Review: The Company of the Dead, David J. Kowalski

This book was long.  To be honest, this book was the kind of long that makes me think that this book did not want to be a book.  Possibly it wanted to be a film, but really I think Kowalski wanted it to be a TV series – like an HBO mini series or perhaps something slightly more long running.  Kowalski is an obstetrician in his spare time and he spent ten years on this thing and it shows.  I always respect effort and whatever the faults of this book, you can’t say that Kowalski slipped up on the detail.

The premise of this book is the Titanic – one man finds himself sent back in time and while he’s there he thinks he may as well try and stop the Titanic from sinking.  Flash forward a century and the world is in total chaos and six people set out to put things right.  You might say that the publication was kind of opportunistic with the centenary having come up this year but to be fair, the world has always been fascinated with The Big Ship That Couldn’t so I’m not so sure.  The first film about the Titanic was made four weeks after the sinking and starred one of the survivors (she had a nervous breakdown during the filming, small wonder).  Kowalski very vividly describes Wells’ experience as an interloper on board – we know so much about that evening and yet we know hardly anything at all.  The parts on the ship were the best parts of the book – I did laugh when Wells watched Bruce Ismay climb into a lifeboat and made a gesture which his companion did not recognise but ‘did not think could be misinterpreted as Bon Voyage’.  There are things many people would like to say to the key players on Titanic.  I also thought it was eerie watching the main characters watch the anecdotes that have been retold so often – like when John Astor stuffed a bonnet on a boy’s head saying “Now he’s a girl and he can go” – we don’t know for certain if any of this happened but we want to believe.
I think that Kowalski’s actual concept was very clever – SPOILERS – Jonathon Wells cannot in fact save the ship.  He gives binoculars to the lookout, the ship dodges the iceberg but then hits a different one three hours later.  Because of this, the Carpathian is way out of range, Californian is still utterly useless as it always is and they lose a couple of lifeboats and the loss of life ends up being greater than it was in the first place but John Jacob Astor survives to cause total chaos and stop America from entering the First World War.
Generally whenever time travel is used in fiction there are two different ways of going about it – 1) The Butterfly Effect and 2) The Time Machine effect.  Allow me to explain, the Butterfly Effect implies that nothing is fixed and that the slightest event alters the entire course of history, thus even the beating of tiny butterfly’s wings can change the world.  In H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, the inventor of the time machine has created it to go back in time and prevent his fiancé’s death but when he finally does this, she just dies in a different way because she always dies and because he would never have invented the time machine if she had survived.  In this version, everything is fixed, destiny has spoken and you can scream all you want, you just have to make do with what you’ve been given.  What Kowalski has done is very cleverly mix the two.  As Wells recognises far too late, the hubris behind the building of Titanic doomed the ship – ignoring basic iceberg warnings, basic design flaws etc.  The tragedy of the Titanic rests on the If Only – if only they had had binoculars, if only the wireless operator hadn’t been rude to the Californian, if only they had had enough lifeboats, if only Ismay had passed on the warning to the Captain.  What if all the if onlys meant nothing?  What if the ship was just a wrong ‘un?
Still, if this is a fixed point, what comes next is anything but.  It was hard work wading through all of Kowalski’s alternative history of the twentieth century and unless you’re an uber geek like moi then to be honest a lot of it is going to seem really confusing – I recognise a lot of the names of the people involved because I remember random stuff like that but that doesn’t mean that normal people would.  Basically, America doesn’t end up in World War One, Germany wins, Japan also gets super strong and the two of them more or less carve up the globe between them.  And the South (of North America) rises up and has another Civil War which they will meaning that there is the Confederate United States.  And Japanese Samurai patrol the streets of New York which is occupied.  It’s a total mess.  And also it seems like Edward VIII never abdicated so our monarchy is messed up too.
The hero of this drama is not Wells who is a background figure – instead, Kowalski gives us a brand new Kennedy.  Remember Joseph Kennedy, John F Kennedy’s older handsomer brother?  Well with no World War Two, he doesn’t get shot down, he doesn’t die childless and his grandson is the Joseph Kennedy II who takes the centre stage in this.  This again is genius – another reason why this would actually never make a TV series because the Kennedys would block it but never mind.  Anyway, Joseph Kennedy the fictional is the only remaining Kennedy left because even in the alternative world the Kennedys are a short-lived bunch.  And as a side bar, they’re not cursed, they’re way too rich, they’re stupid and they don’t seem to realise that they’re not bullet proof.  It would happen to any of us if we flew our planes when we’d been told it wasn’t safe or if we drove in open top cars when we’d been warned we might be shot.  Actually, another eerie moment in this novel was the Kennedy assassination in the alternative 20th century – in that both Bobby and Jack go together, with Jack’s arm still around his wife ‘Norma Jean’.  Shiver.  Joseph Kennedy The Fictional is a military commander/confederate presidential nominee/war hero etc, etc. and he has hoards of men loyal to him la la la and he wants to fight for liberty, truth and freedom for the glory of the United States of America.  I’m not American but the bit where he hoists the United States flag for the first time in eighty years would I imagine seem very emotional had I been.
So, Kennedy rounds up all those who he thinks might be able to help him stop Wells, whom he believes to have sunk the Titanic.  This is another part where it’s quite clever – they have a time machine which was the object that caused all that kerfuffle down in Roswell.  The government called it a flying saucer then retracted that so that nobody would ever think of it having been a time machine … not bad, eh?  As conspiracy theories go, it’s surprisingly logical.  Anyway, the ‘carapace’ has been slowly repaired and is ready to take flight.  The thing is, this book would have been a lot more readable if they had just kept the plot fairly simple but with all the backing and forthing between the Kaiser and the Emperor of Japan and the CBI (Confederate Bureau of Investigation) and the whatsit and the whosit then I frankly got a bit lost.  The characters weren’t given enough distinguishing characteristics to make this any simpler.  Again, this would have worked on TV because I would have been able to recognise the different characters even if remembering all the names was a bit of a stretch – as it was, I just went with it.  I think a good hundred and fifty pages could have been cut without any damage done to the plot.  Anyway, Kennedy has realised through experimenting with the carapace that the whole world will descend into nuclear holocaust within a year unless he can set the world back to how it was pre-Wells.
Just Say No!
As a quick note, yes I did spot that the time traveller was called Wells, like the great H.G. himself.  I liked the way that this book treated time travel – Just Say No.  Even when they realise that the ship was always going to sink, nobody ever excuses the deaths of two thousand people.  Indeed, on the return trip to the Titanic, none of the characters feel right about leaving the ship.  But there is no other way, intervening is wrong and They Do Not Belong.  What is worse, intervening is what has created the whole problem in the first place – Kennedy’s love interest Patricia points out furiously that all the chaos he has created to stop Wells may very well be what sends the world into nuclear destruction.  And SPOILERS even stopping Wells is not enough, because the ship then sinks and then Wells is born at the appropriate time and wants to save it so there is a causal loop which is threatening to end the universe.  Just Say No, kids, if someone pops up in a time machine, Just Say No.  Even if he’s a Time Lord, it doesn’t matter, it’s just not a good idea.
I like alternative history, I like thinking about how things might have been different.  Still, I also think that the past is the past and you need to get your life right the first time because we don’t get a do over.  Lessons were learnt from Titanic, ships carry enough lifeboats for everyone on board, patrols look for ice, we had to learn those lessons even at so ghastly a cost.  Kowalski knows his stuff on the twentieth century and particularly on the Titanic.  One anecdote that Morgan (the historian of the team) told Kennedy was of a mother whose husband had been on board, she set down her newspaper after reading that children had died on the ship and she told her own children that their father would not be coming home because no matter what had happened, their father would never have left a child behind so he must have died.  That means something to the characters who are trying to save lives, trying to save themselves.
Kowalski paints the picture of that cold night in April 1912 far more vividly than a certain recent lifeless ITV TV series but still I don’t think this will ever make the big or small screen.  It’s too obscure as a subject and it would need too big a budget to be worth doing plus what with all the fatalities it’s kind of a sensitive subject even a century on.  Still, although I did find this under science fiction, that’s the back drop rather than the main event.  This was a high quality action story, my only criticism is that Kowalski got kind of bogged down in the middle but to be fair I kept up with what was going on which was impressive given the speed at which the story developed.  And I did think that the love story that skipped around the edges was quite touching without ever seeming crowbarred in or overdone.  So we’ll rate this one as worth the work but I’m still moving on to something shorter for my next read …
three-stars
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The Company of the Dead by David J. Kowalski
Published by Titan Books on March 23rd 2012
Genres: Fiction, Science Fiction, General
Pages: 752
Goodreads
ISBN: 9780857686671


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