The smell of his childhood.

He could tell, without needing to check, that dozens of pairs of eyes had settled on the back of his newly cut, lightweight suit. Some of the bolder folks would have wandered right out onto their verandas—an awful fancy name for a thin porch made of raw pine boards, roofed in by scraps of tin, and supported at each corner by sawed-off bits of two-by-four. Others would be hiding in their front rooms, twitching aside sun-faded curtains, if they had any, peering out suspiciously at the Presleys’ unexplained visitors.

And if they thought he was something, he wondered what sort of ripple went up and down when Ms. O’Brien emerged from the car. East Tupelo wasn’t used to women like that, not yet. Hell, neither was the rest of America. That skirt of hers would surely send tongues wagging, showing off so much leg above the knee as it did.

But it was time to get into character, so he pasted a harmless, well- meaning expression on his dial. A neutral grin that said to the world he was hoping he’d found the right address.

Slim Jim took in the details of the kid’s house in one quick glance. Again, he didn’t need to stare. It was all old news to him. There’d be only two rooms running off one corridor. You could shoot a gun clean through without hitting anything, hence the name. The kid would probably sleep where Slim Jim himself had for years, on an old sofa in the front room—which did double duty as a kitchen, and a parlor when guests came a-calling. Every stick of furniture would be someone else’s cast-offs, but it’d most likely be clean. Gladys would make sure of that.

The water would be pumped by hand, from a well out in the backyard. There’d be bare boards on the floor and walls. No little comforts or luxuries. Not a blade of grass grew in the brown dirt that substituted for a front yard. Even in the gloom, he recognized the scratch marks of a homemade dogwood broom in the hard-packed earth, and the telltale prints of chicken feet. He bit down on a sigh. It was going to be like a goddamned oven in there.

He really missed his brownstone.


From the Trade Paperback edition.
John Birmingham|Author Q&A

About John Birmingham

John Birmingham - Designated Targets
John Birmingham is the author of Emergence, Resistance, Ascendance, After America, Without Warning, Final Impact, Designated Targets, Weapons of Choice, and other novels, as well as Leviathan, which won the National Award for Nonfiction at Australia’s Adelaide Festival of the Arts, and the novella Stalin’s Hammer: Rome. He has written for The Sydney Morning Herald, Rolling Stone, Penthouse, Playboy, and numerous other magazines. He lives at the beach with his wife, daughter, son, and two cats.

Author Q&A

Interview with John Birmingham, author of Designated Targets


Question: Designated Targets is the second in your Axis of Time trilogy, following Weapons of Choice. Will readers unfamiliar with the first novel need to pick it up before reading this one? For the benefit of those readers, can you briefly set the stage?


John Birmingham: I'm afraid there are no short cuts. If you like the look of Targets, you'll have to read Weapons first. I got a message at my blog (birmo.journalspace.com) the other day from some guy in Australia who'd had that very experience. Bought the second book without reading the first, got about fifty pages in and realized he was lost.

For those who need a road map of Weapons, here's the shareware lite version. In 2021, the War on Terror continues. An American-led Multinational Force built around a carrier battle group and a Marine Expeditionary Unit are about to intervene in Indonesia, where Islamist rebels have toppled the government and declared a Caliphate in its place. A scientific ship, caught up in the chaos, creates a wormhole and-Whoah! Look out!-everyone boogies on down to 1942. The bulk of the MNF appears on top of the US Fleet heading toward the battle of Midway, and the automated combat systems of the 21C vessels destroy a big chunk of contemporary US Naval power before anyone knows what's happened.

The Transition, as the event becomes known in the Free World, was an accident, totally uncontrolled, and is subject to local variations in effect. The vessels arrive out of station. Some have been thrown thousands of meters away from where they stood in relation to the rest of the Task Force. Others arrive a little earlier or a little later. Some appear on the far side of the globe. (For lovers of arcane back story, there was a section, cut from the original manuscript, which described in great detail how one of the ships, the British stealth destroyer HMS Trident, was copied seven times and dispatched to seven different realities, with a description of each. But it got chopped.)

Long story short. World War Two goes all pear-shaped. Even more destabilizing than the sudden injection of advanced technology is the sudden 20/20 hindsight provided to all players alike. It seems at first that although the Allies got the bulk of the tech, the Axis powers, with their rigidly controlled political systems, adapt more decisively and quickly. Meanwhile, the good guys get to turn themselves inside out arguing over eighty years of social revolution arriving in one big hit.

Q: The near-future world of 2021 that you envision is frighteningly plausible. How did you extrapolate the scientific, political, and cultural trends that result in that world, and do you think that events since the publication of Weapons of Choice indicate that we are moving toward that particular future, especially in terms of the War on Terror?

JB: The 2021 in Weapons is a bit of a dystopia, a fact that becomes much more obvious in Designated Targets, as the character of the time travelers is revealed. It wasn't that hard to extrapolate. I simply took some of the really disturbing features of the current global jihad and asked myself what these would look like with booster rockets. And what effect would fighting such a conflict have on our society over twenty years?

Do I think I could get a job as a futurologist? Jeez, I'd hope not. I've got Jerry Springer and Bill O'Reilly serving as Senators in 2021. Also, I'd hope that we would have adapted to the demands of this conflict with more alacrity and sophistication than we've shown so far. I'd hope that we wouldn't make strategic blunders on the scale of Iraq again. But we probably will. At least in the short term. The strength of an open political system, however, as opposed to dictatorships such as the theocratic fascist state which is the wet dream of bin Laden and his crew, is that there are, or should be, no sacred cows for us. If our political or military decisions are found wanting, they will be questioned and eventually they'll be discredited and discarded. We sometimes look weak and conflicted as we rake at each other over whether or not, for instance, Iraq was a good idea. But that process of questioning and contesting everything, which is anathema to totalitarian regimes, is one of our greatest strengths. It's also one of the central themes of the Axis of Time series.

Q: Although Weapons began in 2021, most of that novel, and all of Designated Targets, takes place in 1942, with recognizable characters and events from that era, including major figures such as Stalin, Hitler, and Churchill. In a general sense, what are the obligations or responsibilities of a novelist to historical accuracy in a book that is, after all, an alternate history?

JB: Quite simply, you have to get it right, or you are going to get pounded. The blessed Hunter S. Thompson used to say they'll pound you when you're right, and they'll pound you when you're wrong; it just doesn't hurt as much when you're right. The very first email I received after Weapons was published came from some guy who loved the book. Just loved it. Spent eight hundred words telling me about his unnatural love. But, did I know that the scene in the bar of the Moana Hotel could not have taken place when I said it did because that particular bar was closed to civilian traffic a month earlier than the date in my story.

You try and avoid that sort of thing, but it's almost impossible. I'm quite open to being corrected by readers though, and invite them to send through any howlers to my blog. I normally find it's a break-even deal. Half of the time they're right. But half of the time they're wrong. And I live for those moments, let me tell ya!

Bottom line though, you're asking for a massive suspension of disbelief in books like these, so you'd best make that as easy as possible on the reader. Accurate historical detail is a crucial part of that.

Q: Okay, let me take a shot. I noticed that you had Lieutenant John F. Kennedy commanding PT 101-shouldn't that be PT 109?

JB: Nope. In the original timeline Kennedy wasn't even at sea in this period. I originally wrote up all of this backstory about how he used his family connections to get into active service after the Transition wrecked the Pacific Fleet, but it was kind of clumsy and I figured most people would accept that this was now an alternate history, not the original one. There's plenty of differences besides the number of the boat. I've got him bumped up a grade in rank. His friend Barney Ross is now skippering his own boat instead of serving as an ensign on the 109. All of the crew who are named in Targets are different from the original crew. The fit-out of the boat is entirely different. And of course, Kennedy didn't fight off the coast of Queensland. Still, I was a complete butthead for choosing the number 101. My editor told me not to. What the hell was I thinking? I should have just made it PT 24 or something. Now I'm gonna get pounded, just like Dr. Thompson said.

Q: It seems to me that Stalin, Hitler, Himmler, and a few others are special cases here, because of the atrocities for which they are indisputably to blame. One of the effects of good writing is to enable readers to empathize with characters outside their normal run of experience. How do you accomplish this without making these particular characters seem more sympathetic, or even less guilty, than is warranted by the facts?

JB: With the Nazis I made them figures of ridicule. For me, it was the only way. So you get Hitler sitting through lunch with a big blob of cream on his nasty little mustache because everyone is too scared to point out his faux pas. With Himmler, who is the main Point of View character in the Reich, I embraced his ethical cluelessness. There's a scene in the last book of the series where he's trying to be a sympathetic boss for one of his secretaries whose SS husband has been killed on the western front. But his way of doing this is to reassure her that she is of good Aryan breeding stock and will quickly be able to replace him with a new husband from the SS mating program. When she wells up with tears, he is touched by her gratitude.

Interestingly, the communists were slightly different. I read Simon Sebag Montefiore's awesome book, Stalin: In the Court of the Red Tsar, as part of my research. Having done so, and because I was using the NKVD chief Lavrenty Beria as the main POV character, I could not find a joke worth telling about them. They were such irredeemably criminal scumbags that I preferred to just let history do the talking for them. Although, I guess I have just written a funny scene playing on Beria's collection of porn and ladies' underwear. So maybe I'm lightening up on them!

Q: Let's talk a bit about the Transition. This is not the standard time-travel scenario, in which time is viewed as a closed loop, with the so-called grandfather paradox and other logical problems that science fiction authors from Heinlein on have explored. This is more of a many-worlds situation, isn't it? That is, Admiral Kolhammer's Task Force has initiated a new timeline, in an alternate universe in which events are not bound by the history of the "old" timeline.

JB: Yeah. I love the multiverse hypothesis. Not only does it do away with old granddad and his annoying paradox, but you get to dream up an infinite series of possible other-worlds. That was partly behind the excised section in Weapons where I sent seven different Tridents off to seven different universes. One of them had a Europe where only England had held out against Muslim conquerers. Halabi arrives in a nineteenth century level society with "her" country about to be invaded by a Caliphate Armada. God, that was cool. But we cut it.

When I wrote the first version of Weapons, which was called World War 2.1, the Multinational Force arrived in 1946, in an alternate world where the Axis had triumphed. I wrote about forty or fifty thousand words of that scenario but eventually changed it to the real 1942. My point of divergence was Roosevelt dying of polio in his childhood.

It's also possible of course that Kolhammer and his people have arrived in something that looks exactly like 1942, but it isn't. Or maybe not.

Q: What has happened to the future from which the task force came? Is it in any way connected to the "new" past; i.e., is return possible, or more travel back to the same timeline? Will you be addressing these kinds of questions in the final volume of the trilogy?

JB: There is no connection. Kolhammer's people are forever lost because of the infinite number of possible worlds in a multiverse. There is no straight line back home, even if they could rig up some improbable time machine. Some of the characters like Einstein and Halabi occasionally discuss this.

Again, in the first draft of the series, there was a long section devoted to a number of temps, i.e., 1940s personnel, who got sucked into the 21st Century. I originally chopped the Yorktown in half with the event horizon and had a few dozen men in the bow pop out into 2021. We then followed them for a couple of pages as they hit the talk-show circuit. Too weird. Just too fucking weird, and it felt kind of skanky and disrespectful doing that to the Yorktown too, so I chopped a fictional future ship in half instead.

Q: It's one thing to feature an historical figure like Churchill as a character in a novel; there is a lot of biographical material on which to base a fictional portrayal, and, after all, the man is dead. But that is not the case with Major Harry Windsor, who plays an important part in this series. Were there any legal ramifications in making a still-living member of the royal family a character? Has this been at all controversial?

JB: Man, I hope there's no legal ramifications! Harry's mum is loaded and could afford a whole battalion of super-lawyers! I'm not expecting problems though. After all, he's one of the most engaging characters in Designated Targets. He's like some 1920s matinee hero, Indiana Jones or something. He gets the best jokes, wins all the toughest fights, and I'm thinking about giving him a really bodacious girlfriend in book three. He remains one of my favorites.

Q: As Mel Brooks might say, It's good to be the prince!

JB: Yeah, he's livin' large without the paparazzi on his case.

Q: One of the many elements that sets your series apart from run-of-the-mill alternate histories, which you alluded to earlier, is the prominence you give to racial, sexual, and gender issues that arise from the clash between the 1942 and 2021 cultures through characters like Colonel J.L. Jones, Captain Karen Halabi, and the reporter Julia Duffy. Can you talk a little bit about this aspect of the books?

JB: Well for me, this was the engine of the story when I was first thinking about this series. Remember the first draft had the Multinational Force arriving in an alternate 1946, where the bad guys had won. Of course, Kolhammer's people could kick their butts in an afternoon, but the question would arise, how would the temps feel about being rescued by African-American Marine Corps colonels and lesbian fighter pilots. This was especially so in the first draft, because I had the US run by a proto-fascist government a little like Philip Roth's Lindbergh Administration.

I love conventional techno-thrillers. I was an early and obssessed fan of Clancy and have collected a small library of other writers like Eric L. Harry, who is just fantastic. These issues rarely turn up in their work, however, partly because within the context of the genre they're considered irrelevent. Fair enough. But I wanted to address them, and I wanted to write a techno-thriller. While I was pondering this dilemma, I came across Steve Stirling's Nantucket series, and it was like a bomb going off in my head. All of a sudden I want to do it all. High-tech war stories, identity politics, alternate history, and, just as importantly, satire.

Very few of my US readers would know me as a humor writer, but that's how I started in the UK and Australia. So when I sat down to do Weapons and then Targets, I wanted to indulge myself in at least a few jokes. Again, it's an element which is rarely found in these genres. Hence the USS Hillary Clinton named after "the most uncompromising wartime president in US history."

For-the-luvva-god, it's a joke!

Man, I took a pounding for that one, and it was largely because of the novels' political content. Hillary, it turns out, is kind of a divisive figure. Who'd a thunk it? And some people don't want to think about racism or sexism when they're reading military thrillers. Or any time, really, I guess. Unsurprisingly they didn't appreciate the Clinton joke. Somewhat surprisingly they thought I was either making up or exaggerating the extent of the difference in attitudes to these issues between now and then.

On the other hand, most of the feedback I received from former service personnel has been very supportive. So I sleep well at night.

Q: As if Admiral Kolhammer and his crew don't have their hands full with the Germans, the Soviets, and the Japanese, they've also got J. Edgar Hoover to worry about. How closely did you adhere to the facts in your portrayal of Hoover? What I found truly frightening about him was that he seemed a strangely contemporary figure in his sexual hypocrisy and political paranoia.

JB: A couple of years ago I read the Curt Gentry bio of Hoover. A magnificent piece of work. Then I read the Anthony Summers bio. A magnificent piece of gossip. Between them I'd hope they nailed him, so to speak. I kept both open at either end of the keyboard whenever I was writing a section with Hoover, and almost all of the personal and period detail comes from those two books. My homage to the authors was to make them the congressmen Hoover monsters at dinner about halfway through the book. I have an infantile love of in-jokes like that.

If he were alive today, he'd probably put Tom DeLay to shame.

Q: The world of 1942 seems in many ways a primitive place to the men and women from 2021-yet to the people of 1942, their future descendants seem at times to be barbaric and heartless, epitomizing some of the characteristics of the enemies against which they are fighting. It is the War on Terror that has molded these men and women, who I suppose can be thought of as us and our children. The wisdom of Pogo seems applicable here: "We have met the enemy, and he is us."

JB: There's a book by the historian Paul Fussell called, I think, Wartime. It looks partly at the cultural effects of the Second World War. For me, a stand-out memory was Fussell's discussion of what he called the shift from "light" to "heavy" duty, when the population finally realized the situation was serious. It lead to a hardening of attitudes and a sort of coarsening of the soul. All wars do. That's what's happening to us right now. In many ways it's a process beyond ethical consideration. It's like natural selection for the spirit.

Q: Do you still plan to end the series with the next volume? I ask because the material is rich enough for more than just one more book, and I'm sure I'm not the only reader who would be sorry to see the action come to an end so soon.

JB: Oh look, it would piss off so many people if I didn't provide "closure" at the end of book 3 that I'd be in danger of getting lynched. So I am going to wrap up the story. But unlike Fukayama, I don't believe history comes to an end, and although the war will finish, the world it has created won't. So there will be plenty of scope for more Transition novels. I wrote more about the military than the social effects in these books. I'd like to go back and redress that at some point. Maybe set a couple of detective novels in the Zone or something. How would Philip Marlowe react to LA today? Alternately I wouldn't be averse to licensing the universe and letting others write their own stories set there. Eric Flint has done that with his 1630s universe, and it rocks.

Q: The Axis of Time is being published as science fiction. Do you think that limits the potential audience of the books? Do you consider yourself to be a science fiction writer?

JB: The marketing mavens tell me it does. But what the hell? I'm a believer, and I'm happy to write for other believers. Having said that, I still haven't written a "pure" techno-thriller as I wanted. I might yet go there, perhaps using some characters from this series. A young Phil Kolhammer kicking jihadi butt? It works for me.

Q: These books would make a terrific movie-are there any possibilities of this?

JB: If you've got a spare hundred million, they're yours. I suspect they'd make a better TV series though. More time to explore the characters and consequence.

Q: Are you working on any other projects now?

JB: Oh yeah. I work as a sports writer in my "spare time." That always keeps me busy. I also have some nonfiction work due in Australia: some actual history, as opposed to the alternate stuff.

I'm finishing book three, or should be, as I write this. When that's wrapped, I'll sit down and have a think about what to do next. My guess? A couple of prequel thrillers and a new alternate history series. But if I told you my plans for the Transition world, I'd be giving away some serious spoilers.


From the Trade Paperback edition.

Praise

Praise

Praise for Weapons of Choice
First book in the Axis of Time

“[A] weapons-grade military techno-thriller . . . It’s like a Clive Cussler novel fell into a transporter beam with a Stephen Ambrose history, and they came out all fused together.”
–Time

“High-tech intrigue and suspense similar to the works of Tom Clancy.”
–Library Journal


From the Trade Paperback edition.

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