John Birmingham’s Weapons of Choice is an alternate military history science fiction novel published in 2004. Plot-wise it resembles the 1980s film, The Final Countdown, but, where The Final Countdown focused on modern American jet fighters battling Second World War Japanese propeller aircraft, Weapons of Choice explores the social interactions between the military personal from 2021 and the ‘locals’ from 1942. The novel highlights political and social differences between the two groups of fellow ‘Americans’.
The novel (2004) envisages a future naval fleet from 2021, sent back in time — through a freak accident — to the Second World War, initially fighting a US naval fleet in a confused sea battle of mistaken identities. The book could easily have been written today and set in 2041 because much of the military technology is still far off.
The exploration of the cultural differences between the two worlds is intriguing. The ‘locals’ from 1942 see the ‘rocket men’ from the future as aliens. It’s not the advanced technology that shocks the ‘locals’ it’s the fact that the ships from the future are crewed by an ethnically diverse crew that includes women. The ‘locals’ are unable to accept non-whites and women in positions of authority. The visitors from 2021 realise that they will never fit in to the world of 1942, and after the locals riot and two of the visitors from 2021 are murdered, the visitors keep to themselves.
The novel flits about quite effectively, but towards the end it deals more with the wider political and military implications on the outcome of the Second World War. This is a shame because it moves us away from the characters that we care about.
Stories about time travellers going back into history have been around for a while. Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, for example, was published in 1889. Weapons of choice follows in this long established tradition. Harry Turtledove’s series of novels covered an alien invasion of Earth during the Second World War, and Philip K Dick’s, The Man in The High Castle (which has been turned into a Netflix series) imagines an outcome where the Axis forces were triumphant. Fatherland by Robert Harris is another example. It’s a brilliantly researched ‘page turner’ that’s horrifically believable while also offering a compelling human story. Time travelling stories allow modern characters to enter into a living history. They are about cultural differences as well as technology.
Weapons of Choice is a mainstream battle action alternate history, but its strength comes from its intelligent handling of cultural change, revealed through time travel.