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

Published by Roc

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

It began as an ordinary spring night on the island of Nantucket. Suddenly the sky blazed with light, as though a dome of fire had been dropped over the island. When it was gone, the stars were in the wrong position.

A quick computer regression by a visiting graduate student in astronomy confirmed the impossible: the island and all its inhabitants had been transferred backwards in time, specifically to the year 1250 BC. The world they have known all their lives is now irrevocably lost upstream in time, and there is nothing to do but make new lives for themselves here in the new now.

This new world offers a wealth of opportunities, but it is also fraught with peril. A single contact with a person bearing modern diseases can wipe out entire villages, even whole civilizations. And the Nantucketers' survival isn't guaranteed either -- although the stored up-time food may seem plentiful, it will not last forever. Thus they must grow more food, which means they must mobilize people unaccustomed and unconditioned for hard physical labor to produce enough crops to keep everybody eating through the winter.

Worse, not everybody agrees how they should involve themselves in the world in which they have found themselves. A religious group, fearing that butterfly effects of their presence could prevent the birth of Jesus, decide that they should all die without a trace. Caught up in what turns into religious fanaticism, they conspire to kill everyone on the island and destroy all the buildings. Fortunately they are stopped in time, and the people who are sorting out as leaders of the community -- police chief Jared Cofflin and Coast Guard captain Marian Alston -- point out that they've already left indelible marks of their presence that would create subtle butterfly effects even if they were to all keel over dead and every building burn to the ground.

On the other end of the spectrum, a group of hippies and eco-fanatics take a wild hair to save the Aztecs, ignoring the fact that the Aztecs had yet to develop as a distinctive people in 1250 BC. So off they head to Mexico, only to end up captured by the locals -- Olmecs, who are less than in awe of their white rescuers. Suddenly it is the rescuers who need rescuing from the very people they were hoping to teach the arts of civilization and turn into a nation strong enough to resist the Spaniards.

And then there's William Walker. A Coast Guard officer whose only visible problem has been a taste for kinky sex that doesn't always known when to quit and has gotten him tossed out of some bondage clubs, he sees some very interesting opportunities in this new-old world. But whatever he may lack in the way of a conscience, he is not similarly disabled in the ability to plan out a scheme and make sure he has all the necessary components to put his plan into action. Nor is he the sort to go about boasting prematurely and tipping his hand.

Thus it comes as a complete surprise when he strikes, capitalizing upon the very parts of the islanders' preparations that prove to be weaknesses. For instance, concerned about the less stable among their number doing something stupid and destructive, Cofflin and Alston had ordered all privately-owned firearms gathered up and put in the island's armory. However, that course of action turns out to serve to concentrate all the weapons in a single place and make it that much easier for them to grab a large number. Before law enforcement can react, Walker and his buddies have fled in a stolen yacht for parts unknown.

But there is no time for Cofflin and Alston to bemoan the errors of judgment that allowed Walker to escape with enough vital resources to carve out an empire in the Bronze Age. Since they have no realistic way of tracking him down, their best hope is to concentrate on finding allies and strengthening them as best possible to resist Walker and his crew when they do finally make their presence known once again.

So off Alston and her crew head aboard the Eagle to the British Isles, where they find the first Celtic tribes invading and displacing an even older race, the Earth Folk who may have been the source of the old Irish legends of the Firbolg. It takes some tricky political maneuvering to make alliances with both peoples, but Nantucket needs all the allies it can gain, and each group has skills the other lacks, skills that may well prove vital for the time-lost Yankees' survival. As some of the unattached Coasties begin to form liaisons with the locals, especially the matriarchal Earth Folk whose attitudes about gender roles are more compatible with those of late-twentieth-century Americans than the patriarchal proto-Celts, and as numerous members of both peoples enlist in the armed forces of their ally from the future, Nantucket develops protocols for naturalizing down-timers. These protocols help ensure that the new Americans will have internalized key values of their new society ranging from personal hygiene to the ability to work steadily under close supervision (not common in early agricultural societies, who will work like the very devil during planting and harvest but may idle and amuse themselves during periods in which the crops require relatively little attention).

In the meantime, Walker's been busy building his own alliances with the proto-Celts, building a nasty little empire over in what would have become England. He has introduced mass enslavement as a way of building a labor force, and encourages his overseers to use brutal methods honed in the old Roman Empire and the antebellum South. Meanwhile his wife, Dr. Hong, indulges in various abominations until even Walker's allies are disgusted. Only their fear of her as a witch keeps them from taking direct action against her.

But it's only a matter of time before stories of Walker get back to the Nantucketers via their allies in Ireland. And this time Marion Alston doesn't intend to repeat her previous mistakes.

This novel is part of one of the more interesting coincidences of science fiction, coming out almost at the same time as Eric Flint's 1632, which also featured a modern community sent back into time and having to interact with the people of that time in order to survive and as a result changing their cultures. Neither author knew of the other's project until they were both published within months of each other.

As a result, it is interesting to compare and contrast the two novels, seeing how each set of leaders goes about dealing with their situation. For instance, Jared Cofflin is much more cautious about integrating downtimers into the culture of the time-displaced Americans than Mike Stearns, who basically says that anyone who moves into Grantville and stays becomes a full-fledged citizen. In fact, Cofflin's acculturation requirements come closer to John Chandler Simpson's rejected plan for stern requirements for citizenship. One may speculate on how much of the difference is the result of differences in the two authors' political beliefs and attitudes and how much is due to the simple fact that Flint sent Grantville to early-modern Europe, where many of the memes foundational to modern democracy are already in place, while Stirling sent Nantucket to a time of god-kings and illiterate peasants.

Review posted March 19, 2009

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