Island in the Sea of Time by S. M. Stirling

Island in the Sea of Time sounded good to me.  I love alternate history and speculative fiction.  What could be better than a book that blended both in an innovative way, incorporating some science fiction into the mix?  Unfortunately, despite some good aspects, Island in the Sea of Time fell flat for me.

Let’s start off with the good.  I liked the idea of an entire island of people from our own time being suddenly tossed into the far past.  What challenges they would face?  How would they meet the obstacles facing them?  A fantastic plot, in my opinion.

I also delighted in the anthropological aspects Stirling put in.  Linguistics is an interest of mine, so I found some of the exposition language structure and evolution absolutely fascinating.  His conjectures on how various cultures functioned and how they would react to visitors from today’s world were obviously well-researched, at least on the European side.

The cultural part that I disliked, however, was the heavy focus on building or maintaining technological conveniences, creating weapons, military training, and warfare.  I just wanted to skip over the pages that dealt with this stuff, and that’s bad, since it makes up about half the book.  Many (and I mean many) of the characters have military training, which I found too convenient to be believable.  This leads me to my next issue with the book.

The residents of Nantucket are far too accepting of their situation.  There are a couple of freak-outs in the book, as well as allusions to points of crises within individuals.  I, however, find it difficult to believe that there wasn’t a wholesale rejection of the time shift.  There are off-hand comments about suicide, but they felt like they were obligatory mentions so that Stirling could get on with the story.  We follow no character who has such inclinations; this probably would have made Island in the Sea of Time more compelling, more human on an emotional level.

Character abilities and skills also felt too well-distributed to reflect reality.  A Coast Guard ship just happens to get trapped in the time shift, so we have a military force with at least one fighting ship, plenty of trained soldiers, and modern weapons.  There’s the woman who runs the greenhouse, so we have someone who knows how to grow crops and can teach others how to do so.  We have a librarian who is apparently so freaking talented that she can keep everyone apprised of the information they need to perform their jobs.  We have a historian with interests in the time period the island has been thrust into, as well as a working knowledge of linguistics.  We have an astronomer, who has the ability to communicate with the English tribes because she also can speak a Baltic language that is similar to proto-Indo-European. We have a captain who is, apparently, God’s gift to both military strategy and tactics.  And we have a native woman who is gifted in so many ways that it makes suspension of disbelief very difficult.  On top of that, we lose exactly one of the main cast of characters.  He doesn’t happen to be a central character, either; we probably follow him about a half-dozen times, whereas most of the other characters get approximately thirty to forty sections scattered throughout the book.  That smacks of the unreal to me.

Also unfortunate, in my opinion, Stirling focused on the prehistoric British inhabitants, which was baffling to me, seeing as the island tossed back in time was Nantucket.  We are given very little information about the Native Americans of the area; he allows us to read about their first encounter, and then leaves them almost completely.  This struck me as strange; why toss away a fascinating people who could help the Nantucketers with farming, gathering and the like — as well as trading — in favor of the long sea voyage and constant skirmishes in England?

The other aspect of this is, when we are allowed to view one extended encounter with Central American natives, they are portrayed in a horribly brutal light.  While this might be accurate, some of the actions taken by the Olmecs were horribly graphic — graphic enough to cause me to have a nightmare about one particular scene.  It freaked me out to no end, and also felt unfair to the indigenous Americans.  Why do they get to experience such a characterization, while the European peoples encountered are as nuanced as the Nantucket residents?

Based on the comments by Harry Turtledove and Robert J. Sawyer, I thought I was in for a spectacular read.  I’m saddened to find that wasn’t so.  A more Nantucket-based, psychologically sensitive book would have been fascinating.  Since this is one in a series of books, many of the battles could have waited.  As it is, Island in the Sea of Time leaves the reader with a dry book about martial history, martial tactics, and flat characters.

Rating: 1.5/5

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4 Comments

Filed under 1.5/5, Book review, Fiction, Unfavorable

4 responses to “Island in the Sea of Time by S. M. Stirling

  1. I’m glad there were some elements of the book you liked! As for the rest… well, tastes differ, and all are equally valid.

    A couple of points: the reasons they have less to do with the local Native Americans that with Alba/Britain are twofold.

    First, the local Native Americans are horribly vulnerable to virgin-field epidemics of uptime diseases. Most of the great epidemic killer plagues of history are species-jumpers from domestic animals not present in the Americas. Several of them are commonly carried by modern people; measles, chickenpox, and influenza just for starters. The Nantucketers inadvertently start a bad epidemic immediately and are cautious about further contact.

    Next, in 1250 BCE the New England locals were pretty well pure hunter-gatherers; they may or may not have grown gourds, but certainly didn’t grow corn or beans or any other staple food.

    This meant they were -even more- vulnerable to crowd diseases and it also meant they had virtually no food surplus to trade; instead they moved around seasonally. Hunting or gathering wild plant foods is too diffuse to be much use to the Nantucketers in the time available and ocean fishing and whaling are things they can already do better than the locals.

    (In 1250 BCE actual sedentary village agriculture as a way of life was only just getting under way in Mexico, and though maize had been domesticated there for some time it hadn’t spread north, which required a long process of genetic adaptation for an originally tropical plant. Maize agriculture didn’t become firmly established in southern New England until around 1000 CE, over two thousand years later.)

    So going to England for grain, seed grain, and livestock is the easiest course.

    It’s also easier to -reach- quickly with a sailing ship than any more developed part of the Americas, due to the clockwise oceanic current and wind patterns in the North Atlantic. In sailing time, Nantucket is much closer to England than to Mexico.

    The skills, machinery, tools, seed, livestock and other material available on Natucket in the book are actually all there — or were in 1998.

    I checked by going around and identifying things and talking to people on the island. The observatory where Doreen works is really there, for example, and has the equipment listed. There’s a couple of machine shops, the fishing trawlers, the farms, and so forth. Many of the people who operate all this in the book are thinly veiled (“Tuckerized”) versions of real individuals.

    The “Eagle”, the Coast Guard training windjammer, is based nearby at New London and often passes very close to the island.

    Her captain is a very competent woman — but then people who get that job -are- without exception highly competent, and usually have about her set of hobbies and interests.

    When interacting with the inhabitants of 1250 BCE she also has the advantage of 3,250 years of accumulated experience. One of the points of the series is that our remote ancestors weren’t any less intelligent than we are; they did, however, have a lot less information. Knowledge is cumulative and hence progressive, particularly after the invention of writing.

    How people would react to involuntary mass time-travel is of course a judgment call! 8-).

    However, small cohesive communities generally do well in emergencies or disasters, and the Event takes Nantucket back in time before the Summer People arrive. The long-term inhabitants of the island all know each other and are used to working together as neighbors and in the direct democracy of the Town Meeting. Some would crack up; most would, I think, buckle down to making the best of things.

    • Let me say that I really am surprised and honored that you read my review. I appreciate that you did a ton of research for the book, and I especially liked a lot of the cultural components. I’m a word geek, and thus enjoyed the touches about language change, and languages that are fond of building one gigantic word of prefixes and suffixes. Loved it.

      I honestly think Island in the Sea of Time hit me at the wrong time. I should leave more time between speculative fiction books. Perhaps my brain would have been more fresh then.

  2. Petro

    Julia, I saw your tweet and was very interested to see what an author’s response to one of your posts was. When I read reviews of books that I have already read, they tend to echo my sentiments about a book and so I assume that we have similar tastes in literature. I feel like reading a response from one of your reviews would probably answer some of the questions or address the issues that I had with a book.
    I haven’t read Mr Stirling’s works before and was unfamiliar with him so, if I had read the review without the response I very likely would have chosen to pass on checking out “Island in the Sea of Time.” However, since he did respond and did it in a very “patient and reasonable” way it intrigued me and persuaded me to go and buy it. I look forward to its arrival and reading it so that I may form my own opinion, keeping in mind the answers that were provided.
    I always like your reviews, Julia but this has added a lovely new dimension to them. Mr Stirling, thank you for taking the time to respond to this blog.
    I shall report back after finishing “Island In The Sea of Time” and hope to continue the dialogue. In the mean time, I hope that Mr Stirling will continue to interact with his readers, of all opinions, across the internet and real-live with the same tone and manner. His consideration and thoughtful reply makes this an interesting conversation — something that never fails to prompt, at least from me, sincere interest.

    • That’s awesome, Chris. I hope that you enjoy it, or at least the process of reading and comparing your opinion to mine, as well as appreciating the amount of research Stirling did. He really did work hard on the book; that I never doubted. It is, perhaps, a case of a book just not suiting me as a person, rather than any fault of the book itself.

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