In War Times, which I reviewed for Strange Horizons here, won the John W. Campbell Award the year before I became a judge. This is one instance where I think I might have been happier if the award had gone to this sequel. Anyway, this review of This Shared Dream was first published in The New York Review of Science Fiction 274, June 2011.
There is a point in this novel where a group of schoolchildren are asked to clap their hands. Afterwards, they are asked where the clapping went. It is used to teach them the difference between verbs (what is no longer there when the action is over) and nouns (what remains, before, during and after the action). In that sense, this is a novel of verbs, a novel about things that are no longer there because the event is over. It is a novel of the ephemeral, and of the poor efforts of memory to hold on to the past. Memory, of course, is notoriously unreliable, and the central characters in this novel have an extra problem, they remember different pasts.
Kathleen Ann Goonan’s previous novel, the John W. Campbell Memorial Award-winning In War Times, was a novel about a world on the cusp of change. By its end, our history had been overturned, John F. Kennedy had escaped assassination in Dallas and a better world had resulted. But that dramatic twist in the expected flow of history comes late in the novel and has the feel almost of an afterthought. To that point, the main focus of the novel has been upon the wartime experiences of Sam Dance, clearly based on Goonan’s father, and the most interesting parts of the novel are derived almost verbatim from her father’s actual wartime diaries. Now she attempts a sequel to In War Times in which the central character of that earlier work barely appears, and in which the setting, rather than ranging across Europe through the mayhem and mishaps of war, is confined to the environs of Washington DC over a few short months in a 1991 that has no place in our own history. The result is a very different book, in some ways far less coherent than its predecessor, and yet in the end perhaps even more interesting.
This particular 1991 looks, to our eyes, like something approaching utopia. With John F. Kennedy as a two-term president, succeeded by his brother Robert, with Martin Luther King going on to play a major role at the United Nations, we have a world of increased peace and prosperity. Equal rights legislation and the social transformations that resulted came earlier and less contentiously. The quagmire of Vietnam was avoided, and with it the protest movement from the Chicago Democratic Convention to Kent State University, that did so much to tear American society apart. As an off-shoot of this, the hippies, the summer of love, the alternative society and counter-culture seem never to have emerged either. Personally, I feel that Goonan paints rather too rosy a picture of what might actually have happened had JFK not been shot down, but for the sake of argument we’ll let that pass. Besides, Goonan has a secret weapon, a magic wand called Q.
Q (for quantum) was the curious, never fully described substance invented by Eliani Hadntz and developed by Sam Dance and his mate, Wink, in the first book. There it was what powered time travel and allowed certain people to step between different time lines; in this novel, Q is ubiquitous and does even more. Q is the substance from which self-healing astronaut figures were made; given away in cereal packets, they became the must-have toy for every American child in the 1960s and are still common in the ’90s, affecting the children, informing them, working upon them a transformation that leads to a more peaceful and equable society. Since then, Q has gone on to power the iPhone-like device that everyone carries, because Q has created a technological revolution far in advance of what we have achieved even now. More importantly, Q powers the tablet computers that children now use as educational tools, which, to the concern of the adults who notice these things, allow children to communicate instantly with their fellows around the world, and has even engendered a private language that they use. Significantly, this communication between children is being used primarily to help each other escape those who might abuse them; it is a representation of the utopian process that Q is setting in place across the world.
As might be guessed from the scene I quote at the beginning of this review, and from the importance of Q in teaching children, education is one of the key themes that Goonan hammers away at repeatedly throughout this novel. There are times, indeed, when the book reads like a propaganda piece promoting Montessori schools. In one reality, Bette, Sam’s wife and herself a former OSS agent, ran a Montessori school at their Washington home before travelling back in time to 1963 to prevent the Kennedy assassination. Her eldest daughter, Jill, who works for the World Bank, is involved in a scheme to provide Q-powered self-regulating schools around the world, as well as being herself a PhD student. Jill’s brother, Brian, is married to Cindy who is a teacher at a Montessori school; while her younger sister, Megan, is involved in research into memory.
These four, Bette, Jill, Brian and Megan, are the principle characters in this story (and it should be noticed, if only in passing, how well Goonan portrays the tension and closeness within a family). It was Jill who precipitated the change in the time stream, setting out as a precocious teenager at the end of the previous novel to stop Lee Harvey Oswald, prompting Bette to set out and get the real killers on the grassy knoll. Bette didn’t return, so while Jill has a memory of her mother living with them through the sixties, her brother and sister don’t. It is one of the many ways throughout the novel that memory is shown to be friable and treacherous. But having to keep to herself memories of a timestream that nobody else lived through is taking a toll on Jill, landing her briefly in a mental hospital at the start of this novel. During her stay there she distinctly recalls being visited by both her parents, even though both have now disappeared from this timestream, but there is also another visitor, more sinister, who watches her but doesn’t speak. Upon leaving hospital and now separated from her husband, Jill and her son move back into the family home, unaware that Bette has returned to this timestream and is now living in a secret room in the attic.
The return home prompts some unwelcome attention also. People are seen repeatedly watching the house. At a housewarming party a strange group are overheard discussing something mysterious. Someone breaks into the house to steal certain books from Sam’s library. Finally, someone disables the sprinkler system and tries to start a fire. Meanwhile, Brian and Megan find themselves caught up in a mystery they barely understand. Although they don’t remember any other history, still they become increasingly aware of strange things happening. Men in hats follow them, they start to catch glimpses of their long-lost parents, Brian suddenly acquires a musical ability that comes from nowhere (there is a wonderful scene where he finds himself jamming in a jazz club that has nothing whatsoever to do with the story but is wonderful in terms of atmosphere).
It has to be said that Goonan is far better at character, at relationships, at atmosphere, at setting, than she is at plot. If the timeshift plot felt tacked on to In War Times, something to add a science fictional element to the story she really wanted to tell, which was about her father’s experiences in World War II; so much the same happens here. There are character sketches, distractions, blind alleys that are absolutely fascinating. People who live in utopia aren’t necessarily going to see it as such, for them it’s just ordinary existence, and what she tells us of ordinary existence in this decidedly attractive timestream is intriguing and convincing. But she has to have a plot, and the plot, when it comes, feels as tacked on as it did in the previous novel. Suddenly, from Jill being the only person who remembers, the only person who could remember, the other (our) timestream, it seems that every second person we meet remembers it also. There’s the detective who comes to investigate the break in and arson, and who becomes Jill’s love interest, who remembers Bette’s school. There’s the Russian émigré who is Jill’s political science tutor at university. Above all there is Jill’s German colleague who turns out to be a fanatical Nazi determined to bring about a restoration of Hitler’s Reich. All at once we get a massive, confused and not entirely coherent conspiracy theory view of history, with coincidences abounding.
My best advice is simply to go with it. If you start enquiring too closely into the mechanisms of plot on display here, you will miss the other pleasures of this book, and those pleasures are legion.