In War Times, Kathleen Ann Goonan

Tor, 2007, 348 pages, C$31.95 hc, ISBN 978-0-7653-1355-3

If you’re wondering what use we possibly can have for awards, let me give you a hint: If Kathleen Ann Goonan’s In War Times hadn’t won the John Campbell Award, I wouldn’t have bothered reading it. The author’s previous works haven’t grabbed me, the subject matter of this book seems to be dedicated to another audience, and while the novel got a favorable number of reviews upon publication, it didn’t seem to establish itself as one of 2007’s must-read novels from word-of-mouth buzz.

But it did walk away with the Campbell Award, and that strengthens its place in the SF canon. It doesn’t finalize it, of course: part of the attraction in reading this year’s Campbell winner was to determine whether the Campbell jury had succeeded in making a choice as awfully outdated as Ben Bova’s Titan, somehow selected as being a best choice of some sort the previous year.

From the first few pages, it’s obvious that the Campbell judges have made a better choice: Goonan’s prose is well-written, and her understanding of interpersonal relationships is better than many of her colleagues. From the first few pages, in which a young soldier is seduced and then left by a female scientist during World War II, we can relax: if nothing else, this novel will be well written.

But for a while, that’s all we get: despite a few ominous lines early on, this is the story of the young soldier, Sam Dance, as he’s shipped off around Europe (and then Japan) in order to take advantage of his top-notch technical skills. He builds a device according to plans left by his ex-lover, but it’s never too clear what the device is supposed to accomplish. Meanwhile, around him, both jazz and modern science are being invented, refined, applied and developed. Goonan’s musical knowledge has been obvious from Queen City Jazz onward, but here the characters have the chance to hob-nob with the early Greats of American Jazz, and readers who know anything about the form will be delighted to read about a few walk-in characters.

On the flip side is the portrait of the war as seen from Dancer’s eyes, sometimes via diary entries. We eventually learn in the afterword that those entries are excerpted from Goonan’s father’s own real-life WW2 diaries. Again, In War Times is best appreciated by those with some knowledge of the time and place. Four-seventh of the book are spent in WW2, and despite a few intriguing moments here and there, there are few reasons for this book to be classified as Science Fiction rather than historical drama.

The SF elements become more obvious after the war, although not by much until the last fifty pages. As universes diverge and the mysterious device changes by itself, Sam realizes that there’s at least another alternate universe out there, one that seems far preferable to ours. But then 1963 arrives, and Sam’s family has a chance to change things…

Other writers would have spent their time playing around alternate universes, cleanly explaining the time-and-dimension-hopping device and the paradoxes surrounding it. Goonan is interested in other things, most notably paying tribute to her own father’s experience. It works if you’re favorably inclined toward that type of thing: It’s really difficult to say bad things about this book other than its best target audience is carefully delimited. (That, and that the final segment of the novel is pure baby-boomer wish-fulfillment, with a dash of conspiracy theory.)

As a read, it’s worthwhile in that it takes us somewhere else, and does so in style. Does that make it one of 2007’s best novel? That depends, but for all of the Campbell jury’s enthusiasm for the book, it’s easy to see why it didn’t make much of a splash in the wider SF community: Competently written, well imagined, sure, but without the extra spark to make it something more striking. Parallels with Ian McDonald’s Brasyl, which also dealt in parallel universes, are instructive: McDonald’s novel may not have been as carefully controlled, but it had a ton of energy that made it a wild ride. That energy would have been misplaced for In War Times‘s WW2 setting, but any energy supplement would have been helpful in making the novel a more engrossing experience.

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