Our visions of what could have been are perhaps the most powerful tool
of self-inflicted torment ever invented. No matter what comes to
pass, we can always imagine something better. This tendency has spawned
an entire school of speculative fiction – alternate history – and
currently informs one of the most discussed branches of modern physics,
the "quantum branch universe theory" (my appellation),
which suggests that every decision begets another universe. If this
is true, we can easily imagine some sort of MacGuffin that would
allow us to move to those other universes, the one where we did not
break up with what's-her/his-name, or the branch in which we did
in fact remember to study for that all-important test. Unfortunately,
we don’t have that MacGuffin, except perhaps in another branch
universe. In our time and world, we're stuck with what we've got.
But the longing for another chance is a powerful emotion, and writers
have seized upon it for generations. Kathleen Ann Goonan's 'In War Times'
is a fairly straightforward vision of what might have happened in our
world from the eve of Pearl Harbor onward. But Goonan's low-key genre
fiction approach is complimented by the kind of prose, plot and character
building that one expects to find in the finest American literary work.
'In War Times' is a superb novel that manages to explore fascinating
scientific and social concepts within the framework of a sweeping but
incredibly concise family saga. It is a book that will make you think
Sam Dance is an enlisted soldier smart and lucky enough to have been
shuffled into an academic fast-track for intensive courses in codebreaking,
engineering and even theoretical physics. Even better, he's just been
seduced by one of his teacher, an exotic woman who calls herself Eliana
Hadntz. She sees something special in Sam, and gives him the plan for
a device and a working model. Perhaps. What the device does is not clear,
and the plans are to say the least, unusual. She leaves him with his
head full of ideas and a mysterious gadget in his hands. The next day,
his brother is killed when Pearl Harbor is attacked.
'In War Times' unfolds over the next thirty years with characters we
care about deeply experiencing history as we know it – and as we
do not know it. Sam is an amateur jazz musician, and his mind is already
open to the quantum concepts that Hadntz has managed to put into a box.
Goonan effortlessly draws the reader into his world and our own shared
history. She manages the neat trick of making Sam a lot smarter than
the average bear but as sympathetic as an everyman. She puts him on stage
with jazz greats and in peril during the war, immersing readers effortlessly
in her world. Driven by the loss of his brother he imagines a better
world, one where his brother was not killed in war. In the world where
he lives and acts, he follows a path through the World War II that manages
to hit the highlights and turn him into a wiser soul. That Goonan does
this without ever seeming heavy-handed is nothing short of remarkable.
She surrounds Sam with men and women who have the stuff of life. The
considerable cast that Sam encounters in his travels is treated with
respect and realism. Some die. Some live. It's life during wartime, and
just as importantly, beyond.
The speculative fiction aspects are perfectly integrated with the real
history, there to intrigue but not to overwhelm. The Hadntz device is
chimerical, changing from one state to another, its effects uncertain.
Goonan is remarkably successful at writing science fiction that takes
place entirely in the past. Like any great writer, she makes the unbelievable
believable, and uses her invention to inspire wonder, terror, and powerful
emotions. With careful plotting and skilled prose, she gets readers to
ask themselves big questions and offers them fascinating answers. Nothing
is simple, but everything feels intensely real.
Goonan's plotting and story arc are brilliantly executed. She takes readers
through a considerable swathe of history with a very naturalistic feel.
Readers never experience the "walk on effect" that one finds
in both standard and alternate histories. We're immersed in the emotions
and lives of Sam Dance, his family and his friends as they try to understand
and tweak both humanity and the universe. Goonan packs in both years
and emotions without making the reader feel rushed or cramped. This is
a full-blown three-generation family saga that doesn't even run 350 pages.
She incorporates portions of her own father's actual journals written
during and after World War II as if they were written by Sam. The veracity
and specificity that these bring to the novel are considerable additions
to the narrative as a whole but carefully woven in. Seamlessly melding
genre and magic realism and historical fiction, 'In War Times' is a novel
for all tastes and all times.