Alan's Reviews > The Company of the Dead

The Company of the Dead by David Kowalski
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's review
Jun 12, 2012

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Recommended to Alan by: Chance
Recommended for: World-savers

This squat, massive trade paperback has room enough on the spine to print the quote that drew me in... "A magnificent alternate history, set against the backdrop of one of the greatest maritime disasters" (Library Journal). Well, no. Magnificent, it's not. But... The Company of the Dead is well-timed, coming as it does upon the centennial of the Titanic's sinking, and it is for the most part suspenseful and compelling.

Time traveler Jonathan Wells keeps the Titanic from colliding with the iceberg that lay in wait for it in our reality, simply by supplying a pair of 21st-century state-of-the-art binoculars to Mr. Fleet, the man on deck as the Titanic approached its fate. A small course change, and the Titanic will have missed its night to remember, creating an alternative timeline in which two world wars never happen, while the pace of technological advancement slows to a crawl... though so, too, does the pace of societal change.

To save the Titanic, and in so doing to engineer a better world. And just how well did that go for you, Mr. Wells? The best-laid plans, and all that... The Company of the Dead is more evidence, as if more evidence were required, that even time travelers don't have the kind of perfect knowledge required to fix the past. Because the moment you change something, all of your carefully-gathered knowledge of future history becomes unreliable. All of it.

The 2012 that results from Wells' actions is a world in which some things really are better than in our own—stately zeppelins ply the skies, Anne Frank is still writing novels, and Adolf Hitler is no worse than a notable if second-rate painter. But... overall, it's an altogether nastier world than our own. There were no World Wars I and II, to be sure, but the great empires of the early 20th Century—the British, Japanese, Germans and Russians—survived and expanded instead, growing ever larger, more rickety, and more brutally repressive of their colonies. China's billions have either vanished or been enslaved; African-Americans are denied free movement in large swathes of North America; sexist and racist epithets are common currency; and tobacco is still king. The United States are disunited—a second Confederacy has declared independence and made it stick this time. And now the world Wells made is on the brink of a global disaster that our "true" timeline has, so far, failed to experience... atomic weapons are a new and frightening addition to international diplomacy, in the hands of multiple nations with no desire for restraint.

Kowalski is an Australian, it says here, and his take on the skewed America that forms the bulk of Company's setting is suitably askew as well. There are some bobbles in his extrapolation—without WWII and a President Eisenhower, I doubt that an interstate highway system would have been constructed and named the same way ours was. But he can read a map; his various characters' journeys across North America do convey some idea of the scale involved—unlike many people from places where the borders come more closely packed, Kowalski seems to realize just how large our own Outback really is.

Kowalski also avoids the trap that snares many alternate-history writers, in that his extrapolations of the careers of individuals famous in our world rarely seem forced. The Kennedys are important, but in a different way; the American Presidents here are figures who, in our universe, may have had prominence in other fields but whose political interests make them plausible alternatives.

The alternatives here are all too plausible, in fact; the suicidal nations of Kowalski's alternate 2012 seem entirely too realistic.

Some odd coincidences marked my reading of this book. At one point Wells is reading Jerome K. Jerome's brilliant Three Men In A Boat—a book that was brought to my mind just days ago by my recent review of Connie Willis' own time-travelers in Blackout. And of course Willis has written her own book featuring the Titanic, Passage. And... my eye caught on the uncommon surname "Saffel" appearing once or twice in Company, but it was not until the very end, in Kowalski's Acknowledgements, that he reveals this "best friend I've never met" to be none other than editor and author Steve Saffel, a man I've known myself for many years. (Although I do not believe that this connection has colored my current review, I do think it best to mention it explicitly.)

I wouldn't say The Company of the Dead is magnificent—it's too long, and it does tend to ramble more than it should. An interminable desert battle late in the book could have lost 100 pages without making me cry. But—especially for a first novel—it's an interesting new take on some well-worn old premises, and definitely worth a look.
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