If someone were to give you a time machine set to April 14, 1912, and asked you to go back in time and save the Titanic, would you do it? Before you answer that question, you’ll probably want to first read The Company of the Dead, a new time-travel novel by David J. Kowalski. Kowalski has created a world completely different than our own — Germany and Japan are the world’s major super powers, and the USA, Europe, and much of the rest of the world are simply occupied territories. Oh, and the USA is split into two, the northern Union and the southern Confederate states. All of this exists because one man chose to try to save the Titanic from sinking. And, in doing so, he severely altered the timeline as we know it.
I love a good time travel tale, especially when the story gets good and complicated with discussions of physics and time paradoxes. And this book has a big one! One key individual on the Titanic has survived the sinking, and his influences in the world of politics and industry have completely rewritten history. The time traveler, his intentions good, has made a few other mistakes (or they could be looked at as blessings in disguise) that allow a few persons in 2012 to begin to put together an alternate history story (ours) that looks a lot better than the history they’ve experienced, complete with Japanese occupation of New York City and the west coast. Shogun security roam the NYC streets, carrying machine guns instead of swords. The Confederate government is allied with the Germans, meaning that the citizens of north and south are under constant surveillance and threat of fighting in their own backyards.
One of these individuals who is aware that history has been changed is a Kennedy, but this one has avoided politics and instead served in the military and is now a part of the Confederate Bureau of Investigations. He’s on a mission to re-unite the United States of America… or so it seems. He’s got a budget, manpower, and information to stage a coup, but rather than reunification he’s got bigger plans for the world. And that puts him at odds with his superiors who are beginning to suspect he has a different agenda than the one assigned to his team.
When he recruits Lightholler, a descendant of the original Titanic’s first officer (and, if my history is correct, moved to second officer), the CBI takes notice and begins to move to capture Kennedy as his team begins some (for all appearances) traitorous activities that are stirring up the Japanese and German military.
It’s a time travel tale, so I’m not spoiling anything here by telling you that, yes, Kennedy and his team have hopes of returning to the past and fixing the damage done to the timeline. But this book is so much more than a simple time travel tale, and its almost 800 pages (yes, it’s a monster of a tale) are filled with espionage, political intrigue, and technology that is almost unrecognizable in this alternate timeline. (For example, aircraft carriers do exist, but the real power is in the skies, with helium-filled stratolites that can carry planes and atomics to the enemy at such altitudes that they are not able to be reached by traditional fighter aircraft. In this timeline, atomics are very limited, with each government possessing only a handful of the devastating weapons. So warfare in this alternate 2012 mirrors the fighting of WWII but with a few more modern weapons and jet-powered aircraft.
Kowalski has created a very realistic future. As the book progresses, you get a bit more of the changed history that has created this new world. It’s not all bad, so there are good reasons why a few people aware of the time machine want Kennedy to fail. But as the details of the time travel incident begin to unravel, the special team discovers a secret that is devastating to their own timeline. They also discover that a time loop has been created — and this time loop is threatening the fabric of time-space as it wears thin. It seems that the mission to fix history is now an ultimatum: fix it or there is no future… any future.
The time machine, believe it or not, is a minor feature of the story. You will learn more about it, of course, and how it works, but the time machine is a minor character given the chase that takes place across the alternate North America as the team is chased from one side to the other as they make their way to a secret base where the final mission will begin.
As I said… it’s a long story. You’re going to get your money’s worth and then some. It’s well-plotted and has enough twists and turns to keep you guessing to the end. And as with all time travel tales, you have to realize that the existence of the machine means that anything can happen… or has happened. And with 800 pages to play with, Kowalski gives you some really fun and thrilling chases, fights, and some mind-bending thought exercises on time and causality.
The Company of the Dead refers to a list the time traveler keeps of those names of individuals who died on the Titanic. These are people whom he feels comfortable socializing with while he’s on the Titanic — if he fails his mission, these individuals will die anyway and he won’t have affected history. But those of us who enjoy time travel books and movies know it’s never that simple. By the time you finish the book, you’ll be able to better answer that initial question of whether or not you’d be willing to tinker with the timeline.
I reached out to David Kowalski and asked him some questions about the book — there are some slightly spoiler-ish questions, so tread carefully. Thanks to Tom at Titan Books as well for providing both the book and access to Mr. Kowalski.
Kelly: The idea that one man can make a difference is a common theme in time-travel stories — you chose Astor, but were there any other influential passengers that could have had a significant effect on world events should they have survived?
Kowalski: Gee, now you’re testing me. The answer would have to definitely be yes. Now I could give you a list of the influential passengers who sailed on the ship; William Stead, journalist and mystic, who was rumored to possibly be awaiting the Nobel Peace prize, or Benjamin Guggenheim, wealthy industrialist. There was Thomas Andrews, the brilliant ship’s designer, and Harry Widener, and so on. As this is Geek Dad, I feel I am allowed to quote Christopher Eccleston, the 9th Doctor in Doctor Who. I feel he best sums up my thoughts on this question: Rose, there’s a man alive in the world who wasn’t alive before. An ordinary man: that’s the most important thing in creation. The whole world’s different because he’s alive!
Kelly: Your version of the world with Astor surviving has Germany and Japan as the two major world powers, with both forces occupying US soil. As an Aussie, any thoughts on why you chose to place the story here in the USA as opposed to Europe or maybe even your homeland?
Kowalski: This may sound weird, coming from an Australian, but I am fascinated with the idea of the American dream; once alluded to with such hope and now almost always described as soured. I wanted to take America, chew it into bits in the novel, have other countries scurrying over the carrion and then see what some inspired Americans, and one unlucky Brit, could do with the mess. And I wanted them led by a Kennedy. That’s my take on the dream.
Kelly: This one has been bugging me — President Clancy. As in, Tom Clancy? Or just a random name selection?
Kowalski: Nothing was random. It’s definitely Tom Clancy, the author. I once read somewhere that he commented, in jest, that he wouldn’t run for President as it would mean a pay cut. I read and enjoyed a few of his earlier works and I particularly liked, and was in part inspired, by the scope of Red Storm Rising. America has had Presidents with less appropriate backgrounds and leanings, so why not Tom? He seemed gung-ho enough for the schemes he was planning in the book.
Kelly: Another one — The Einstein Watch. Did you mean to actually consign Albert to a future as a watch designer? Or did he see the future of his equations being used improperly and choose a different path for himself?
Kowalski: I’m so glad you brought this up. There is a chapter I cut from the novel, that includes an exchange between Kennedy and Hardas, two of the major characters in the book. The watch belongs to Kennedy. The chapter was removed for various reasons, one of which is that it is in the first person, and addressed to the reader. I loved the chapter, it was plum in the center of the novel and in its microcosm, reflected the entire structure of the novel. Problem is that it was too smart for its own good. It lifted the reader out of the world of the book and clarified a plot point I needed to keep muddied. After I removed it I decided to leave the meaning of the watch ambiguous. With your indulgence, however, (and my sneaky pleasure) I submit a few paragraphs from the lost chapter as it answers your question. Now think of this as a deleted scene, with all the dirtiness of an early draft. It’s from Hardas’ POV and this is its only foray into print…
I make a quick assessment of the room as Major Kennedy rises to greet me. The decoration is pleasingly Spartan. He is tall and smiling and looks like a publicity photo of himself. I’m wondering whether or not I should salute as he reaches out to shake my hand with a firm grip. My other hand is holding the satchel tightly. He looks at the satchel, meets my eyes, and shrugs. He’s wearing an Einstein watch.
In the months to come there is the opportunity to discuss many things. One day I ask him about the watch. He tells me that he picked it up during a visit to Vienna. He says that not many were ever made and that they’re mainly viewed as a curiosity.
Apart from the name, there is not much I know about the man.
The Major tells me that as a youth, Einstein formed some radical scientific theories on the principles of time that were quickly dismissed. Since finding the journal and meeting with the Major, I am amazed by how often the simplest conversation will lead us to the subject of time. When the Major asks me if I’ve heard of the theory of special relativity, I say no. He tells me that, in a nutshell, Einstein said that the measurement of time is largely a relationship between the universe and whoever is observing it at the moment. I’m sorry that I ever brought the subject up.
The Major’s look tells me that he’s had this conversation before and met with similar results. He tells me that, for a while, Einstein was involved in early research into atomic power. This is supposed to be a state secret. He tells me that we are not supposed to know that the Germans could have had atomics in the fifties.
Kelly: I enjoyed the descriptions and goings-on of the stratolites, this changed future’s version of the aircraft carrier. You hinted often at a large German fleet of stratolites, but it never appeared… was there something cut from the book that would have involved those vehicles or were they simply there as a hint of how the future Kennedy saw was to come about?
Kowalski: They were never going to come in to play. They were just an indication of the strength of the two world powers. The stratolites were an early feature of that world and one that really appealed to me conceptually and visually. I had a lot of fun with their design. There are references to them, subtle and less so in later portions of the novel and they were certainly involved in the numerous events happening in Kennedy’s world, abroad. One of them had a fairly significant role in the book. It’s just that it happens to be Confederate, rather than German.
Kelly: The daily life found in your version of modern day is shocking — a divided USA, occupied New York and West Coast, and a Confederate government with German backing. Crazy stuff. But you left your own country out of the story — unless I missed something, I didn’t really have a strong sense of where Australia fits into the future. Any thoughts on your home country and its place in your future?
Kowalski: When the Confederacy first formed in our world, one of its hopes was support from the European nations, particularly due to the value of their exports to them such as cotton. That, of course, never transpired. In my novel, with Germany as a major power, and the Second Confederacy seeking legitimacy, it seemed like a natural relationship. The fledgling Confederacy needed financial support, the Germans wanted to buffer against further Japanese expansion. Crazy, but no crazier than some of the things that actually happened in our world.
But, to answer your question; I was roundly criticized for this when the book came out at home. Australia, in the world of the novel, was occupied in the early Japanese expansion of the 1950s. It resumed its older role as a penal colony, this time, largely for Chinese dissidents expelled from their homeland. I toyed with the idea of an Australian character in the book briefly, however it struck me as inappropriate and a token gesture. I don’t have any Aussies in my current book I’m working on either. Maybe next time.
Kelly: In Kennedy’s timeline, nuclear weapons are a rarity. I understand the delay in their development given the way that Astor’s changes filtered down and affected US involvement in world affairs. Are we meant to understand that Germany’s scientific development continued and developed much faster than the rest of the world, giving them military superiority for a time?
Kowalski: I don’t want to go in to too much detail here. From my reading I believe that a significant number of the scientists involved in various atomic projects were Jewish with German background. With no Nazis and no significant anti-Semitism, who knows what good and bad things they might have got up to, under the directive of their Imperial German government. In the book, Germany fights a series of wars in the ’40s and ’50s that encourages military supremacy in a skewed variation of America’s development in our world.
Kelly: Spoiler question — You closed the loop, so to speak, with the ending. But the more I think about it… there really wasn’t an answer as to the origin of the carapace. Do you have your own answer to that question or is it best left a mystery?
Kowalski: I definitely do and it definitely is, for now. Cue evil laughter.
Kelly: Spoiler question — Your time travel technology is much different, including the slingshot capability. This gave the time travelers in the carapace some interesting ways to interact with the future and the past (and even change it). You chose to have one major character pulled from the jaws of death using time travel, but you let another major character (and one I really enjoyed) go unsaved… why why why?
Kowalski: We need to seriously sit down and have a beer and chat about that question. But briefly, if I had let them succeed in saving the mystery character, I don’t think the reader would have trusted me anymore. I think all bets would be off. Besides, in the world of Company of the Dead, no good deed goes unpunished.
Kelly: Any chance you’ll revisit this world (or another one) using your time travel technology? You left many unanswered questions about the carapace, so I’m just curious to know if you’ve got another story to tell.
Kowalski: I loved playing with time travel and I enjoyed working with the carapace. The book I’m working on now is unrelated but that door isn’t closed.