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

Excellent adventure story

February 21, 2012

S. M. Stirling

Island in the Sea of Time: A Novel of the Change

Roc, 1998

ISBN: 978-0-451-45675-5

608 pages


I have said before that S. M. Stirling is one of my favorite science-fiction writers. I have also said that I sometimes drag my feet before starting one of his books, thinking that even his very considerable skills may not be equal to making an entertaining story out of the premise he has chosen for the book. Each time I have done that and subsequently picked up the book, I have been delighted to have been proven wrong and slightly annoyed that I waited so long to read the book. That is again the case with Mr Stirling's Island in the Sea of Time.

The premise really isn't all that promising: In March of 1998, somehow, the island of Nantucket (an island of about 50 square miles that's located about 30 miles south of Massachusetts's Cape Cod and which is popular with vacationers) is transported 3000 years back in time. The 8000 or so people on the island at the time are brought along and so is a certain amount of the ocean around the island which, conveniently, brings with it a United States coast guard sailing ship that's used for training.

Don't get me wrong: the era of 1250 BCE is a fascinating one. The bronze age is just giving way to the iron age and most of the interesting things in Homer and the Hebrew Bible happen around that time. But what does time-travel get us? You could just set a story back then: that worked for those guys, after all. Does it improve the bronze age to add New Englanders?

But that's the wrong way to look at the book. It's sending the (mostly) New Englanders back to the bronze age that makes an interesting story. They want to preserve some version of their civilization and they have an interesting and limited set of resources to work with. Even that could be a rather dry thought-experiment except for Mr Stirling’s excellent characters. There’s Jared Cofflin, the island’s police chief who’s acclaimed benevolent dictator by the Town Meeting until a constitution can be agreed on. And Marian Alston, the gay, African-American, southern woman who’s captain of the coast guard ship Eagle. And there are plenty of other memorable, interesting, and sharply-drawn characters in the book. And they have to grapple with interesting issues. The islanders will have to trade with locals to survive their first winter. How is it best to do that? We get to meet some interesting locals in the book. People familiar with Mr Stirling’s work will not be surprised to learn that there’s no noble-savage fallacy here. And this tiny society will have to deal with crime, both crime that’s a result of mindless fear, and crime that’s a result of deliberate evil.

Island in the Sea of Time is an excellent adventure story and I already wish that the series it begins were more than three books long. I bet that the series that Dies the Fire starts is really good too.