War and Dreams – Two Novels by Kathleen Ann Goonan

In War Times coverKathleen Ann Goonan’s In War Times, originally published in 2007, won the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best Novel and the ALA’s Best Science Fiction Novel of the Year. A complex exploration of the political implications of alternative history, In War Times begins in 1941, with Sam Dance being given documents that lead to the opening of a parallel world in which Dance’s brother, Keenan, survived the attack on Pearl Harbor to work for a better future — as does Sam in “our” reality. The SF element of the book is the “Device” Sam and his friend Wink develop, the ramifications of which are traced in the increasingly surreal second half of the novel. The Device, the workings of which are only hinted at but which have something to do with quantum mechanics, taps into the genetic basis of human perceptions of time, conferring an ability to alter past events — a process that works ever stranger, more powerful effects as the book progresses.

The first half of In War Times chronicles Sam’s travels through Europe, with our hero finding himself in so many significant places at historically notable moments that one wonders if he is related to Forrest Gump. A significant thread of continuity is provided by jazz music, which is paralleled with the development of modern physics and weapons of mass destruction, and functions as a life-affirming counterweight to them. (From Queen City Jazz onwards, music has been a central theme of Goonan’s work, and she writes about the subject better than anyone else in science fiction; her first quartet of novels continued with Mississippi Blues, Crescent City Rhapsody, and Light Music.) An afterword reveals that the non-science-fictional elements of Sam Dance’s life closely follow the adventures of the author’s father, Thomas E. Goonan, who provided engineering support for radar and other technology during the invasion of Europe in 1944, and extracts from whose notebooks appear throughout In War Times. These passages are hugely interesting, but the first-person text is so different from the novel’s main narrative that the inclusions sometimes jar. Still, the novel offers a compelling intellectual drama, a moving love story (when Sam meets his future wife, Bette), and a tense race-against-time thriller that works despite a technology that seems ludicrous, if visualized, and involves making fresh and interesting the tired cliché of revisiting the assassination of JFK to change the outcome.

This Shared Dream coverThis Shared Dream is set a generation later. Major characters from In War Times play minor roles, though they cast long shadows and continue to act behind the scenes. This much more domestic novel is set in and around the old Dance family home in Washington, D.C. in the summer of 1991, in a parallel world more peaceful and a decade or two more technologically advanced than our own. The focus is Sam and Bette’s three children – Jill, Brian and Megan – as they approach middle-age and struggle with the problems of work, family, and the barely remembered, shockingly traumatic events of their youth.

This Shared Dream contains a lot of incident, and there is plenty of complex story, skilfully woven into the mesh of the previous volume, but it is not a narrative-driven work to anywhere near the same extent. The plot happens largely off-stage. Although there is – eventually – a mystery to be solved, and some mild suspense and danger involving a missing piece of technology, this is much more a novel about consequences, about coming to terms with the past and building the basis for a sustainable future on both personal and global levels. It is a reflective and thoughtful book, immersed in conversation and personal detail, and inevitably slowly paced with considerable scene-setting and back-story.

The crisis is precipitated by Jill, now 41, her marriage troubled, pressured by her PhD studies and the responsibilities of her independent bookshop, who revisits the old family home and breaks down. Jill tries to make the world better through her work, promoting the development of self-replicating nanotechnology schools. Brian has suppressed the past via alcohol, and Megan obsesses about recovering it through memory research. Brian’s daughter, Zoe, continuing the focus on music, is a phenomenally talented musician who, alongside Jill, is the most interesting character in the book.

Enigmatic incidents accumulate. Characters return, but covertly. Life goes on. There are plans to use the technology developed in the first novel for good and ill, but the Device is nebulously self-aware, with an agenda of its own. While this is a well-thought-out and richly imagined book, it will definitely frustrate those seeking a strong narrative. Instead, events are often as mysterious and poorly understood by Goonan’s protagonists as they are in real life. It is a world away from mainstream SF in which the all-competent hero never ceases to drive the action and everything is neatly explained. Here, though an emotionally satisfying resolution awaits, there is a sense that the characters are players in a drama they see only through a glass darkly.

At heart This Shared Dream reads equally as the story of a family’s healing and as a compassionate manifesto for a more cooperative, collaborative future, an implicit critique of the competitive underpinnings of the American Dream. Both books are thoughtful, well written, lovingly characterized, sometimes startlingly powerful in their humanity. If Goonan’s profound aversion to conflict results in a second novel that is somewhat dramatically underpowered, it is the price one pays for exploring an upgraded global dream for us all.


Slightly different versions of this review have appeared on the Los Angeles Review of Books and To The Last Word.


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1 Comment

  1. As a writer, I find the book review a challenging beast. Of those I've read, most are mediocre. But, Gary, you've got the book review awesome sauce. I really enjoyed it, AND I intend to do some Goonan reading, thanks to you!

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