Monday, 12 January 2015

Emergence by John Birmingham - Book Review

Emergence by John Birmingham, aka Birmo, Aka Ole JB, Aka owner of the ole persuader

As a rule I don’t usually read books with orcs, magic, dragons and fantasy novels in general. Oh how I have tried though. I tried reading Lord of the Rings, I read the first one skipping pages of idiot songs, Tom Bombidil sleep overs, and endless dialog about nothing. Apparently there was a balrog somewhere. I know this because the hobbits said ‘look a balrog!’ I haven’t read Harry Turtledove’s fantasy books either, even though I do love his books. I mostly read books with explosions and alternative history themes or nonfiction books about history and its associated explosions. I didn’t mind comics with dragons but only if they were English and featured Slaine and drawn by an Italian. But fantasy novels I just struggle with. Game of Thrones is left unfinished as the TV show just crushed the story, what’s the point in reading it when the blu-ray is easier and looks Lena Hadley amazing?

I’ve own a number of JB books. He died with Falafel in his Hand, the World War 2.0 series, The Wave series and Leviathan. Leviathan is one of my favourite books. Ever.

I read JB’s Blunt Instrument column in the Brisbane Times and join in the merriment on his website at

I once offered JB an idea for a new book series and am totally disappointed that he didn’t write up my suggestion of Australian Aboriginals that created a near industrial culture over 40,000 years and those Aboriginals proceed to ‘discover’ England by sailing a fleet into South Hampton in 1766. I’m totally sure he will do that next.

Emergence concerns Dave Hooper, a middle aged overweight, overwrought engineer going through a mid-life crisis of spending too much money, divorcing his wife, losing interaction with his kids and pretending he is still 20. His reason for living is to pack in as many hookers and as much blow into his crisis until he either dies or grows up. Dave works on an oil rig as a safety manager off the NOLA coast. An extremely deep drilling experiment by the corporation he works for, manages to crack open a hole to a magical demon underworld which is full of orcs, magic queens, minions and general crazy people. All hell breaks loose and Dave becomes the hero of this and every hour; much to his jaundiced surprise.

Unlike ole JB’s other ‘plosions and tech warfare books Emergence has a single narrative perspective, which shuffles the story along at a brisk pace. You don’t need to turn back to follow each story strand. This also means that Dave’s humour and pathos are on every page. This makes for a laugh riot of in jokes, scatological humour, cynicism and some very well drawn criticism of the American military industrial complex.

I particularly like where Dave wrestles with his personal demons of dealing with his ‘ole persuader’, dealing with females who are better educated and couldn’t care less about him, and where he might just have to step up and be a man for once, which in this context means ‘Get the girl, kill the baddies and save the entire planet’.

One of the appealing things about John Birmingham’s books is that you get to view America as an outsider. America as a character becomes absurd, full of military bureaucrats, proto-fascists and lonely people being let down by the American dream.

Sometimes in the novel Dave can also appear as a bit of Aussie everyman, his ongoing joy about his new ultra fit body, the ability to eat whatever he wants and in huge amounts. (Which is frankly the Australian man’s dream, I mean have you seen our ability to barbeque like possessed demons?) Although I did notice Dave suffering remorse after having just one last chocolate milkshake.

We are all Daves now.


Post script.

Something JB doesn’t really do, is include musical references in his books, unlike his hero Stephen King who is always name checking AC DC, Springsteen and the Ramones. So I thought I would list an appropriate soundtrack for Emergence. Dave Hooper needs a soundtrack to play on his iPod while eating, as would the supporting characters to drown out the noise of Dave eating.

Note* This is written down as a soundtrack to my imaginary Dave Hooper movie  

New Orleans is a Dying Whore’ by Down. Intro song, title and director credits.

The Great Southern Trend Kill’ by Pantera. Helicopter ride to the rig on the crap worn out seat with the mean civilian cat lady pilot.

Wake Up! Time to Die’ by Pop Will Eat Itself. The memories of the last night of hookers and blow.

Weekend Warrior’ by Ministry. The first fight with the Hunn when Dave brains the orc with Lucille.

Where Eagles Dare’ Misfits cover by Biohazard. Where the SEAL team assemble to move Dave and meet the oversized scout.

One Shot One Kill’ by Pro-Pain. The fight scene with the Scout.

Surface Paradise’ by Root! As Dave travels via car, background noise on the radio.

Nemesis’ by Shriekback segueing into NWA on the car stereo.  The Hunn coming up through the sewers in New Orleans and getting royally confused by baseball caps.

Guns for Show, Knives are Pro’ by Parkway Drive.For the Hunn.

Sheep in Black’ by the Clowns. Dave eating while thinking about his brother and the military men surrounding him.

Get the Girl, Kill the Baddies’ by Pop Will Eat Itself. End Credit sequence


  1. Great review, Rob. I especially enjoyed your observation about observing Americans from a non American perspective.

    As for music, BOC's "Don't Fear the Reaper" should be in there somewhere. And for reasons utterly mysterious to me I really feel Depesh Mode's "Personal Jesus" would be a wonderful background for Dave's John Carter impression.

    1. BOC would be OK, but it was used in True Blood sung by the Muttonbirds. Maybe a cover of it by someone like Phil Anselmo and the Illegals. Johnny Cash doing Personal Jesus would be pretty cool. I think JG Thirlwell doing the incidental music would be great (he who does the Venture Brothers Soundtrack) big and bombastic. the book would make a great film. Probably Starring Seth Rogan