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The Peninsular War: A New History
Charles J. Esdaile
Progress: 369/640 pages

Military tech wank that fails as an actual novel

The Foresight War - Anthony G. Williams

Anthony Williams’s book begins with a premise of two historians, one British, the other German, who find themselves sent back seventy years (exactly why or how is never explained) to 1934, where they use their knowledge of history to prepare for the upcoming war. This premise serves as a vehicle to allow Williams to re-wage the war with the lessons and weapons it would produce. His knowledge of military technology is considerable, and he uses it to make a number of plausible and thought-provoking conjectures about what direction such developments could take and their impact upon the battlefields of the 1940s.

Where his novel lacks verisimilitude, however, is in its presentation of the broader history of the period, as well as in the ramifications of his alterations. To achieve his wide-ranging restructuring of the British armed forces in the 1930s, the author completely ignores the financial and political constraints that the British government faced. Political leaders are in fact totally absent from such a dramatic shift, as a cabal of civil servants uses the advice of Williams’s macguffin to completely restructure British policy – and all without so much as a question in Parliament. Even more disappointingly, Williams glosses over the ramifications of the changes he offers – how Britain’s improved military, for example, might have been used to preserve the empire for longer than was the case. The possible implications are more than enough to sustain a much longer book, perhaps even a trilogy, yet are packed into a narrative too dense and rushed to allow them to develop properly.

This points to the unfortunate problem underlying the book – the writing itself. The interesting premise and superb research he presents to the reader is deserving of better writing than he provides here. Williams presents action scenes by telling rather than showing, and his characters do little more than make expository overviews of the developments taking place. In his defense, Williams states (though not within these pages) that his concept is meant to be his main character, with the characters within the novel there primarily to carry the plot forward. I appreciate his honesty in this regard, but an idea alone does not great (or even good) fiction make. As Joan Slonczewski has argued about science fiction writing, ideas are only one part of the experience that makes up a good story; it also is dependent on character development and gripping writing. If the purpose of Williams’s book was to explore ideas about the Second World War, he should have chosen a better format for presenting them or done the work necessary to bring the novel together. It seems lazy not to have put as much effort into the storytelling as he evidently did into the story itself, which is why this book proves to be such a disappointment.

Readers who are primarily interested in the idea of a Second World War fought with more advanced weaponry will enjoy this book and the ideas Williams presents. But for anyone seeking a good novel of alternative history would do well to pass on this book and consider the works such as Lest Darkness Fall or John Birmingham’s “Axis of Time” trilogy, which have developed similar premises but engage readers with not just their ideas but their storytelling as well