In War Times, by Kathleen Ann Goonan

In War Times
By Kathleen Ann Goonan (Tor, 2007, 348p, $25.95)

Everyone should have a hobby, but all too often a fictitious character’s pastime is an excuse for authors to evangelise (or just plain bore) the readers about their own obsession. Thankfully that isn’t the case here because jazz is a perfect metaphor for the fluid reality of In War Times. Jazz, World War 2 Europe, the development of technology in the 1940s and time travel all intertwine easily because all are defined by lack of boundaries. No one, not even the experts, knows entirely what they will end up with from any given set of starting conditions. It is all made up as it goes along.

“The sharp array of notes hijacked his thoughts, his being, and the world seemed to jump with the octave jumps, move between two different keys, with such ease that it seemed like the most natural thing in the world, when in fact it defined a radically different way of looking at music, of playing it, of experiencing it” (page 209)

Sam Dance is a jazz playing soldier engineer during WW2 who ends up as a time traveller, briefly. On the eve of Pearl Harbor, Sam is seduced intellectually and physically by the mysterious Dr Eliani Hadntz, who leaves him with notes for the building of a device that will somehow end war and change the human condition for the better. Exactly how the device will do this is never entirely made clear and nor is it clear why Sam, who is much too level headed to fall for a pretty face, gets caught up in it. But caught up he is, and he hangs onto the papers as the USA is plunged into the conflict. A combination of short sightedness and technical skill means he is fated to spend the war as a techie, working on ever more complex hardware like the (factual) M-9 Director, a machine that could track aircraft and aim guns without human intervention. Technology made such leaps and bounds during the early forties that it is sometimes hard to tell, even with a reader’s hindsight, which bits are real and which are science fictional. To Sam, living in the eternal present, it’s all equally viable. The device is no more or less plausible to him than the miracle of the M-9, and as a conscientious engineer he quietly gets on with the job of developing them both.

Several versions of the device are finally manufactured; it is always small, always portable, always entirely inscrutable as to what it actually does. But it soon becomes clear it has a life and rules of its own; hide it away for a few months, and next time you look it will have become something else.

“In the attic, hidden in a box in a locked trunk, the latest incarnation of the Hadntz Device. Exuding, perhaps, viruses, DNA, radio waves, infinite spacetimes. A repository of the multiverse; a cipher” (page 281).

Most of Sam’s war – indeed his career – is a stolid progression through the technical development of the twentieth century from 1940 onwards, based on first hand accounts that would make a fascinating novel in their own right and add an invaluable layer of secondary detail to this one. To get us to the point where the device starts working, and indeed beyond, Goonan maps Sam’s career onto the real-life career of her own father, who held down the same jobs in the same places as Sam in WW2 and then after as a fire protection engineer. His career took him all across war-torn Europe, and afterwards across the Pacific and the tracking stations for the space and ICBM programmes. Small, verifying details abound to give a fascinating layer of verisimilitude – like, the coal-rationed Brits during the war constantly apologising to their American guests that they can’t get the beer warm enough, and the Americans not minding in the least. There is a wonderful moment where Sam, an over-here GI working on the Sandringham estate, has an accidental meeting with the young Princess Elizabeth. The authenticity lies in her reaction. I don’t know if this actually happened to Goonan père, or indeed to anyone, but if it’s not true then it damn well should be.

There are still the occasional clunkers that some natural law seems to dictate will always occur when an American writes about the British: we do not employ the concept of blocks when giving directions around cities, and when someone turns up in a Mini during the Blitz I wasn’t sure if the parallel universes had started arriving or this was just an ignorant foreigner writing. I reluctantly concluded the latter.

For twenty years, Sam keeps faith with Hadntz’s vision, secretly developing the device and planting it around the world – the old Messerschmidt factory beneath the Bavarian alps, the aforesaid tracking stations – where it can continue to do its obscure, undetectable good.

I said it wasn’t clear why Sam fell for Hadntz in the first place. Given that he did, however, he needs no further motivation. The very real threat of the Bomb, the Cold War, the perception in many quarters that the war never really ended are all the incentive he requires. Many years earlier his best buddy and fellow musician branched off into a parallel universe where, at least from the point of view of a post-war Cold Warrior, the future is a lot more rosy, and Sam gets added impetus when his friend occasionally pops over to our world and talks happily of the collapse of the Soviet Union, development of the moon bases, a full term for Kennedy …

What is lacking, however, is any kind of questioning about whether all this playing with reality is the right thing to do. Sam does have the occasional niggle of doubt. In the ‘utopian’ alternative, he wouldn’t have his wife and kids. His friend is more concerned with the absence in his world of Miles Davis. But apart from that, Sam never really questions the motivation of Hadntz’s vision. Yes, World War 2 was a terrible thing and Hadntz herself has family lost in the Nazi camps, so we can see her point of view. But what would it have cost to avoid it? And who has the right to manipulate our very genes to make sure war never happens again?

And while we’re pondering this, suddenly we’re in The Incredibles: husband and wife flying in a futuristic (and time travelling) plane like a pair of superheroes to the rescue of their daughter. It’s a jarring note and the book never really recovers from it. By the 1960s, Sam is living a life of archetypal suburban respectability, for all that he knows he’s married to a CIA spook, when one of his daughters goes missing. The latest manifestation of the device, Sam realises too late, is a board game that his children have found in the attic. The girl has used it to go back in time to right a terrible wrong (just say that when Sam and his wife go after her they land at Love Field). This isn’t the first time we’ve learnt that the device actually allows time travel back and forth, rather than just sidestepping between parallel worlds – but you have to think hard to remember that, oh yeah, so it can. (It’s the only explanation for various goings on that Sam encountered during the war.) The wrong is righted, Sam and daughter return to the present but in a changed world, and the world is happier for it.

I’m sorry to say that this resolution annoys. It would annoy in a less engaging, realistic and level-headed novel so the fact that it happens here makes it even more annoying. The novel has shown us the fears and paranoia of the Cold War, and we can understand the characters’ motivations that arise because they don’t know what we do: there wasn’t a nuclear war, Communism did fall (eventually) and so on. But at the same time our post Cold War world has had Srebrenica and Darfur and Iraq and the present situation in Burma. In Sam’s new reality, Communism ceases to be a threat earlier, Vietnam never develops into the catastrophe it became … but there is no real reason to suppose items like Srebrenica et al still don’t go on to occur. The device, in theory, deals with all of that because it changes the very nature of humans and the ways in which we relate to each other. But who gets to say how humans should be?

This kind of scientific utopianism was the underpinning creed of the likes of H.G. Wells, who knew no better; Arthur C. Clarke, who should have; and Star Trek, which had no excuses. It is completely out of place here. I am sorry people died horribly in WW2. I really am, but if anyone has the power to change that – well, I’m sorry but I also deny them the right to change my present existence. Ninety percent of In War Times shows such a realistic and sympathetic view of people quietly getting on with their lives, even in the middle of a war, taking the good with the bad, that this too-neat wrapping up of a problem without any kind of debate or questioning leaves a sour note that not even a happy ending can fully undo. Surely if Hitler and Stalin taught us anything – and let’s face it, there are one or two key lessons to be drawn from their lives – it’s the undesirability of unaccountable people making decisions on our behalf?