Locus Review Kathleen Ann Goonan
by Gary K. Wolfe from Locus Magazine, April 2007
In War Times, Kathleen Ann Goonan (Tor 978-0-765-31355-3, $25.95, 348pp, hc) April 2007.
In Kathleen Ann Goonan's ambitious and impressive nanotech quartet, which occupied most of her career between 1994 (Queen City Jazz) and 2002 (Light Music), it became quite evident that Goonan is as interested in music as she is in SFnal speculation. Musical forms were among the strongest controlling metaphors of all those novels, and Goonan is almost certainly the only writer (in Crescent City Rhapsody) to treat Duke Ellington as if he were Heinlein. I always wondered if these dual passions risked bifurcating her audience; on one con panel discussion the idea came up of compiling a kind of "cultural literacy" glossary of literary and musical references in Goonan for the benefit of SF readers who, presumably, were unfazed by the complexities of nanotech and arcane mathematics that equally underlay her fiercely imaginative world. The idea almost seemed to be that music and science were alternate but parallel modalities for approaching some kind of transcendence, and in her new novel, In War Times (otherwise unconnected to the nanotech series), she moves this idea firmly to center stage, and casts the whole thing in the form of an alternate historical that ranges from the beginning of World War II to the late 1960s. Goonan proves to be as meticulous with her historical detail as she was with her SFnal extrapolation in the nanotech novels, and even incorporates passages from her father's own memoirs of this era to add to the authentic tone. The result is a provocative and at times intensely moving novel that treats its alternate World War II era premise with a sophistication comparable to that of Christopher Priest's The Separation, but that balances its historical and scientific speculations (the latter which get a bit fuzzy) with an evidently joyful celebration of the birth, and meaning, of modern jazz. It's almost certainly the most personal novel Goonan has written, and the most passionate. To the extent that the novel serves as a tribute to her father, it's a dazzling gift for him.
Sam Dance is a brilliant but somewhat klutzy soldier who is selected to attend a series of arcane courses in Washington in 1941, where he's promptly seduced by his enigmatic physics instructor Eliani Hadntz, a Gypsy heavily connected to the prewar superstars of theoretical physics. Fearful that she's being followed, she leaves him with a theoretical paper on the relationship of consciousness, time and physics, including plans for a device that might somehow exploit these relationships in ways that could literally change history. The device alters Sam's life irrevocably, and, as we eventually learn, the entire 20th century as well, and Hadnzt in various incarnations haunts him for the rest of his life. The day after this encounter Sam's brother Keenan is killed in the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and Sam himself is assigned to the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland, where he meets Al Winklemeyer, who shares his passion for jazz and will become his closest friend. Together or apart, the two of them experience key events of the war first in England during the Blitz, later in occupied France, then in Germany where they witness the camp at Bergen-Belsen, and eventually to the Pacific, on an observation plane accompanying the Enola Gay. Throughout, Sam has occasional encounters with the mysterious Dr. Hadntz, and the device which he actually builds seems increasingly to take on a life of its own, changing the world and itself in ways not immediately apparent to Sam until he starts getting visits from his dead brother Keenan, and learns that his pal Wink was actually killed some years earlier. As Sam returns to the states, marries, and raises a family, he becomes increasingly aware of the malleability of consciousness and time, and when his youngest daughter, an idealistic 1960s protester, discovers that a version of the device might enable her to go back in time to prevent the Kennedy assassination, Sam has to confront at a very personal level the enormity of the power he has released.
Despite Goonan's speculations about time and consciousness, the Hadntz device itself functions largely as a kind of magical amulet, and in purely SFnal terms it's a little vague as to how it actually works, or what it's doing when it does work. The ideas Goonan is working with here are actually more complex than in her nanotech novels, but she offers them with a good deal more restraint (making In War Times more easily accessible for non-SF readers), and even more boldly parallels them with the kind of altered consciousness that seemed to be emerging in the jazz clubs of New York during this period. The most purely celebratory passages in the book are reserved for Sam and Wink's visits to Manhattan clubs during the early forties, where they realize that the new tonalities being discovered by Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonius Monk, and even a young Miles Davis are in their way changing the world as irrevocably as Hadnzt's magical device. (Here again you wonder if the same readers who are intrigued by the physics of consciousness will realize that Sam and Wink's 1942 pilgrimage to Minton's jazz club in Harlem represents a kind of grail for jazz fans, comparable in SF terms, perhaps, to hanging out with Heinlein and Asimov at the Brooklyn Navy Yard). Goonan almost seems to suggest that improvisation was a governing theme of the entire 20th century, expressed at one extreme by the speculative physics of Einstein, Bohr, and Heisenberg, and at another by the rise of bebop. It's a bold and bizarre notion, and somehow Goonan renders it in a narrative that is at once deeply human and intellectually challenging.
Read more! This is one of over forty reviews from the April 2007 issue of Locus Magazine. To read more, go here to subscribe or buy the issue.