Kathleen Ann Goonan’s In War Times (2007) is a thought-provoking SF novel that interestingly mingles history, quantum theory, and modern jazz. It’s the story of Sam Dance, an intelligent young man dragged by events into the global drama of World War II. Sam’s life is forever changed by a passionate encounter with a mysterious scientist, Dr. Eliani Handtz, who passes on to him early plans for a reality-shaping technology. This scientific intrigue, coupled with losing his brother at Pearl Harbor, propels Dance into the U.S. Army, where along with fellow jazz-playing buddy Wink he finds himself at the center of a weird, clandestine initiative involving military intelligence. Dance and Wink secretly work on the Handtz device, not entirely sure how it works or what it does, even as the circumstances of war send them ricocheting across Europe into an uncertain future. Or rather, futures.
Alternate universe novels are tricky. Parallel worlds are fascinating, but in my experience the concepts often overwhelm the human story in this kind of tale. Goonan does a nice job integrating the ideas into a compelling dramatic framework, though, and an even better one of capturing the feel of several decades worth of history — most actual and some alternate. At times, the running background thread surrounding the development and function of the quantum device felt a little murky and hand-wavey, and I couldn’t always see cause and effect. This felt both thematically effective and, at times, frustratingly obfuscatory. That said, it wasn’t a dealbreaker for me. While the pace lagged occasionally, on the whole I quite enjoyed the fascinating quantum/jazz metaphor, the detailed historical speculation, and the moody, thoughtful atmosphere of the piece.