In War Times

Kathleen Ann Goonan
In War Times Cover

In War Times


Sam Dance is a soldier in the US military just prior to the United States entry into the theatre of war in World War II. He is seem as someone with particular talents and early on in his career is extracted from his duties and placed into classes of physics, chemistry and other scientific matter.

During this time he is seduced by his enigmatic lecturer from Eastern Europe, Handtz who places into his custody a device which she hopes he will use. It's quickly clear that the device is something highly prized by the US, Communist Russia and Nazi Germany. It's a device that has potential for great good and also would be disastrous for humanity in the 'wrong hands' - which seems to be everyone apart from Dance.

The device is capable of combining the consciousness and biology of DNA to create parallel and alternative timelines that mesh at a nexus and carry on in alternate directions. An analogy is made throughout the book of jazz musicians who individually do their own thing in a piece of music whilst still playing the same underlying structure, coming together in the same place where necesary and then departing. The analogy is made a little too often for my liking as it seems every fifty pages or so we are introduced to the idea.

The idea of the device is that it can change the consciousness of humanity and eradicate from it's DNA tendencies to create war and cause suffering. On the face of it this is a wonderful premise - who wouldn't want to eradicate the worst of our species nature. Herein lies the problem of the device for me - it assumes there is a higher level of values of humanity to aspire to. Whilst Goonan does have some admirable and non-controversial 'human' values it is not lost on me that much of the novel is set in a period where two European powers had clear ideas about the values and idenity of humanity with devastating results for millions. Of course the device does not work as expected...

The first part of the novel is set in World War II and encompasses the attack on Pearl Harbour by the Japanese in which Sam's brother dies (and gives Sam an immense desire to stop this suffering from happening again) through to the nuclear devestation of the US bombing of Hiroshima. In this time Sam works on radar with the British and takes part in the liberation of Germany. Sam also visits the concentraton camps of Belsen and work factories of Nazi Germany. No matter how often I read in fiction or in other media accounts and descriptions of the Holocaust I am always moved. Goonan handles this sensitively and manages to convey ther horror of it without overly focusing on the detail.

The first half of the novel is far superior to the second half and is an enjoyable read - the sections in Britain are humorous and touching at the same time. There is plenty of action and the supporting characters in Sam's Company are varied and interesting. I have seen elsewhere a review that states this novel works better as a World War II novel than a science fiction novel and this is something I agree with.

The second half of the novel's focus is on Sam and his family (he ends up marrying a relatively high ranking member of the US / Russia spy network - she's on the side of 'good' rather than any state - nominally she's 'employed' by the US. The resulting decades show the impact of the device on not just Sam's family but those of society in general culminating in Sam's eldest daughter's attempts to go back in time to change a significant event in US 1960's history....

(I do think that the 'better tomorrow' created by changing this event in history would be viewed rather sceptically by historians of the period bearing in mind what we actually know today).

Supporting characters drop in and out of Sam's timeline (from 'otherwhen') and describe a better life life for humanity is better. The character of Wink - a friend of Sam's who is aware of the device and dies in Sam's timeline but pops up every so often from his own timeline is a lot of fun and the novel 'perks' up when he is around.

The last few chapters are well paced but the second half of the book does seem to take a long time to get there - the book seems long and goes over the same ground often - I found it a struggle to persevere with and the commitment to review was a signifcant factor in my finishing the novel. It was quite difficult to get through a times.

The novel is interspersed with diary entries of Sam's. In the afterward Goonan informs us of the source of these diary entries. The source material enriches the novel significantly