At the funeral of Michele Angelo Besso, an engineer remembered primarily for his friendship with a young Albert Einstein – from their time together in the Federal Polytechnic Institute in Zurich and latterly the patent office in Bern where both of these bright sparks once worked – the famous physicist famously remarked that though Besso had “departed from this strange world a little ahead of me [...] that means nothing. People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”
But what if it was not?
Which is to say: what if the impossible were possible, after all? What if the temporal division Einstein oft alluded to was exactly as arbitrary as he believed? And what if we could cross it? What then?
What, moreover, when?
The Company of the Dead is concerned, at length, with that very question. If we could travel through time, posits its author, should we? Furthermore, what would happen to the future if we “improved” the past? Would it too be transformed? And would that transformation in turn alter our alterations?
Happily, there are no easy answers. Not in the world as we know it, a hundred-some years on from Besso’s death and Einstein’s timeless assertion, and not in this novel, no matter how gargantuan it appears. At approximately 800 pages The Company of the Dead promises to be a comprehensive exploration of time travel – from practice to paradox by way of the tragedy of RMS Titanic, around which the greater tale revolves – and to a certain extent it is. But David J. Kowalski’s debut – a sprawling and neatly conceived alternate history of the world that powers on inexorably, through thick and through thin – also takes in airships, empires, and the legacy of the dead Kennedys... and if you’ll pardon the pun: that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
The Company of the Dead kicks off almost precisely a century ago from the date of its publication in the States. On the deck of a magnificent ship which all and sundry insisted was unsinkable – you must know the one – the familiar “strains of a Strauss waltz” slice through the icy air; “a low, soft melody that was swiftly surrendered to the night,” wherein we happen upon the apprehensive time-traveller Jonathan Wells, who has come gung-ho from the far-distant future to single-handedly circumvent one of the most terrible maritime disasters in history, recorded or not.
And how does he mean to do this thing? Why, with some modern-day binoculars!
Jonathan’s efforts, however haphazard, are a success. In a certain, sickening sense, that is, because though the Titanic slips smartly around the iceberg she was supposed to strike on the night of April 14th, 1912, a few hours later she founders into another awful obstacle, with similar – but not identical, and there’s the rub – results.
Over the years the iceberg has come to represent fate, destiny, God’s will, and the evils of technology. The Titanic has been used to describe arrogance and foolishness, but also bravery and courage. The purpose of this work, however, is not to examine why this single event has so captured the public’s eye for almost a hundred years. That may be left for psychologists and sociologists to debate. The main goal here is to reveal how the events of the morning of April 15, 1912 may have influenced the early course of the century.
Fast forward to our era, where a new world is laid bare, infodump by infodump. Jonathan’s interference may not have had the effect he intended, but butterflies take care of the rest. The slight shift in circumstances means that different people survive the disaster, meanwhile many of the original survivors die. Thus, whether on the Titanic or off, we spend a great deal of time in the company of the dead in The Company of the Dead.
“That’s where it all starts,” anyway. And “that’s where it ends,” as well. But between one sinking and another – or not – so much more! For starters, high-stakes spy-fi in an America split asunder by civil strife, with all the requisite reversals of fortunes and betrayals and backstabs to boot. But also action-packed adventures in airships; an affectionate, if ham-handed scientific romance; and countless conspiracy theories while we’re at it, up to and indeed including a spirited explanation of the inexplicable events at Roswell.
In fact there’s simply so much to The Company of the Dead that it’s a deeply difficult text to describe. Indeed, it beggars belief that it began, as the author recalls in his afterword, as a short story, because the book’s biggest issue by far is its very bigness. Assuredly, its sheer bulk and overwhelming ambition are not for the faint of heart. Kowalski attempts to retcon an entire century of world history in his inaugural doorstopper, and keeping up – with both the past and the present, and the tenuous loop that links the world we know and the brave new world of this novel, which we certainly do not – is not always easy, especially considering how incredibly quickly the thing moves.
But credit to Kowalski where it’s due, and by and large, I think it is. His chapters are short, sharp shocks which propel the reader ever onwards, making progress through this monolith surprisingly straightforward – never mind the kaleidoscopic complexities of the enigma machine that is its plot. And though there is, yes, a sense that the many and various narrative perspectives on offer are merely a means of keeping one’s blood pumping, be they art or artifice, they prove perfectly fit for purpose. To wit, Kowalski’s ability to sustain the breakneck pace he establishes at the outset of The Company of the Dead for the duration – with a few sensible exceptions – makes for an excessively exciting reading experience.
For all that, though, The Company of the Dead is a notably bloated book. At least a third of it could have been completely excised with no negative effect of the text, and more than likely the edit, however heavy-duty, would have been – should have been – a boon. There are a few other issues too: Kowalski’s characters are a bit bland, and his world-building, though splendidly full-fledged, is (shall we say) inelegantly incorporated; meanwhile a hackneyed chess metaphor is repeatedly made a meal of, and there’s a self-serious sensibility to the entire assemblage that, though wholly appropriate to one section, sometimes makes the others seem... well, a little silly.
The Company of the Dead, then, is taut, if not tight, and whilst its release on the centenary of the Titantic tragedy is terrifically timely, ultimately this debut is as unwieldy as it is – and it is – inspired. It’s sort of an unsinkable thing in its own right, for though it founders on occasion, and takes an awfully roundabout route to its final destination, it manages to mostly hold its own. If you can find a way into The Company of the Dead, rest assured: it’ll steer you true too.
Niall Alexander reviews speculative fiction of all shapes and sizes for Tor.com, Strange Horizons, Starburst Magazine and The Science Fiction Foundation. He also keeps an unapologetically bookish blog over at The Speculative Scotsman, and hey, sometimes he Tweets too! Or tries to...