I’ve just finished Kathleen Ann Goonan’s thoughtful and optimistic novel, and I’m not quite sure how to describe it, or exactly what to say about it.
On one level, it reminded me of Connie Willis’ Blackout/All Clear. It’s clear that Ms. Goonan is in Ms Willis’ league when it comes to WWII research. She has inserted portions of her father’s own WWII diary into the pages of this novel. The portrayal of 1940’s Europe seems very real and bombed out, and everyone’s a chain smoker. So that must be right, eh?
On the other hand, I found an emotional distance from the characters. You really only get inside Sam, and that’s mainly through Ms Goonan placing her father’s voice/journal entries into the character’s mouth/pen. Twice toward the end of the book, Sam has a Cat’s-In-The-Cradle moment, “When did my kids grow up?” And the reader wonders about it, too. Why were we introduced to these kids, and why does it take thirty years for people to stop fumbling around with the mysterious device that incorporates physics, biology, and time and actually do something?
In War Times explores one great idea–my own definition for a science fiction starting point. Building on the familiar territory of alternate universes, Ms Goonan weaves in supporting themes of jazz, conspiracy, and mainly a wistfulness about living in an ideal world. The jazz is close, but not quite note perfect. The conspiracy elements are not quite menacing. You know the main characters are being watched. But the watchers don’t seem to care very much. The pacing of the novel is quite largo. As a reader, I wondered where it was going. The idea was fascinating enough that I was hooked to see how the novel would unfold. But impatient readers are not going to wait.
The fantastic sequences hit the reader fast, and a few pages later, as the characters, especially Sam, are wondering if it really happened, I found I was wondering too. I would turn back a few pages and try to catch more of what I just read. That didn’t seem to work, and it’s a credit to Ms Goonan’s literary skill that you just have to go slowly as you progress through this novel. Then hold on for the interruptions.
The conclusion comes quick. It gets set up well. But it’s rather predictable. And optimistic to the extreme. And that’s all I’ll say about it.