Tuesday, March 3, 2009

In War Times

Kathleen Ann Goonan's novel is subtitled "An Alternate Universe Novel of A Different Present," but nothing like that appears until nearly the last third of the book. Strangely though, that's exactly where the book begins to fall apart, and, before then, In War Times serves as a rather charming WWII memoir with occasional ruminations on how DNA, string theory, and modern jazz can create the conditions for time travel and parallel universes.

The story concerns a brilliant but naive young engineering student named Sam Dance, who gets caught up in bureaucratic meanderings as a soldier-technician during the Second World War. This part of the novel reads more like Catch-22 or any other countless memoirs penned by ex-soldiers who eschew realism and put a slightly fantastic sheen on their experiences to capture the craziness inherent in the war machine. Here Goonan relies heavily on the diaries penned by her veteran father, but it works well.

The other part of the story deals with an attempt to rewrite reality by moving members of an international conspiracy into a parallel reality where war has been made obsolete through genetic manipulation, resulting in a liberal technocracy instead of the past fifty years of our own history (that is, in the author's opinion, war, oppression, poverty, and the inevitable threat of nuclear annihilation). This is carried out by a strange device that relies on DNA as the programming code of reality, and has a parallel in how modern jazz (i.e. Dizzy Gillespie and Bird Parker) rewrote the conventions of jazz to create a new musical reality.

It's all rather vague and tantalizing, but it's also not really explored by the author. Though the characters are unique (jazz-obsessed radar technicians, female OSS superspies), their personalities are utterly boring and don't change much over the course of the narrative. And Goonan's treatment of alternate history is completely facile (does anyone really still believe that a non-assassinated JFK would've ushered in a limousine-liberal utopia where civil rights would've been pushed through and a Vietnam-style quagmire could be avoided into the present day?), so the book is at its weakest when it finally gets around to focusing on that part of the story. It was a decent read, mostly as a memoir of non-combat soldiers in WWII, but it was definitely nothing more than that.

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