Goonan’s In War Times: SF Nostalgia and Lost Jazz Giants

Kathleen Ann Goonan’s In War Times (2007)  is a splendid book, and in many ways it represented the culmination of all the threads my Topics in the Novel class considered: nostalgia, science fiction, jazz, comic books, history-as-pastiche, youth rebellion, time travel.  It was the last book we covered for good reason.

Sam Dance, the central character–inspired largely by Goonan’s own father–discovers a machine that can alter history by altering people’s consciousness.  It’s 1942.   WWII is raging.  Sam and his best friend, Wink, are science students turned soldiers, and they can’t quite wrap their heads around the quantum nature of the machine. . . until they visit Minton’s playhouse and see Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie play bebop.

That’s right.  Jazz makes physics make sense.

For me, the key moment comes 2/3 of the way through, after WWII ends.  Sam and Wink have diverged into parallel histories–Sam is ostensibly in “our” world while Wink is in a utopian version of the 20th century where the Cold War never happened and the “space race” (along with all science) is a global cooperative endeavor.  Everyone has health care, delivered via computers in their clothing.

They meet occasionally when the two timelines overlap, their discussions always returning to the one constant in their friendship and their two worlds: jazz.

Sam: “I’ve put together some pretty nice reel-to-reels over the past few years.  Monk, Coltrane, Miles Davis–all kinds of cool jazz.

Wink: “Miles Davis?”

Sam: “No Miles? That’s a great loss.” (310)

Wink’s world is the silver, streamlined society that 40s and 50s SF promised, straight out of Gibson’s “Gernsback Continuum.” But… they don’t have Miles Davis.  Whatever made Miles Davis great in our world didn’t happen in the perfect alternate timeline.

In a brilliant, understated way, Goonan gets to the heart of the SF nostalgia conundrum.  The past was a pretty rotten place that produced some pretty wonderful things.  But would you rather it had been a global utopia if that meant sacrificing the great art that it produced?

The answer, of course, should be an emphatic “Yes!” and both Wink and Sam know it.  But Sam has to mourn the loss nonetheless.

In War Times gives us a glimpse of a better world and suggests the sacrifices–mostly pop cultural–that would be made to produce it.  Those of us stuck here in reality are left to enjoy the productions of our past, even as we have a conflicted relationship with its shortcomings.

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1 Response to Goonan’s In War Times: SF Nostalgia and Lost Jazz Giants

  1. zach barthelman says:

    Congrats on your new promotion. Having taught the English 203: Jazz and Literature class at KU(and as someone fairly ignorant about the SF genre), I found this extremely interesting. Thanks!

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