Considering our particular love for Fringe, Doctor Who, and other stories of the kind, it should be no surprise to anyone that we’re interested in stories about alternate histories and changing timelines – and the ramifications of playing with time itself.
So when the offer to review The Company of the Dead appeared, my interest was piqued.
The Company of the Dead is an extremely bold undertaking by freshman author, David Kowalski, and it packs quite a kick in the teeth. While the book is a bit of a beast (750 pages!), the dense storylines surrounding (you guessed it) alternate historical timelines are well-crafted enough to keep you engaged throughout.
Dr. Jonathan Wells discovers a time machine hidden away in a Nevada-based government facility, during an emergency medical procedure. When things turn into a bit of Mexican standoff, Wells escapes with his ill-fated assistant, taking the time machine in the process.
If the Titanic never sinks, then American history will be changed for the better, they reason. Many people of particular wealth and influence died that day – what if they didn’t? As Wells begins his trip through time, any changes he makes are to make the world better: “an archduke in Europe who could do with living beyond 1914 and an Austrian painter with nasty ideas who could do with more valid, if brief, reasons for hating Jews.”
Wells sums it up best in that last line in that same chapter:
But first I have a boat to catch. “Change or die” is my new creed. “What if” becomes “why not,” and everything old becomes new again.
The irony, of course, is that these lines have that same hint of arrogance that brought down the Titanic in the first place. Wells may be well-intentioned, and he does bring about some significant change, but, as anyone who has watched Back to the Future knows, even the simple act of bringing a sports almanac to the past can mean completely changing the future in Biff’s image.
In this new timeline in 2012, America never entered a World War, but the surviving influences mean that Germany and Japan are the world’s strongest nations. America, never truly unifying after the first Civil War, is eventually broken into two nations, and later occupied by foreign governments. The Cold War-influences rage on as each nation keeps a shaky peace via nuclear stalemate. The people of the new 2012 are investigating just what happened to bring the world to this sorry state, thus initiating a game of chess across many agendas through time itself.
In Doctor Who lore, there are fixed points in time – when those points are meddled with, the entire universe can unravel. Based on the actions here, it seems that the Titanic’s fall in 1912 is one of those fixed points. Wells’ intervention causes an extremely horrific (by comparison) view of the future, where the mass genocide of World War II may never have happened, but America no longer exists. The saving of one ship caused a literal War Games scenario, where the peace is tenuous at best, and the smallest nudge can cause full-scale global conflict.
As mentioned before, despite all of the interweaving conspiracy threads tangled in this book, Kowalski has done an admirable job to keep things moving forward while still making it engaging. It’s biggest flaw: it’s size. This book is a long one – it has to be in order to keep all of these conspiracy threads in check – but it’s a little off-putting for those who could read several other books in the same amount of time. It’s taken me a while to write this review, mainly because I usually only have time to read in the minutes before I go to bed – although I found that difficult in this case, because “right before bed” is not a great time for me to keep track of who is doing what and where.
Still, The Company of the Dead is an excellent read. While not recommended for everyone (or perhaps most), it’s a story that will delight those with a particular affinity for alternate history/sci-fi literature – the Fringe/Doctor Who-types will love it.
Discloure: A review copy of The Company of the Dead was provided in exchange for this review. All opinions are my own.