Sometimes people I know refer to me as being one of the smartest people in the room. The part of my ego that can’t help but to like being stroked purrs when this happens because it allows me to ignore all of the many other times when I’m clearly Not The Sharpest Tool In The Shed. The part of my ego that is more attuned with Truth eye-rolls, delivers a backhand up the side of my head, and then makes me scan the room to see who isn’t around when that sort of thing is proclaimed.
Who tends not to be in the room at the time? Kathleen Ann Goonan.
If you have been reading this space for a length of time, the name should ring a bell. Goonan is a Nebula nominee and Campbell winner who, when not being disobedient about the beets, has consistently produced a body of short and long fiction demonstrating what it means to be The Smartest Person In the Room. That’s probably why she also teaches at Georgia Tech, and occasionally throws down essays like this one, and has been invited to speak at the Library of Congress. And that's not even getting into her wicked sense of humor.
The woman works at a quantum level. She writes diamond-hard science fiction that never, ever fails to keep humanity, empathy and heart at the core. You know those stories from the golden age about how engineers would look at what the science fiction writers were coming up with in order to figure out the potential of what could be made manifest in real life? In this present day, nanotech experts do the same thing with Goonan’s work. They also ask her to deliver keynote speeches at their industry events.
Goonan is not playing games. She throws down hard, and has done for a long time. She writes with the assumption that you are not lazy or stupid. She writes with the expectation that you will keep up, and she drops knowledge along to way to help you do so. (Which is one of the reasons I’m now reading up about Montessori, another topic Goonan is expert in, because the way she explores educational concepts and theories about brain development in her work interested me enough to learn more.)
To me, equally important is Goonan’s command of America’s cultural history - listen to her talk about jazz here, read my passing reference to her ability to deal with tricky racial issues here - and her unflinching willingness to embrace the flaws of the nation without sacrificing optimism. Women are not disposable constructs in her work, they are at the core. Feminism is not approached with apologia in her work (something I need to hear at times). Science is not a convenient decorative element in her work, it is the engine driving the whole.
Her latest novel is This Shared Dream, the sequel to In War Times (more here) that also works perfectly fine as a stand-alone novel. Like her previous books it has secured massively awesome blurbage from peers operating at her advanced level such as Le Guin, Willis and Gunn. This Shared Dream is a beautiful example of how “science fiction” and “literary” don’t need to be separate concepts when in the hands of someone who knows what she’s doing, and Will Do It With No Fear.
This Shared Dream is the story of the aftermath of an attempt to manipulate time and set up a utopia, centered around the experiences of the family at ground zero of these events. Some members of the Dance family remember the past that has now been replaced, while others of them, such as Zoe and Whens, experience the transition in ways fascinating and heartbreaking. All of them suffer under the disappearance of the lineage founders, Bette and Sam, who as time walkers (my term), vanished into the stream rooted in World War II (and have a gorgeous love story subplot). There are also people out to kill the more aware family members, such as Jill. And everyone - and by “everyone” I mean “the entire world” is manipulated by the terrifyingly awesome power of Eliani Handtz, the woman whose brain came up with the Device, and who is both Shiva and Mary throughout the work. Handtz is devastation and compassion at once. She and Bette share a single minded focus that scares me a bit because of how very much I can relate to that vibe.
Goonan deploys John le Carre-level spy craft in a thrilling, complex plot that takes the tech we have now and extrapolates its potential into the future. She flings a bunch of balls into the air at the start and doesn’t drop a single one as she takes the story home. She is talking about education. She is talking about global development. She is talking about war. She is talking about one-to-one functional and not family dynamics. She is talking about love. She is talking about race. She is talking about the monied and the not-so-much. She is talking about why we war. She is talking about hope. All at once, in this book called This Shared Dream, which is astonishing.
If you’ve been reading this space for a bit, you know that I like mech. The machines NASA sends up to the stars? Rock! I like the engineering of weaponry. I very much appreciate the the cold beauty of machines as brought to function by human minds that imagined how to make real a P-51 Mustang, or a Ruger Mini-14, or Fat Man & Little Boy, or the fantasy that is Optimus Prime.
That doesn't mean I like war. It just means that for some reason I find the tools of war fascinating and appealing. I like mech. I like pulpy blow shit up. I no longer apologize for that.
When Goonan stands in her work to speak against war in an old school way, as she does in This Shared Dream, I come to the end of this book blinded in tears of joy and hope and wonder, and I start thinking about mech differently. NOTE: I’m not saying she sets out to create a Mjolnir sort of thing with her messaging, because she doesn’t roll that way. Goonan doesn’t do polemics. What I am trying to say is that when I read things like this in the book:
“I was a billion horrors, one after the other, and they all ran through me like a fire, and I couldn’t stop seeing them ... I have been changed. This Device, which I thought was about power, is actually quite the opposite.” He sat down and put his elbows on the table, clasped his hands. “It’s about empowerment, but for everyone. It’s about equality, freedom, education; it’s about the evolution of the human mind; it is about leaving behind our legacy, our habit, of war.”
I hear what I am being told. I see - no, I feel - the education in my entertainment. And I am forced to think. About my love for mech that often santitizes what some of that mech was created to do. About my largely thinking about war as a general abstract that can't be avoided, save when I'm thinking about war through the specific historical blackitude social lens that is my Pavlovian default, and has nothing to do with the abstract assumption that war can't be avoided. About neuroplasticity, a word I assumed Goonan invented until the thought hit to look it up, was floored over the implications, and then re-read everything I have that she's written with a new eye - as well as gathering dictionaries needed as I slowly suffer through reading the scientist papers about neuroplasticity so I could try to better understand the big picture. About one of the documentaries I saw decades ago about the man primarily responsible for the crafting of The Bomb, and what that did to him - and if you're watching carefully, the rest of the team (trailer here. The full doc here. I'd love to link to two excellent plays centered on The Bomb that were done by my favorite local theater company as part of their Relativity series, but about two years ago they stopped evergreen play posting, which is too bad, so I'll alert you to this PBS play about what our nation did to this man after we were done using him instead. Trailer. I'm not drifting off-point bringing these things up; it all relates in an All Things Flow Into One sort of vibe). About Oppenheimer in tears.
That is what the best hard science fiction does. The best science fiction is the smartest person in the room, without being a dick about it. The best hard science fiction is gorgeous literature that leaves you enormously entertained and your head full of difficult thoughts Beyond. The best science fiction uses its diamond-hard head to drill into your marrow, insert wicked little nanos into your bloodstream, and then back off chuckling as the payload migrates to your brain, where it will set off bombs.
That is what Goonan does. That is what she has been quietly doing for years.
“It is very complex. I am just at the beginning.”
This Shared Dream, by Kathleen Ann Goonan, Tor Books, ISBN-10: 0765313545, ISBN-13: 978-0765313546, available in hardcover and Kindle editions for now.
I wish HD-50 was real. I would drink deeply.