Monday, 3 November 2014

The Company of the Dead by David Kowalski

Some Spoilers Below

This is, it appears, a first novel by a medical doctor. I'm not sure that the doctor part comes across in the book, but some of the inexperience does. As it stands, this book has promise. It also has terrible pacing, and needs more fully developed characters to take advantage of the admittedly intriguing ideas he's throwing out there. In summary, it's uneven.

There, review done! No? I normally write at least a page? Fine!

This is an intriguing alt-history science fiction. A time traveller gets thrown back in time to 1911. What does he do? Tries to stop the Titanic from sinking! However, he only manages to delay the sinking and change some of the survivors. (I don't think that counts as a spoiler - that's in the first chapter or so. I figure the first chapter or so is fair game.) Most of the book takes place in the world that creates, a dire world where Germany and Japan carved up the world after the First World War...I think then, yes? World War II doesn't seem to have happened, or at least not in the same way.

The U.S. was also riven by another civil war, it appears, or at least a successful secession, and exists again as the Union and Confederacy. By 2012, civil rights never advanced, pretty much anywhere in the world. Nor did the feminist movement. (I find both of those assumptions a little questionable - at least, as written it seems like those movements never even happened, not that they just weren't successful.)

There are still dirigibles in 2012. Huge and slow computers. No visits to the moon. Hitler was only ever an artist. Technology lags far behind. (Again, really? No German rocket scientists? No Japanese manufacturing? I realize that he's saying there isn't competition, but given that the main conflict is between German and Japanese empires, whaddya mean there isn't competition?) Nuclear devices have just been discovered.

I have a friend who complains about time travel stories that they're always about NOT. DOING. ANYTHING. Don't touch it, don't change it, don't break it. Hold your breath. Uphold the status quo. Make sure everything turns out just the way it did turn out, because what did happen is obviously what should have happened. Wouldn't it be more fun, he asks, if we explored time travel in a headier and more exuberant storyline, where messing with the fabric of space and time could and did happen?

This is not that book. This is a book where the world has been changed on an epic scale, but only for the worse. But even those who have grown up their entire lives in this new world somehow just know that their world is not the real one, and are working to change it back and pretty much kill everything they've ever known. I mean, yes, their world is pretty dour, and on the verge of nuclear war, but that seems like an extreme response. Or rather, seems like a response that would be hard to get a group of people to agree on. I have no problem with a lone nut believing pretty much anything.

Which, fine. It's not like I'm going to hold this author to account for following the prevailing motif of most time travel stories. What I do have a problem with is his pacing, and his characters. And these feel very much like first novel problems. There are some intriguing ideas here. If the pacing had been better, I think I would have liked this quite a lot. As it is? It was frustrating.

Here's an example. I read this on a friend's Kindle, so I don't know page numbers, but at around the 40% mark, I could see where this had to be going. That's cool!, I thought. Neat! But then we don't actually get to do the cool thing for another 40% of the book. It's 40% of trying to get to the place where they could do the cool thing and then, once they're there, waiting on a very large old computer to calculate the things they need so they can use the time machine. I get what he's trying to do. ENIAC computers are slow. But stretching "waiting for the computer to calculate" over about 15% of the book? Too much! Too boring! Nothing else going on!

There is just no pacing to this, and this should be a ripping yarn. But this guy mistakes delay for suspense, and it's not suspenseful. It's just annoying.

To accompany that, the characters are merely serviceable. They're not terrible, don't get me wrong. But they could have made up for the pacing problems by being really interesting, and they're not. So these problems compound each other.

Other things are just not well enough explained. In the new world, they keep referring to the old time traveller as a homicidal megalomaniac, and I couldn't figure out why. The portion of his journal the author lets us read doesn't bring that across. And no one really says why. It wasn't until the very end of the book when they finally run into him that I realized that all these characters thought that he'd purposefully sunk the Titanic on a whim. Which is weird, because there's nothing in those journal pages we got to read to lead you there, and I have trouble believing he didn't mention once that he was trying to save the ship from an iceberg. In fact, I thought he had. If you want everyone who reads the journal to come to that conclusion, at least give us an ambiguous paragraph so we can be in on the assumption. Seriously.

In the end, there are interesting ideas here. Big ideas. And it's not terrible. But the pacing is awful, and there are other first-novel problems. I hope he improves in future books, because I think there is potential here.

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