Kathleen Ann Goonan
In War Times
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2007
Tor Books / Tom Doherty Associates
US First Edition Hardcover
348 Pages; $25.95
Publication Date: 05-17-2007
Date Reviewed: 10-17-2007
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 and cry.
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.