25 March 2013

Books: The Company of the Dead by David Kowalaski (2012)

I’ve always loved time travel stories, and while the “what if” plot lines of changed history can be fun, I find myself still intrigued more with the mechanisms of time travel than anything else. Books that deal with time travel have always had two big hooks to have fun with,

Beyond Einstein’s theory that states time-travel is not possible –and even with people like Stephen Hawking sort of agreeing with it – it has never stopped science fiction writers from writing books about, or Hollywood cranking out TV shows and movies about the ability to change our past or future. 

Big historical events are the fodder for this “what if” scenarios. The assassination of John F. Kennedy almost fifty years ago remains a watershed moment. Many writers of science fiction –and many others- have always wondered what might have been had not an assassin struck in Dealey Plaza on that late November morning. Stephen King, most notably of late, pondered that in his novel 11/22/63

Australian novelist David J. Kowalski explores similar themes in his debut tale, The Company of the Dead, about someone trying to change the history of the ill-fated Titanic in 1912. But unlike King’s tale, this one opens in an altered world, where the action of one man from 2012 who ends up in 1911 changes the course of our recorded history. While this Jonathan Wells prevents the Titanic from striking the iceberg in the early morning hours of April 15, 1912, there is some sort of predestined aspect happening, and the Titanic still hits an iceberg, only a few hours later and sinks. This small change, and the survival of a few people who died originally, unwinds the causal nexus plunging the planet into a different timeline –one where Germany and Japan control the world, where America is divided like what almost happened in the Civil War and where modern technology –like mobile phones and the internet- don’t exist and everyone smokes like they’re in an old movie from the 1940s. Then we meet a group of people –one being the grandson of Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr who really died in World War II, leaving no heirs, but because of the shift in time, went on to live- who discover a journal stored away in Titanic’s safe (just like in real life, the remains are found and artifacts, like the safe, are brought to the surface). The journal, written by a man named Jonathan Wells, states he was born in 1964 and using a device found in the wreckage of some space ship that landed in Roswell, New Mexico in 1947 travels back in time to 1911 and decides to change the fate of Titanic. These people are convinced that they must travel back and prevent Wells from changing history. Because they also know if they fail, the timeline they are currently living will cease to exist because of rising tensions all over the planet. 

Kowalski throws every time travel trope in, along with exploring a potential alternate universe where America never entered into World War I – a genre Harry Turtledove has been doing for the last decade or so. The book also shifts into a spy novel –which would be fine, if this was a spy novel. 

The author does some great world-building here and obviously spent a lot of time in research, as this book is highly detailed –though I’m curious if never intended the book for American audiences, as the book is rift with different spellings of words like tyre, coulour and carriages (trucks). It’s not distracting, but I was amused by it. The characters have little or no personality, which does become distracting as it sometimes hard to understand who is talking. 

I think the book starts out strong, dismissing some of my unintentional feelings that the book might be a bit too long at 750 pages –after all, you have to know that the team who decides to stop Wells has to succeed. 

But if you are doing an epic novel like this, sometimes the pages are justified. 

And the pages flew by –and it helped, maybe, that Kowalaski kept the chapter’s short- so I was anxious to see what happens. But the problem is, I read this book for the time travel conundrum and not have it mostly be a spy novel about an alternate history of the United States. So there's too much confusion on just what the book wanted to be, and the ending –while clever- does not payoff for the investment of the reader because what it really becomes is an over-long spy novel masked as a science fiction novel and I don’t think science fiction readers will like that.

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