Saturday, February 23, 2008

Island in the Sea of Time by S M Stirling

During a perfect spring evening on Nantucket a violent storm erupts and a dome of crawling, colored fire blankets the island. When the howling winds subside and the night skies clear, the stars appear to have shifted. The mainland has become a wilderness of unbroken forest, where tools of bronze and stone litter the beaches, and primitive natives scatter in terror.

A startling phenomenon has occurred: The island of Nantucket has been swept into the long-ago past. With its inhabitants adrift in the year 1250 B.C., there is only question to be answered: Can they survive?

A provocative and endlessly inventive spin on the classic adventure story. Island in the Sea of Time takes you on a journey of wonder, discovery and imagination.

I first heard about this book on one of the forums that I frequent, when some members started talking about the trilogy, and I thought I would give them a go even though science fiction/alternative history is not really my thing. I don't mind a bit of time travel occasionally though, although travel sort of indicates to me that there is some kind of onward (or return) journey after the initial travel, which for the characters there really isn't in terms of time at least.

My decision to request this book from the library was sort of endorsed when not long after Carl V announced The Sci-Fi Experience and I decided to participate by reading this book.

So I'll start by talking about my experience. I will confess that I struggled a little bit with the reading of this book. At 600 pages long it is a chunkster and so it would have normally taken me at least 4 days to get through at the best of times, but this time it took me well over a week. I think part of the reason for that is that this was a book that had lots of technical jargon and descriptions within the text. It wasn't too bad first thing in the morning when I was awake, but in the afternoons coming home on the train, I really struggled to get through certain sections within the book. I kept on losing track and getting distracted from reading, which doesn't happen all that often.

I do now find myself wondering what my sci-fi experience would have been like had I read a book by a female author, because to me, as I read this book, it was very obvious to me that this was a book written by a man. There are three main romantic relationships that happen within the book, and all of those were practically instantaneous developments. There was also lots of description about creating usable weapons and salvaging items from the 2oth century and making them usable in the new now, body armour and the like, lots of martial arts talk and plenty of battles. Not that you don't get those things in books by female authors, just that maybe the ratio of time spent describing those things would be different.

One of the things that I did find myself wondering is about how book genres are decided. This book, for example, hinges on one event that is completely unexplainable at this point in the series (so is that what makes it sci-fi?) but then for the most part it seemed to me to be something of an alternate history, a story of human endurance and flexibility in terms of being able to survive, and exploration (albeit made easy by the fact that the characters had 3000 years of history at their fingertips). So was it the time travel element that made this sci-fi, and if so does that mean that time travel romances are sci-fi, or perhaps time travel is only one aspect and it really depends on what else is in the book.

The whole premise of the book hinges on the fact that one night there was some kind of unusual electrical storm and suddenly the whole island of Nantucket plus some of the waters around it, is thrown back in time to 1250BC. Luckily there is an astrologer on the island who is able to calculate this for them, along with a Professor of Classical history and just the right people with handy hobbies that will definitely help the marooned island to survive and eventually maybe to prosper. The chief of police quickly becomes the leader, with the role of military leader taken over by the captain of the US Coast Guard who was caught up in the Event as well. As time passes a rudimentary governing system must be agreed on and implemented with more solid hierarchical structures required later to enhance the stability of the economy and the relationships within island life.

When a flight over to the mainland confirms that where the city of Boston should be there is nothing but forest, people on the island begin to comprehend what has happened to them. Their most immediate concern is how to survive - how to produce food and keep whatever resources they have available to them (like fuel and electricity) going for as long as possible.

Once it becomes clear that there is no way known that the island can support all the people on it, the leaders know that they are going to have to start trading and that they are also going to need to do things like start outposts in some far off places so that they can get what they need - for example, they know that in order to have salt that they are going to have to have people harvesting natural salt flats in Central America as there is no way to get any from the island itself.

One of the major issues though is that any exposure to other peoples brings major risk - exposure to 20th century diseases that could wipe out single tribes in a matter of days, difficulties in communicating in unknown languages that could lead to war as easily as friendship, and how does everything they do affect the history that has already been but not already been....if you know what I mean.

Within the group of island people there is inevitably dissent for whatever reasons, and there are also people who want to take certain steps for their own purposes. After the Americans manage to do some trading with some people in what is now Southern England, one of the more ambitious and morally suspect members of the crew decides that he wants to set himself up as a kind of warlord, using the advantages that he has in terms of 20th century technology that can be applied to various aspects of life, most particular in the way the tribes of the area fight wars, and much of the drama in the novel is based around the confrontation between good and bad.

There are moments of genuine fun sprinkled throughout the novel - at one point as he rides into battle, the bad guy breaks into a chorus of Bad to the Bone - completely nonsensical to all the tribesman around him, with the exception of those of the modern day characters that followed him to the dark side, willingly or otherwise.

A lot of the characters are somewhat two-dimensional, and some of the relationships are a little cliched, but overall it's an interesting exercise in the what-if line of conjecture.

I am planning to read the next book in the trilogy, so perhaps my summary should be something along the lines of reading this book didn't make me want to say I am never reading sci-fi again, so that's a positive thing right?


  1. I enjoy time travel and sci-fi but at 600 pages I just dunno if I could wing it (especially since its part of a Trilogy).

    I loved this review and your insight into the man's perspective (I laughed when you mentioned that the romantic relationships happened almost instantaneously! LOL).

    Thanks for the review and happy Sat. Review of Books.

  2. As I mentioned in my recent review of The Invention of Everything Else, it isn't always clear why some things are labeled sci fi and others are not. In the end I think it is more about publisher's whims than anything else.

    I would certainly hope that no one book would ever make you choose not to read that particular genre again and I hope if your experience with the next book in this series isn't great that you do not write off science fiction. There are so many amazing books published in the genre that I would hate to see on author's experience put you off the genre.

  3. That last sentence was a bit tongue in cheek! I'm prepared to give scifi a go - in fact I think I know what my next three sci-fi books are going to be!

    Thanks for hosting the experience.