Book Review: The Company of the Dead by David Kowalski

David Kowalski’s The Company of the Dead is a massive undertaking.  He has literally rewritten history, asking the question, ‘What if the Titanic never struck that iceberg on a cold winter night in 1911?  He posits a history where that happens, skewing history, although many things remain the same.  One could write an entire book simply explaining the plot, so I’ll touch on a few of the themes Kowalski gets into in his epic 750 page tome.  First, unlike many time travel books, The Company of the Dead isn’t just an adventure through time.  Instead, it becomes a meditation on time travel itself, and why humanity would want to travel through time, and the endless consequences of such a venture.

Jumping between 1911, the 1940’s, 1990’s, all the way to an alternate 2012, the main characters are the descendants of the Kennedys, the Lighthollers, and the Astors, all famous families, two of which had their fates inevitably intertwined with the Titanic disaster.  When things are changed from the way history knows them, the United States of America has an invariably different future, after souring relations with the UK over the handling of the Titanic disaster, they are invaded and ruled by Japan, who has a world empire on the eastern half of the planet, while Germany lords over Europe.  Different wars have split the US, and the southern half has waged war with Mexico, a rising empire in their own right.

Brewing conflict between Japan and Germany have twisted US loyalties, even within the country.  Descendant of John F. Kennedy, Joseph Kennedy is a former Major in the Army, leader of the fight against Mexico in Mazatlan.  Ship captain John Lightholler is set to take a new version of the Titanic on a transatlantic trip, when he is approached by Kennedy and his men, who pull Lightholler into a web of deceit and adventure.

Based on the journal of a time traveler, they learn of another history for the United States, and through the events of Roswell in 1947, they find the device that will facilitate their trips through time, with dire consequences for everyone with the knowledge gained from the machine.  The narrative reads more like a swashbuckling pirate book than an alt-hist meditation on the morality and consequences of time travel.  It’s like a serious Back to the Future with Kennedy as Marty McFly, with a loyal band of followers from across the board, so when he makes his final realizations on life, destiny, and existence, and how the smallest actions can have the biggest impact, it takes a minute to process what is happening.  While sometimes big events are sparsely described, when everything processes, the reader is faced with profound realizations about human nature, and how even the best of intentions can be entirely misguided in the grand scheme of global history.

Written by a former OBGYN, Dr. David Kowalski from Australia, who spent the better part of a decade working on the book, and the sheer amount of characters, historical references, intertwining time eras, thoughts on technology, and humanity’s use of technology is a decade’s worth of thinking in and of itself.  While there are parts of the book that drag, the fact is, every piece of the story needs to be told, and its done in such epic fashion that some might find the overall experience a little tedious.  Every little nugget of information has meaning as the story comes to a close, so there is a payoff for the attention to detail.  If I were to identify a singular theme for the book, I would say it’s about the ultimate fallibility of humanity as a whole.  Kowalski does a brilliant job of hiding this theme in an action packed adventure story.

Unfortunately, far too many people will be lost on the Franz Ferdinand references, hell, some will even be lost on obtuse references to a frustrated Austrian painter and his penchant for violence on a massive scale.  This book is not for those people.  Often, I read books with the intention of thinking ‘How would this translate to a movie?’, and I can’t help but do the same with this book.  However, I would call this novel unfilmable, not only due to budget limitations, but it would be tough to translate Kennedy’s motivations, and the full final reveal in a way that would make sense to general audiences.  And with the budget required to make this film properly, it would need to appeal to mass audiences, or set records on premium cable channels to be economically viable.  Some will see that as a blessing, as the book will always stand for itself, others will find it to be a challenge.  While the Titanic disaster takes up a good portion of the book, so does the portal for time travel, although it is never given a definite explanation, just the possibility of an explanation that is up to the reader to decide.  However, this fact doesn’t prevent the ending from having finality, although possibly the ending explanation goes a little too far to pound home what really happened, it felt a little on the nose in the final pages.

However, that doesn’t disqualify the achievement Kowalski has created.  Similar to James Dalessandro‘s 1906 novel, it combines a little bit of every genre and packs it into one historical fiction package while also serving as a fully rounded, if broad, story overall.  I just don’t see anyone looking to adapt this to a TV series or movie, but at the same time, I figured 1906 would be the most expensive film ever made because of its massive scope, but Brad Bird has announced he intends to make the live action film, although the studios have balked at its cost so far, and Bird worries that they’ll ruin his scope.  I would imagine a very similar predicament if anyone tried to adapt this novel, as it just has so many important parts.  With that said, it reminds me a lot of Rian Johnson‘s upcoming film Looper as far as how time travel is handled, and what implications the act itself has on humanity.  For fans of time travel fiction, this one is up there in the top echelon of time travel fiction, if you’re willing to make the time investment.  The book is out now on e-book and paperback.


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