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On The Oceans of Eternity by S. M. Stirling

Published by Roc

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

Ten years have passed since the mysterious Event flung the island of Nantucket backwards through time to 1250 BC, forcing its inhabitants to survive as best they can in a world where bronze, cities and writing are new innovations and most of humanity still lives as hunter-gatherers or Neolithic villagers. The Islanders continue their battle against William Walker, a renegade from their own society who saw the sudden transportation of Nantucket into the past as an opportunity for his own aggrandizement. The alliance with Babylon and the other Mesopotamian powers have borne strange fruit, including several mixed marriages in positions that have the promise of reshaping entire societies from the bottom up. They are introducing modern technology and medicine, hoping to improve the lot of the people they help and shortcut around hundreds of generations of misery.

However, all that they are doing is threatened by Walker's aggression. His creation, Greater Achea (Mycanean Greece reshaped by modern ideas), is a nightmare empire of industrial slavery and police-state tactics in a world unprepared to deal with this level of evil. His principal wife, Dr. Alice Hong, has spread her Dark Sisterhood right alongside more benign innovations such as the germ theory of disease. Bound together by a religious initiation that calls upon the dark spirit of Hecate, these women form a network of spies and assassins which spread tendrils into every noble house and can even watch the watchmen organized by former Stasi officer Heinrich Mittler.

At the same time, Iskaterol of Tartessos continues his opposition to Nantucket, which he sees as trying to crush his efforts to see to it that his people and his citiy do not disappear into the trash can of history as they did in the original timeline. Although he is not evil in the same sense that Walker is (he's merely doing what's common in his own place and time, rather than re-establishing cruelties given up by his people), his opposition to Nantucket prevents them from effectively dealing with the monster they have inadvertantly inflicted on this time and place, simply by tying up resources they need in order to give the Walker problem a full-court press..

And of course the arrival of Americans from the far future didn't mean an instant end to all the rivalries that were in existence prior to the Event depositing Nantucket in the past. The Assyrians are less bad than Walker only because they are using less advanced warmaking technology, but they are a very real danger to the fragile alliance the Nantucketers have forged with the Babylonians. Especially considering that Walker has decided it's time to fight the Trojan War, but this time it's going to be fought his way.

Most of the novel is devoted to showing us how desperately thin the Nantucketers are stretched, and it seems to be building toward a huge military confrontation between the armed forces of the two great powers of this strange new world. Thus the ending comes as something of a shock, when it is treachery within rather than that grand clash of arms which brings down Walker and his monstrous inner circle. When I first read it, it felt like a cheat, a bait-and-switch if not an outright deus ex machina. Only when I went back and read it carefully was I able to pick up the clues to the machinations of Nantucket's agents slipping the faked letters into the proper hands, of Arnstein talking with Odikweos, who has puzzled out the true nature of Walker and his fellow renegades from the tiniest of slips, and reciting key sections of Homer's great poems to show that his deeds would have been remembered for millenia, before Walker stole his fame. Yet I have to keep wondering whether they're really enough, if they're noticeable only on the most meticulous of readings. It's one thing when it's a detective novel, because we go into it expecting to be dealing with subtle clues and their interpretation, but this novel seemed to be a straightforward sort of story building toward a military solution much as had the first volume in the series, Island in the Sea of Time.

Throughout the process of reading these novels I've been constantly kept mindful of the fascinating parallels between them and Eric Flint's Ring of Fire universe, 1632 and its various sequels. Fascinatingly enough, each writer came up with the idea of a cosmic accident sending a small American town backward in time completely independently and both were rather surprised at the coincidence when the books were published at almost the same time. While some of the differences in the two storylines are the result of the differences in the premises the two authors started with -- West Virginia coal miners and hillbillies are going to think and act differently than Yankees, and the people of the Thirty Years' War will provide a different environment to work with than the people of the Bronze Age.

But other differences are the result of the way each author chose to tell the story. Stirling has focused upon a straight-up conflict against Evil embodied in one very nasty ambitious man with plenty of talents but no conscience, while Flint has chosen to tell a story of shades of gray, involving far more Realpolitik with American idealism against an array of downtime leaders whose faults are as much the product of their time and society than any sinister embodiment of Evil.

And quite honestly, I have found Flint's approach to be more fruitful than Stirling's in the long term. When the Nantucketers finally destroy Walker, Stirling's series is over. To be true there are threads left dangling -- the airship crashed somewhere near China, the black renegade fleeing southward to build some kind of new nation in sub-Saharan Africa, the daughter of Walker's who escaped with some of his servants, not to mention whether the suppression of Hong's vile Dark Sisterhood will lead to the long-term suppression of women in the new Greece. But the principal conflict has been resolved, and any additional books would be follow-ons rather than continuations of the original storyline.

By contrast, the Ring of Fire series has been expanding in multiple directions at an astonishing rate, with several side threads that bring in various collaborators, as well as an entire series of anthologies written by fans but professionally edited and published. Because there is no one single human villain to be vanquished, because it is, to paraphrase Solzhenitsyn, not a matter of one evil person over there doing evil deeds, but the evil that cuts through every human heart, the Ring of Fire series is effectively open-ended.

Review posted March 19, 2009

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