Grade: Ε — Solid read, but only buy it if you like the genre. In brief: Though Island in the Sea of Time has some brilliant characterizations, and very good word-smithing, S.M. Stirling‘s 1998 “place-out-of-time” novel conveniently uses history and archaeology in a manner that strains my ability sustain disbelief and is otherwise fairly derivative of Eric Flint‘s 1632 series. What is more, it’s not the archaeological mistakes that bother me, I can put a quarter century of professional life aside for most of that, but leaps of logic, blunt assumptions and plot manipulation that repeatedly pulled out of the story. While the book is well written in many elements, huge plot assumptions and event chains failed me.
In Depth: In someways it is unfair for me to review a book like the Island in the Sea of Time. The story is about modern day Nantucket being thrown back in time to the middle to late Bronze Age, and I have spent the entirety of my adult life examining the later European prehistory as a professional. Yet, it is not the numerous factual mistakes that bother me about this book; one expects that. Rather, it is the technical aspects of how those facts are slammed together and the ramifications of the central event of the story: pulling a town from 1998 out of time and dumping it into the Middle to Late Bronze Age. Added to that, there are huge assumptions and interpretations that exist throughout the work that undermine the whole value of writing a “place-out-of-time” novel.
“Place-out-of-Time” novels are a fairly new and really exciting twist on the time travel sub-genre. They examine the concept of taking whole towns, or in this case islands, and hurling them from the modern day into some point in the past, then seeing what happens. They ignore the results of the timeshift to the present world, and instead focus on the ramifications to the populations of both the displaced town and the locale they have been thrown into. To that end, it is key that they deal realistically with those ramifications in order to sustain disbelief. To do that, the author really must get the setting correct, and then portray the ramifications of the “event” down pat. Failure to do the first is problematic; failure to do the second, disastrous. Sadly, Island in the Sea of Time fails to do either.
Setting: One really can’t expect an author to get all the details of a historic setting correct enough to satisfy an expert in the time period in question. That element is amplified ten-fold when the setting is prehistoric. Archaeological data can be interpreted in a huge number of ways, and the information changes with every single excavation. Thus, errors in the archaeological facts are acceptable to a degree. The convenient manipulation of real world data for plot purposes, however, is really not acceptable. It is the equivalent of setting a story on the Moon and then saying it has an Earth-like atmosphere (without that being part of the story).
Early on in Island in the Sea of Time, when the protagonists learn that they have ended up in the Middle-to-Late Bronze Age, the town decides that it needs to send a ship (The coast guard training ship USS Eagle, which is a brilliant plot element) over to Europe to get hold of enough grain and domesticated animals to create a viable breeding stock. At this point, Ian Arnstein, a historian who was trapped on the island at the temporal event, tries to describe what Europe is believed to have been like at the period. This is where the story really starts to fall apart.
The crumbling of my suspension of disbelief begins when Arstein says something to the effect of “…unless you believe that non-sense that Renfrew puts out there…” and with that dismisses the last thirty years of archaeological understanding. It’s not the dismissal of Lord Refrew’s theories that I mind. Neither do I mind the fact that Stirling’s Bronze Age world is based on completely out-of-date understandings of the past. It is that he really does use that one line to ignore the past THIRTY YEARS of discoveries and interpretations in archaeology. Every interpretation he uses of the European past is based on understandings that pre-date 1970… and in many cases come from concepts that are even early than that.
Basically, it would seem that Stirling came up with a plot line based upon a somewhat New Age version of the Invasion Hypothesis and then completely manipulated the archaeological record to match his plot. Oh, there were some points that he just couldn’t marry up, so he altered the plot enough to make it fit, but the basic premise was clear. Britain was inhabited by the peace loving, Stonehenge building Moon People, but is in the process of being invaded by the extremely violent and warlike Aryans… oh sorry… Iraiina (say it out loud and see what I mean), or Sun People. The fact that there is no evidence for this kind of invasion and that most professionals now think that cultural exchange was the medium for technological adaptation is beyond the point. So is the fact that even invasion driven models changes in the material culture don’t marry-up with this interpretation… only groovy half-informed New Age interpretations do.
Yet, sadly, even this use of totally out of date and crappy misinterpreted evidence could have been neatly addressed and sustained my disbelief if Stirling had only used a very simple writing trick: his historian should have been wrong. If Ian Arnstein had described the British Bronze Age in terms of a more modern theory, and then had his character discovered this totally different reality, I would have thought it quite clever. My suspension of disbelief would not only have been held, but strengthened because the author had used modern theories as a misdirective tool, rather than simply dismiss them because they didn’t match his plot. It’s like ignoring Einsteinian physics without at least giving a nod to the fact you are doing so.
As for his portrayal of the Ancient Peoples of the world… well… let’s just say that he stereotypes prehistoric peoples as having very simplistic forms of social interaction. The Sun People are warriors with very few cultural subtleties. The Moon People are advanced in their cosmology (a bit too advanced, if you ask me… but hey), but boil down to groovy New Age lovers who would have been perfectly at home in Eugene, Oregon. The Tartasseans have all the social graces of stereotyped Used Car Salesmen (an analogy that Stirling uses repeatedly), and DON’T GET ME STARTED ON THE OLMECS OR INDIGENOUS NORTH AMERICANS!!!!
Somewhere along the lines, people began to associate limited technology with simplistic forms of society… as if individual interactions gained complexity in parallel with the increase in technology and so-called social complexity (that is, more stratified and codified social structure). While this concept is a midge-bit better than assuming such people are stupid, it is still a fairly biggoted idea. If anything, one might think that individual social interactions might be more complex and delicate if there are fewer codified forms of behavior — particularly in a society as overtly violent as the Sun People’s culture is portrayed. This doesn’t begin to mention that the book ignores that a warrior based society might find value in skills other than warfare or… I’m sorry, I begin to rant.
Suffice it to say that some people have criticized this book as being very PC. If so, it is PC in the kind of condescending manner that shows non-Western (or in this case non-modern) peoples as being simple folk and uses token characters to illustrate multiple minorities at the same time.
Oh, yes, and then there was the use of individually focused Japanese martial arts in mass unit combat to overcome warriors who’d spent the majority of their lives fighting with hand-to-hand weapons. I’m sorry, no matter how ‘superior’ your martial art is, and no matter how good you are at your martial arts hobby, you’re just not going to be able to match someone who has spent their whole life using a sword to kill people. Why do you think professional Martial Artists are better than those who do it for fun? And while we’re at it… oh forget it. You get the point.
To this end, Stirling’s convenient use of archaeological and protohistorical information in his setting strains my suspension of disbelief and seriously undermined my ability to enjoy the story. This is, unfortunately, only the beginning.
Ramifications: The central plot of any “place-out-of-time” novel is based on how the displaced townspeople cope with their new environment, with the impact on the local inhabitants forming a key subplot that plays back into the central plot. One element that makes Eric Flint’s 1632 novel work so well is that the mid-17th Century is just about as early in time that one could get and still have a modern American population be capable of technological reproduction. The technology of the thirty-years war is really the very utmost borderline from which you’re average modern population could reverse engineer 20th Century technology so that it could work. Any earlier than that, and I would be very surprised if any population could figure out how to adapt the existing technology into a modern capacity. Think about it: how many car mechanics could figure out how to make a steam engine if the raw material for pressure seals was not already available.
Another element of the 1632 series that was extremely well thought out was the nature of the town that was thrown back in time. It was a small mining town in West Virginia with a strong labor union presence. This means that in addition to having a considerable mechanical skill set existing in the town already, it also had a strongly unified social structure that was used to working together (or at odds) through pr-existing social networks. That is to say, they were used to coming together as a whole for the good of the town/workers. Add to this the fact that an existing coal mine came with them to provide fuel and high end equitpment, you’ve got a winner.
In contrast, Nantucket has none of those things. It has a small population (the event occurred out of tourist season), but not one whose recent history would suggest the ability to come together quickly for the kind of decision making that the Event would have required. Indeed, I cannot imagine any American town undertaking the kind of total social and workforce reorganization that was required at the vastly rapid pace that it did in this story (not even a West Virginia Mining town).
I live in Cottage Grove Oregon, which is about the same population as Nantucket, and I just can’t imagine getting a large enough portion of the population to agree to even the most basic elements needed to pull off such complete economic reorganization in the time frame needed. Despite the Author’s comments to the contrary, I find it even harder to believe of died-in-the-wool New Englanders. I come from a long line of New Englanders, and I just can’t see them lying down and accepting the all-but-totalitarian government necessary to pull off such a total economic and technological refit. At least, not until the failure to do so resulted in significant population loss. Civil liberties run pretty strong in that population, and I couldn’t imagine some significant split in viewpoints occurring. That ignores long-term personal conflicts (Annie May Harpur denied me a bank loan in 1987 and I just can’t agree with someone who’d do that to a friend). Oh, have no doubts they’d get over it, but it would take a couple of months… and by that point people might be dying.
This brings us to our second ramification induced failure in disbelief: I just can’t see a Modern Western town cut off from most modern amenities that didn’t lose at least a third of the population within the first year. Let’s face it, we are so used to modern technology and medicine, we just don’t take care of ourselves. Cuts lead to infections, standing in cold and the rain stresses your body, failure to cook food properly leads to salmonella poisoning. If you want a perfect example of what happens when you set modern day people back into the prehistoric past, see if you can get a look at the BBC’s 2000 reality television series, Surviving the Iron Age. The contestants nearly didn’t survive the first night. You’re telling me a whole town could get by without losing people in the thousands?
Sure, you’d get some people who know how to do things, but I suspect it would take months before anyone would listen to them, particularly a town of modern American’s whose stalwart belief in civil liberties leads towards a rampant form of individualism. While I applaud this in general, I suspect it would lead to a bit of a “do it my own way” mentality that just wouldn’t work well in a society that has to totally recreate their entire social and economic system within a matter of days. How do you herd 9000 cats?
In Island in the Sea of Time the biggest single losses of life come down to either personal actions or conflicts between different portion of the population, not due to lack of knowledge, technology or ability to organize. That, far more than any of my disputes with the archaeology, is what makes this book fail for me. It’s not that I couldn’t see social conflict rising and leading to loss of life, it’s that an even biggest loss of life would come from accidents, illness and lack of understanding.
To that end, I just couldn’t enjoy this book despite the creation of some very strong characters that I liked throughout its telling. While the writing was solid enough, both the setting and the success of the characters within that setting was remarkably contrived.
Notes about the Audio Edition:Todd McLaren does an admirable job of narrating this book, keeping characters clear through use of voices that are the most part subtle and well done. The New England accent used is a bit strained, but acceptable, however, whenever the character from Long Island spoke, it was like fingernails on a chalkboard. It was so bad that at first I thought he was trying for an English accent.
That aside, his narration was solid. On the production side, however, there was a lack of pause between the change of point-of-views that proved to be occasionally confusing. Imagine reading one point of view of one character in one location and then the next paragraph being in the head of a different character in a different location without any notation that this had happened. This production error caused totally unnecessary confusion.
- It’s so Easy: I Hit the Bulls-Eye Every Night (jonathandallen.com)
- UC research uncovers ancient Mycenaean fortress (eurekalert.org)
- Is Fraser Island a world heritage site (wiki.answers.com)
- Cooking a pig, Bronze Age style! Part 3 – Porky’s Revenge! (headlandarchaeology.wordpress.com)
- Just In: 06/27 At Audible (theibookemporium.com)