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Book Review: The Foresight War 
6th-Nov-2005 01:55 am

If you're wondering why you haven't heard of The Foresight War, it’s probably because it's the 82, 328th bestseller on Amazon.ca and 262, 301st bestseller on Amazon.com. I've heard about it because I stumbled on to the author's website via wikipedia.

There are many ways that counter-factual history can be done. Some of it is straight up analysis of what the consequences of key events not happening or happening differently. This can be very scholarly and usually doesn't extrapolate too far into the future of the changed events, because it gets too hard to figure things out from there.

Then there is the more sensational style. For example, Harry Turtledove. He takes his changed event, and goes wild with it. Like if the South won in the US Civil War, how would WWI and WWII have turned out? He, and others like him, usually populate their stories with characters of their own creation, not so much for dictating the events and setting the pace, bar a few here and there, as to experience them.

From there, is the out to fucking lunch crowd. To call it counter-factual anything would be misleading. Again, see Harry Turtledove if you're interested. I kind of put this in the same category as counter-factual history because it can involve history, or historical figures.

This book is a little in between a straight up scholarly analysis, and a fictional "what if" scenario. If you actually clicked the above link to the author’s website, you’ll see that the author brings to the table some fairly specialized knowledge on ammunition and armaments. In writing The Foresight War he brings that technical knowledge to his interpretation of the events and how they turn out. Stuff like if the British went into the war with a semi-automatic rifle instead of the bolt-action Lee-Enfield or if they had built angled-deck aircraft carriers, or had started designing and building better tanks in the 30s.

The Foresight War is predicated on several points. That a person, with detailed knowledge of the Second World War, is transported to 1934 Britain, and has the means with which to convince the British government that he is indeed from the future and his advice should be followed. In this case, the means of convincing the British our protagonist, Don Erlang, is from the future are a wrist watch and a notebook computer. So how would the Second World War develop if the British had foreknowledge and the time to right some of their more obvious bad ideas? Oh and by the way the Nazis also get a throwback of their own to squeeze for knowledge.

Don Erlang, the British throwback from the future, brings this knowledge with him about what weapons the British should have concentrated on and developed. In real life most of this happened during the war, several steps behind the Germans. The author also sticks to the doable. So the British using the Comet Tank in 1941 not 1945, not the British using the Challenger 2 Main Battle Tank circa 2004 in 1941. Practically everything he has the British doing is doable given their technical and industrial base.

The author also brings to the table some of the obvious policy and defence decisions that the British should have been making in the 30s to fight the Germans, Japanese and Italians in WWII, as well as some the biggest dead-ends that should have been avoided in the actual fighting. The author demonstrates a real appreciation of what is involved in modern war. Its less about what would have happened if the British lost the Battle of Britain, and more about what series of events, policy decisions, and equipment procurement that could have led to the British losing the Battle of Britain.

Of course all of this becomes more complicated as the Germans get their own throwback and what would they do if they knew what that the British know etc… The first chapter was rather well plotted with the revelation of the German throwback in, for the author, a typically technical way.

Again, all of this sticks to realistic. While reading this, I always felt that Williams had a good feel for the big personalities like Churchill and Hitler. Hitler shouldn't have invaded the Soviet Union, shouldn't have persecuted the Slavs in the Soviet Union's satellite states. But even with a guy from the future telling you Hitler it’s a bad idea, it just means that Hitler is going to invade Russia better.

Same with Churchill. Most of his biggest mistakes are rectified, but his Pro-Greek heart still gets him to send British troops to Greece in time to get kicked out by the Germans.

However, the biggest problem of this book is that while it is a rather realistic and at times technical appraisal of the "what ifs" involved, character takes a major backseat. I cannot emphasis how much character takes a backseat to everything. In the entire book, there isn't even a physical description of Don Erlang, the main character. Most of the other characters are walking dictionaries or
encyclopedias of information that show up, divulge their information, and then put themselves on a shelf somewhere ready for their next paragraph. Much of the book is also fleshed out by anonymous characters. Where someone like Harry Turtledove would have given such characters back-story and personality, Williams gives them a job to do as an anonymous bomber pilot, tank commander, infantryman, marine, submariner, ship captain etc... who show up, do something and die or live, either way you never hear from them again. Mostly to show off the new equipment in action that Don Erlang gets the British to develop.

Another complaint of mine is the names of things. I found the tank names confusing because there were real world equivalents, even if they had nothing to do with the equipment described by Williams. I personally would have found completely different names would have been preferable, like all the tanks names beginning after D or something.

Another thing that kind of bothered me, was the Holocaust. I can't seem to recall if Williams actually addressed the Holocaust and I'm unsure if he ignored it, or some decision, that I missed, was made to delay it till after the war. I just don't think any amount of historical foresight would have dissuaded Hitler from his "Final Solution".

In total, a rather realistic, aside from the obvious, "what if" scenario of WWII, that clearly shows the author's bias towards the technical and politcal aspects of his story, as opposed to character. Probably an interesting read for the initiated but will definitely be a snore for the average history layman. Which equates to most of the population of the world.


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