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Against the Tide of Years by S. M. Stirling

Published by Roc

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

Eight years have passed since the mysterious Event transported present-day Nantucket Island back to 1250 BC. The Islanders have taken their place in the world of that distant age, the bringers of the benefits of modern civilization to a time of ignorance. Wherever they go they teach such basics as hygene and the germ theory of disease, saving untold numbers of lives, and introduce automation that can free people from lives of back-breaking toil.

However, all is not entirely well. The renegade William Walker survived his defeat at the end of Island in the Sea of Time, and has found himself a new base of operations in the Achea, the Greece of Agamemnon, son of Atreus. There Walker and his sadistic queen Alice Hong have set up a new empire of darkness and seek to strengthen it before the Islanders can move against him. Of course doing so does mean giving them some good things, such as a modern alphabet to replace the clumsy adaptation of the Linear B syllabary which they had borrowed from Crete, but with every such gift Walker thus confirms his contempt toward these people, the historical individuals behind the legends of which Homer would have sung.

Meanwhile, Iskaterol of Tartessos tirelessly strengthens his own nation, determined that it shall not fall into oblivion as it had in the original history. However, that determination brings him into direct conflict with the Cofflin Doctrin, by which the Islanders declared the New World off-limits to the activities of other nations.

As a result, the Americans must constantly struggle to expand their tech base. Lacking the tools to build the tools to create an aircraft industry, they cobble together the materials to build an airship, which they name the Emancipator as a reflection both of the freedom of the air it gives them and the freedom they hope to bring to enslaved peoples everywhere. They remind themselves often that slavery in this old-new time was mostly a matter of prestige, even conspicuous consumption, and it was one of their own who introduced modern economic-based slavery to people for whom owning a slave was a way of saying how important one was, rather than a means of production.

Given that the most advanced civilizations of the period that are within reasonable reach lie in Mesopotamia, the Nantucketers have concentrated a fair amount of energy upon developing friendly relations with them. This means of course dealing with the powerful kings of those realms, who if not worshipped outright as gods are often regarded as the chosen of the gods. Some of their customs are chilling to modern American eyes, but there is a limit to how much the Nantucketers can afford to object to --- for all the edge their advanced technology gives them, they are still at a marked disadvantage in terms of numbers and ability to project force. And even if they could roll over the peoples of the Middle East with casual ease, they want allies, not thralls. So it is the slow way of suasion and example, which often means pretending not to see such ugly practices as the use of eunuchs as palace guards.

Even as the Americans are dealing with the Mesopotamian god-kings, Walker gains himself a new right-hand man: Odikweos of Ithaka. Of course we remember him in the Classical form of his name, Odysseus of Ithica, and how much of Homer's story of his exploits was a figurative description of truths now forgotten and taken literally and how much was purest fabrication is subject to a hundred interpretations. But he is one ancient Greek whom Walker actually respects, particularly after Odikweos saves his life. As a result, Walker increasingly takes Odikweos into his counsels, making him effectively equal to the other renegade Americans. Given that Odikweos has all the intelligence and cunning credited him by Homer, this gives Walker a formidable advantage.

But the more immediate threat to Nantucket comes from Tartessos, from which Iskaterol has sent spies to carefully examine the fortifications and possible weaknesses against which an attack might have a hope of succeeding. When Marion Alston and her best forces become lost in a terrible storm in the Indian Ocean, Iskaterol decides that he may not get another chance as good. Hoping that Alston's subordinate commanders will prove less able, he attacks.

It's interesting to compare this series as it develops to Stirling's other work, as well as to the other series dealing with time-displaced Americans, Eric Flint's 1632 universe. For instance, I found the scenes in which Walker talks to his children, giving them lessons on slave management and the development of modern notions of labor ickily reminiscent of some of the scenes in Stirling's Draka books in which Draka parents lovingly explained the facts of life in Draka society to their children, training them in the habits of mind necessary to manage slaves in a society where the masters are outnumbered ten to one, always surrounded by people with every reason to hate them.

But I find it even more interesting to compare and contrast the Nantucket books as they develop with how Eric Flint has developed the world of his Ring of Fire. The most obvious point of difference is the absence of any equivalent to William Walker among the displaced hillbillies and coal miners of Grantville. Although some of the latter have defected to the enemies of the New United States, they have generally done it for small personal reasons and have been completely willing to be minor advisors to kings and emperors rather than trying to carve out empires of their own. Even John Chandler Simpson, who was the closest to a cold-eyed uptimer villain in the first book, did not defect after being roundly defeated in the elections by Mike Stearns, and ultimately has ended up becoming Stearns' Chief of Naval Operations. In fact, the scummiest and most unsympathetic people in the 1632-verse are actually the ones least likely to leave Grantville -- the bigots and rednecks who hang around the Club 250 and grouse about how the krauts are taking over and wrecking property values.

Of course there is also the fact that there is simply less difference, culturally or technologically, between the people of Grantville and those of Seventeenth Century Europe than there is between the people of Nantucket and the Bronze Age and Neolithic peoples among whom they have suddenly been placed. There is simply less possibility for a renegade to overawe Cardinal Richelieu or Emperor Ferdinand of Austro-Hungary the way Walker is able to do with even the Achean Greek rulers, merely by introducing the alphabet and modern metalworking and gunnery. Yes, the Scottish cavalrymen under Alex Mackay do find the demonstration of a modern machine shop's capability awe-inspiring, but the modern electric lathe is a development from techniques already in use downtime, not something that seems to burst fully formed from the brow of a god.

And that too is why Stirling's Nantucketers must move more slowly in disseminating modern technology in their new world. There are just so many more base skills and paradigm shifts that have to be established before the peoples of the ancient British Isles or even Mesopotamia can work safely with modern technology than Flint's downtime Germans need to absorb. It's a far easier step to go from handling a wheellock musket to handling a modern rifle than it is to go from handling a primitive bow or a spear to that modern rifle.So perhaps it should not be surprising that the second book in Stirling's series should start nearly eight years after the Event, yet show Nantucket as still being a tiny enclave of modernity surrounded by primitives, while the second book of Flint's series takes place a mere year after the fall of the Ring of Fire and shows a rapid spread of technology and democracy throughout Thuringia and Franconia, and even beyond.

Review posted March 19, 2009

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