Enkomputiligis Don HARLOW

The Nantucketer Trilogy: Island in the Sea of Time, Against the Tide of Years, On the Ocean of Eternity

by S. M. Stirling

reviewed by Don Harlow


Agamemnon, son of Atreus, King of Men, High Wannax of Mycenae, and overlord of the Achaeans by land and sea, decided that he loved cannon.

Stirling, S.M.
Against the Tide of Years, p. 1

I suppose I'm not the only person who ever wished that he (or she) could go back and make it come out right, whether in his personal life or in that of the world. That's been a not uncommon motif in science-fiction for quite a few years, starting (at least) with Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. Folks of my generation, and perhaps the one before, will remember Martin Padway from L. Sprague de Camp's Lest Darkness Fall, who, cast back from Mussolini's Rome into the Gothic Rome of the sixth century, headed off the Dark Ages almost single-handedly. Of course, the term "right" may mean different things to different people; to the Afrikaaner revanchists who armed Robert E. Lee's army with AK-47 assault weapons in Turtledove's The Guns of the South, "right" was a 20th century society that would incorporate racially based slavery. But most SF history-changing is done under the assumption that "right" is more or less synonymous with "liberal democracy." This is true in S.M. Stirling's just completed Nantucketer trilogy Island in the Sea of Time, Against the Tide of Years, and On the Oceans of Eternity.

Stirling, perhaps better known for his Domination of the Draka novels, starts the series out very quickly, moving us through "the Event" in half a dozen pages. "The Event," never explained (though some of the characters occasionally toss up hypotheses about it), simply picked up the New England island of Nantucket, as well as the Coast Guard training ship Eagle, and plopped it down in the geographically correct location, but in March of the year 1250 B.C. From this point on the Nantucketers face problem after problem -- first, the fact that nobody's going to be delivering any food from mainland warehouses the next morning; second, the sometimes irrational behavior of a few members of their little community; finally, the ambitions of one of the officers on the Coast Guard vessel, who has dreams of setting up his own kingdom and dynasty in this primitive world into which they have been thrown. In fact, it is the war against William Walker (named for the 19th century filibuster who conquered Nicaragua?) that takes up half the first volume and most of the second and third, first on the island of Britain, later through the Middle East and Asia Minor. In the process, we get a good look at large parts of the 13th-century-B.C. world, including the East African coast and the Sacramento River delta in California; we also get to meet a few individuals whose names are remembered even today -- Agamemnon, as mentioned; Walker's Akhaian regent, the redoubtable -- and not totally satisfied with his lord and master (1) -- Odikweos, wannax of Ithaka and father of Telemakhos; the Pharaoh Ramses of Upper and Lower Egypt; King Kashtiliash of Babylon (who "slept with a Python revolver beneath his pillow"); and a host of less remembered but perhaps more memorable men and women of a dozen different bronze age (in some cases, stone age) cultures, most particularly Isketerol, king of Tartessos, a land of which we know today only the simple fact that it existed, and nothing more -- which fact, once he was aware of it, was to shape the rest of his life, for good and ill.

The "trilogy," though it largely covers this single campaign (to "bring Walker to justice"), is, in terms of time covered, actually a single novel separated from its two sequels, which themselves make up an independent unit, by about a decade. Island covers the events of the first year and a half after "the Event," when Nantucket is struggling to survive; Tide and Oceans are set around the end of the decade, when Nantucket has already become a world-spanning (though small) naval power and the ideas and technologies it has brought into the minus-13th century have begun to spread with it.

A minor problem with the series is that so many different events are taking place in so many different places at so many different times that Stirling requires an entire host of viewpoint characters to cover them. In the first book we're pretty much restricted to a few of the islanders, most notably Nantucket police chief Jared Cofflin, visiting history professor and science-fiction fan Ian Arnstein, the Eagle commandant Marian Alston, and a few others, including Isketerol and Walker himself. By the second book, however, we are starting to get a more cosmopolitan set of views; Cofflin (and to some extent Arnstein) are shuffled offstage to make way for the young Ranger Peter Giernas, who with a picked group of friends sets off to walk across North America to the Pacific; the fighting Hollard siblings; Kashtiliash, the Babylonian prince who becomes king partway through the second book; Justin Clemens, the young doctor; Raupasha, the Mittani princess; any number of ordinary grunts in the Marine Corps, most of them recruited from the "fiernan bohulugi" martriarchalists (firbolgs?) of western Alba and the proto-Celtic and staunchly patriarchalist Sun People of eastern Alba; even Walker's ex-stasi chief of secret police in his Akhaian empire, Helmut Mittler ("Ve haff vays of makink you talk!"). The only individual whose viewpoint we can count on seeing all the way through the series is that of Marian Alston and, occasionally, that of her significant other, the rescued fiernan girl Swindapa.

Also -- and particularly in Oceans -- Stirling plays fast and loose with the order in which events occur; the events taking place in California, with Giernas' party attempting to stop an outbreak of smallpox among the local Indians and at the same time trying to take down a Tartessian fort on the Feather River, take place in the spring of year 11 (1239 B.C.), while the climactic struggles of two wars in the Mediterranean area, that against Tartessos in southern Spain and that against Walker in Asia Minor, occur in the waning months of the year 10 (1240 B.C.); yet Stirling alternates easily from one to another, something he can get away with only because of the total lack of communication between the various theatres of activity.

Readers may enjoy some of the points Stirling makes. In Island, displaced astronomy student Doreen Rosenthal attempts to explain the fact that the world is round to Swindapa and Isketerol, and is nonplussed to discover that both of them know this and take it for granted already (the fiernans have a well-developed astronomical database, based around the "Wisdoms" -- the megalithic circles that Alexander Thom showed, some years ago, to be ancient, though not necessarily primitive, observatories; the seagoing Tartessian merchants, having seen land drop over the rim of the world numerous times, know exactly what causes that effect). (2) This is only one of the places where Stirling brings it home to us that our ancestors may have been ignorant, but they were neither stupid nor slow.

Also, in Oceans a good part of the first section of the book is given over to a long description of the defensive battle at Colonel Peter O'Rourke's Ford, somewhere between Hattusas and Troy; aficionados will recognize this less as a replay of the actual 19th century battle against the Zulus at the mission station at Rorke's Drift than as a replay of the movie Zulu.

Although this is supposed to be a trilogy, Stirling has left room for a sequel or two. It would be nice to know how marooned dirigible aviators Vicki Cofflin and Alex Stoddard and their crew make it home from the Eurasian fastness where the Emancipator finally went down after its bombing raid on Walkeropolis. It would be nice to know what little Althea, Walker's daughter, and her various vassals will do when she grows up in distant Ferghanna. It might be nice to visit with Peter Giernas, his two wives, his son, and his friends in their new home on the South American pampas. And I'd love to find out just how renegade Ensign MacAndrews succeeds in his projected campaign to make Africa south of the cataracts a region that can meet the rest of the world on an equal basis sometime in the near future...

Well, whatever, the three books that do exist are certainly worth reading.


Footnotes

(1) At one point Arnstein recites Homer to Odikweos, who breaks down in tears at the thought of the thousands of years of fame of which he has been deprived by Walker.
(2) The roundness of the world, however, was probably not general knowledge in the ancient world; in early classical times, almost a thousand years after the events in this story, the geographer Herodotos would scoff at the Phoenician claim that when one of their ships rounded the southern tip of Africa, the sun was to the north of them ...

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