In War Times
by Kathleen Ann Goonan
Review by Barry Newton
Tor Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 0765313553
Date: 15 May 2007 List Price $25.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
In War Times opens in the immediate aftermath of a seduction, which will undoubtedly lure most readers on. It's a fitting way to start a story which holds its seductive qualities all the way through. Sam Dance, a young soldier in 1941, has just been seduced by his beautiful female physics instructor, which leaves him pleased and more than a little confused. But the teacher, Dr. Eliana Hadntz, has an agenda: nothing less than saving the world and Sam is her chosen instrument. She disappears into the night, leaving him with pages of physics and neurological theory, and the plans for a device which might use those concepts to change human behavior, hopefully for the better.
Sam's instruments are the saxophone and piano, which leads him and his new friend, Al Winklemeyer (violin, cornet), to the New York City clubs where modern jazz, bebop, is being created. Their musical relationship parallels their development as engineering technicians, and they maintain it as they are sent to England to test and assemble the first radar fire control units. Jazz is a constant in The War Years, featured in many of the events of the plot, and even more in the language and metaphor which drive it.
Another constant is the Hadntz Device, a maguffin of epic proportions. Sam and Al go to extreme lengths to build it, and don't know what it does when they succeed. But it evolves as the years go on. Sam devotes much of his life to the nurture and propagation of the variants of the Device, even as he hides it from agents of the government, who are sure that he has something valuable—they just don't know what it is. Hadntz herself has certain maguffin-like qualities, reappearing at intervals over a thirty-odd year time frame, pointing Sam and his various companions in useful directions. Never explaining, always disappearing.
Sam is mentored in his efforts by Major Bette Elegante, an OSS agent with a useful way of turning up in time to get him out of trouble. He can never be sure of her motives, or whether she has any connection to Dr. Hadntz. He's still wondering years later, when he marries her.
This book would be worth reading if only for the language and evocation of the wartime era. SF & Fantasy qualities are present; disbelief must be securely suspended. Once that detail is taken care of (bungee cord might be good, here), Goonan takes her readers through altered states, time paradox, and alternate universes without blinking. Her musical references are particularly appropriate, because the story itself is like a fine jazz piece: a strong theme, lovingly developed, exquisitely improvised.