Sunday, November 13, 2005

Author of Choice: John Birmingham

John Birmingham, author of "He Died with a Falafel in His Hand" , and more recently "Weapons of Choice: World War 2.1" and "Designated Targets: World War 2.2" is speaking at the National Library of Australia, in Canberra at 2pm Sunday.

I will be going along, having enjoyed Mr. Birmingham books and felt part of them.

In "He Died with a Falafel in His Hand" and the less successful sequel "The Tasmanian Babes Fiasco" John Birmingham describes life in group houses in Canberra, Sydney and Brisbane. Reading "Falafel" was a painful experience because I laughed so much my sides hurt. It was disconcerting because some of the stories sounded very familar.

"Weapons of Choice: World War 2.1" and the sequel "Designated Targets: World War 2.2" are science fiction about a 21st century US and Australian Navy task force going back in time and fighting world war two again. Birmingham provides an action adventure in the style of Tom Clancy, with lots of gadgets guns and heroes, but slightly less of a US centric world view. There is some humor, for example one of the warships is a supercarrier named after President Clinton; but it is Hillary, not Bill.

Some years ago I lived in a group house in Canberra, which had been previously occupied by a coven of witches and real estate scammers. So some of the very funny parts of Birmingham's Falafel book sounded familiar. We had visits from the police and a geriatric private detective looking for the previous tenants (some associates of a former Deputy Prime Minister). The neighbors talked of the previous occupant sending flaming arrows over the fence during backyard rituals. I wrote about it in on-line spoof called "Canberra Group House and Garden". The neighbors were interviewed about this by Time Magazine for a special edition on cyberspace.

One of the weapons John Birmingham speculates about in
"Weapons of Choice" is an Australia high speed catamaran HMAS Moreton Bay. This appears to be inspired by the real Australian made high speed catamaran HMAS Jervis Bay, which transported troops to East Timor.

During the Olympic Games I ended up being briefly left in charge of one of these high speed catamarans
, alone on the bridge. The ship was being used as a floating convention center for the games and being marketed to visiting US military. It was not at sea at the time, but tied up alongside at Darling Harbor in Sydney. Even so there were hundreds of dials and switches in front of me. Something started beeping and flashing and as I was about to panic the ship was on fire, someone came in said "its just the the sewage tank needs emptying" and left again.

While working for defence I had a slightly surreal day on a US flagship
in a borrowed uniform during a joint exercise. The greatest danger I faced was seasickness after a meal in the officer's mess. There was a great assortment of people from different armed services, plus civilian scientists and even telephone salesmen on board. This makes Birmingham's description of a multinational task force seem more real. One aspect which is not portrayed well in literature is how ordinary and low tech lot of the equipment is and how mundane and boring a lot of the day is.

Some years later I stumbled across one of the high speed catamarans, just competed for the US Army in Hobart. It was about to make a high speed dash to the gulf war. I wrote a web report on this and people aboard the ship send me photos and reports of their travels.
It looks like John Birmingham is wrong in one aspect of his future history. The Australian Navy is not buying these new Australian designed ships, the US military is. Australia continues to buy older technology imported ship designs.

Some of John Birmingham's books are available,
including "Designated Targets", in electronic format. These are around the same price as the paperback editions and I wonder if may are sold.

As they have the full text of "Weapons of Choice", Amazon provide some interesting statistics. The Concordance has the one hundred most common words in the book in alphabetical order, which reads like Haiku poetry:

admiral again american another asked away big birmingham black brasch came captain chief choice clinton come commander day deck down enough even eyes face felt few fire first force get going good got guys halabi hand head hidaka himself hours hundred japanese john jones knew know kolhammer last let lieutenant light little long look looked man men might minutes moertopo moment need new nothing now officer old own right room screen second see seemed ship sir small something sort spruance still take tell thing think though thought thousand three time took turned two voice war weapons without women world yamamoto

The Readability indexes indicate it is an easy read (9.8 on the Fog index) and it is a bargain at 16,122 Words per Dollar.

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