I really should review Kathleen Ann Goonan books immediately after I have read them, because they are so full of ideas that it can be hard to reassemble your thoughts a couple of months later. My apologies, therefore, if this review is somewhat less comprehensive that it might be. Hopefully, however, I will give you some idea of just how fascinating Goonan’s work is.
This Shared Dream is a sequel to Goonan’s 2007 novel, In War Times, which won the John W. Campbell Memorial Award. That book tells the story of a young couple, Sam and Bette Dance, who become involved with some very strange science during World War II. The Hadntz Device is something that enables humans to somehow manipulate the multiverse, swapping between timestreams. In This Shared Dream Goonan explains as follows:
Timestreams were physically real consciousness-consensus, and, until Hadntz had invented her tool for knowing about other timestreams, they had been invisible to humanity, like bacterium before the invention of the microscope, and other galaxies before the invention of the telescope. Hadntz’s Device theoretically gave humans access to other timestreams, and, because they were consensus realities, it also gave humans the power to change other timestreams.
Think about that for a moment, and the meaning of the new book’s title becomes clear. A consensus reality is, in effect, a shared dream. If enough people believe in a world, and they have access to a Hadntz Device, then that world becomes real for them.
Well obviously it is not quite that simple, but Goonan never really explains how all of this works. The Hadntz Device requires a fair amount of handwavium in order to operate. However, that’s not really an issue. Goonan isn’t writing a novel in which we are expected to take travel between time streams seriously, as we might travel through space in an Arthur C. Clarke novel. She’s writing about the idea that our reality, the world in which we live, is a world we have made; through our thoughts, our actions, our choices.
In War Times ends when Bette and Sam’s eldest daughter, Jill, joins the Peace Movement in the 1970s. Learning about the Hadntz Device from her parents, she uses it to go back in time to 1963 and prevent the assassination of John F. Kennedy. This Shared Dream rolls the timestream forward to 1991. Bette and Sam have disappeared, but Jill and her younger siblings, Brian and Megan, live on in the world that Jill created. It is not Utopia by any means, but it is a far better world in many ways than the one that really existed in 1991, let alone the one we have created since.
The plot of the book, such as it is, involves the attempts of the Bad Guys to get hold of a Hadntz Device and go back to the way the world was. This Shared Dream is thus an alternate history novel in which aware timestream travelers battle to protect or undo the point of divergence from our own world. But it is also a utopia/dystopia novel in which the dystopia that the heroes are trying to prevent is the world in which we live. For American science fiction, which has traditionally been a literature of a hopeful future, this is an unusual approach. Even British SF, which used to focus more on notions of decline and catastrophe, tended to project those into the future, not portray them as consequences of choices we have already made.
Then again, many of those who study the global climate suspect that it might already be too late to prevent catastrophic change. It is certainly too late to prevent a global economic meltdown. The only question we have there is how bad things are going to get before it all bottoms out. That too (and I say this as someone who used to teach derivatives valuation for a living, and despair of the attitudes of some of my students) is a result of choices we made. Maybe Goonan is just tapping into an existing meme.
Of course if Goonan actually believed that there was such a thing as a Hadntz Device, and that the world could be made better by well-meaning ordinary folks armed with such an instrument and a healthy dose of good moral sense, then This Shared Dream would be just the sort of escapist nonsense that science fiction is so often portrayed as being. But, as I said earlier, that’s not the point. What Goonan wants us to take away from the book is the idea that the world can be a better place, and it is up to us to make it so. To do that we, as a species, need to stop being selfish and greedy and instead start caring about our friends, our neighbors, our fellow men. Michael Dirda, in his Washington Post review, notes that the one of the primary metaphors in the book is improvisational jazz, which is an art form in which individuals manage to “do their own thing” while at the same time contributing harmoniously to a greater whole.
It isn’t enough, however, to tell humanity to buck its ideas up. You need to provide a manifesto for going forward. There are times when it seems that the Hadntz Device is supposed to provide this; that if you feed enough peace, love and understating into it then it will amplify that and spread the message far and wide across the planet. This is uncomfortably reminiscent of Sheri Tepper’s Raising the Stones, in which mankind is “saved” by becoming prey to a parasitic fungus that, in effect, makes us into a single group mind. Goonan, however, is not in the business of imposing ideas through command and control. Rather she wants to sell us her ideas, and the mechanism she proposes for that is education.
Goonan is a big advocate of the educational theories of Maria Montessori. This isn’t something that I’m an expert on myself (Montessori schools appear to be far more popular in the USA than in the UK), but the basic idea appears to be that if you give kids plenty of opportunities to learn, but also plenty of freedom of choice, then they will naturally optimize their learning experience. The Wikipedia entry on the Montessori system quotes its founder as saying, “Preventing conflicts is the work of politics; establishing peace is the work of education.” That is pretty much This Shared Dream in a nutshell.
Key elements of the Montessori worldview appear to be curiosity and choice. She wants children to find out about the world, not be taught a system. Although Italian by birth, she had to leave her home country in 1936 because, understandably, she did not get on with Mussolini. In 1939 she was invited to India by, of all people, the Theosophical Society. When war broke out in Europe she was detained as an enemy alien, and therefore passed through WWI in relative safety, returning to Europe to continue her work in 1949. She certainly seems to have been a fascinating person.
But does it work? Did I come away from This Shared Dream fired up with a passion to advocate for improved education systems? Well, not exactly.
One of the other things that Dirda says about the book is that it paints a very accurate picture of Washington DC. Goonan and Dirda have both lived there (Dirda still does, I think), and the local knowledge that Goonan brings to the book is apparently impressive. But it seems to me that This Shared Dream is a Washington book in another way too. The book is filled with nostalgia for the optimism and social conscience of post-war America, but at the same time appears to be mired in the essentially colonialist idea that a bunch of caring and responsible bureaucrats in capital of the world’s most powerful nation can civilize the rest of the world through the power of education. I’m not suggesting that Goonan is advocating imposing American culture on the rest of the world, but I recognize that the British Empire produced people who did lot of harm with the best of intentions, and parts of This Shared Dream remind me of that sort of enthusiasm for doing good.
As a product of Western civilization who finds herself more comfortable in California than the UK, I am pretty much the ideal demographic for Goonan’s message. What she wants out of an ideal world seems much the same as what I want. However, I have a sneaking suspicion that, left to our own devices, human beings will not converge on a single, happy world view that we all understand and support. And even if we would, we can’t get there from here, because the cultural barriers to creating such a world are so strong that we could only break them down through a level of coercion that would betray the ideas we were advocating. I’m therefore much more sympathetic to ideas such as Ken MacLeod’s Norlonto, in which disparate cultures agree to live side by side. As someone (Farah Mendlesohn?) said the other day on Twitter, multiculturalism is much like democracy; it is a dreadful thing, but all of the alternatives are worse.
This shouldn’t lead you to think that I didn’t like Goonan’s book, or am somehow opposed to it. I can, however, see some people getting very angry with it, because it doesn’t reflect the world that they know. There mere fact that Jill Dance works for the World Bank will be enough to set some people off. Every generation has its own ideals, and Goonan’s shared dream is one that was born in the 1970s. It may well be that the current Occupy movement will one day be regarded as sad old hippies by the cynical, career-focused generation that follows them, and by the radical protest movement that arises in its wake. The wheel of history turns, but the road it follows is never the same from one revolution to the next. What doesn’t change, however, is the need to think, to interrogate our situation, to wonder how things might be better. Good science fiction encourages us to ask such questions, and This Shared Dream caused me to do more thinking than any book I have read this year.