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In War Times
Kathleen Ann Goonan
Tor, 348 pages

In War Times
Kathleen Ann Goonan
Kathleen Ann Goonan belongs to a new generation of writers exploring the cutting edge of technology and its potential impact on humans, to considerable literary effect. The first novel of her Nanotech Cycle, Queen City Jazz (1994), was praised by Locus and was designated a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. The story was taken up in her third novel, Mississippi Blues. She has also published the unrelated The Bones of Time, a science fiction novel connecting Hawaii's King Kamehameha and space travel, as well as a number of short stories. Kathleen Ann Goonan lives in Lakeland, Florida.

Kathleen Ann Goonan Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Crescent City Rhapsody
SF Site Review: Queen City Jazz

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Greg L. Johnson

Physics, jazz, and a world gone bad. Kathleen Ann Goonan's latest novel, In War Times, is sub-titled "An Alternate-Universe Novel of A Different Present." It's a story of people caught up in war, and their growing feeling that the world they live in is not what it should and could be. But if changing history means losing the people you love, can you afford the price to be paid for setting things right?

As the story begins, Sam Dance's life is changed by three events, the start of World War Two, the death of his brother during the attack on Pearl Harbor, and an encounter with Dr. Eliani Handtz, a Hungarian physicist who will continue to influence Sam throughout the rest of his life. Sam is being trained by the Army in electronics and code-breaking, Handtz teaches physics, and in her meeting with Sam, introduces him to her own ideas, which include a synthesis of physics and biology that she believes will lead to a better understanding of human nature, and end the human race's propensity for solving problems by resorting to warfare. She leaves Sam with a machine that she hints will help bring the reality she envisions to pass.

After their meeting, Sam continues on his Army career, and makes friends with Al Winklemeyer, another science geek who also shares Sam's passion for jazz, and not just any jazz, but the new, radical form of improvising being explored by musicians such as Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, which the musicians call be-bop, and Sam and Al refer to as "modern music." Al and Sam also play jazz, and throughout the novel they maintain a lively discussion of what it's like to learn and play this new music, and how the mental gymnastics needed relate to their study of physics, and furthers their understanding of the sometimes cryptic ideas Handtz has left them with.

From the beginning of her career, Kathleen Ann Goonan's novels have always been filled with references to music, especially jazz, as titles like Queen City Jazz and Crescent City Rhapsody make apparent. In War Times extends this interest in jazz until it becomes one of the core elements of the story, a unifying element that serves both as a glimpse into the character's lives and as a metaphor for the world as they would like it to be.

The story continues on through Sam's post-World War family life, and into the cold war of the 50s and 60s. Eliani Handtz remains in the background, a mysterious figure whose ideas and actions seem to be leading to the creation of one or several alternate realities that offer more hope for the continued existence of humanity than the world Sam lives in, which is very close to our own. Sam, in fact, becomes increasingly convinced that there is something basically wrong with the reality he lives in.

It's hard to label In War Times as simply either an alternate history or a science fiction novel. The alternate realities are grounded in our own, Goonan uses excerpts from her own father's recounting of his experiences in World War Two to flesh out the reality of Sam's life, and at the same time speculations in the relationship between physics and biology make Eliani Handtz seem like someone well ahead of her own time. The result is a novel which feels based in reality but also causes the reader to constantly question to just what extent the reality of In War Times matches our own. The underlying theme, that human nature is flawed, and can be helped by a greater understanding brought on by a confluence of quantum physics and genetics, fills the novel with a wistful longing for a better world that may or may not be just within our reach. In War Times is a novel that suggests things could be better, but that there is also a price to pay for achieving it. The characters and their lives are a search for that better world, and the combination of music, the realities of war, stylish writing, and a glimpse into what our world possibly could be, make In War Times a thought-provoking, captivating novel, and Kathleen Ann Goonan's best work yet.

Copyright © 2007 by Greg L. Johnson

Reviewer Greg L Johnson shares Sam Dance's disappointment when he learns that his friend Al's new reality, which has avoided the worst aspects of our own Cold War, somehow does not include the music of Miles Davis. His reviews also appear in the The New York Review of Science Fiction.

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