S. M. Stirling’s Alternate Histories

by D. A. Madigan

Table of Contents
The article began in
in issue 166.
part 3 of 4

And an island never cries

Moving on to the Islander trilogy, Island in the Sea of Time, Against the Tide of Years, and On the Oceans of Eternity...

This is rousing time travel/alternate history/fantasy/adventure fiction of the finest kind. Stirling has written slightly better stuff than this... the Islander arc is, among other things, pretty much an unabashed soap opera that reads in many places like an old Republic serial with a lot of mushy stuff thrown in... but the depth and breadth Stirling brings to all his alternate world building is very much present here, and it transforms what could have been a very two dimensional narrative of Modern Good Guys vs. Unprincipled Bronze Age Savages into something far more vital and intriguing.

The enormous volume of detail Stirling invests into his alternate histories is always impressive (and the enormous amount of research that volume of detail doubtless represents honestly staggers me when I consider it at all) and the Islander books, while they’re a strange sort of alternate history, are no exception. Here we, as the readers, are in on what promises to be a fascinating alternative timeline from the very inception... as the entire island of Nantucket in the year 1997 is thrown back three thousand years, into 1350 B.C., instantly either wiping out the history of the modern world as we know it due to the inevitable ripples created by a high tech, near 21st-century society tossed into the pond of the prehistoric Bronze Age, or (in the more palatable theory) causing an immediate branching of the ti me stream, in which the history that spawned the modern day Nantucketers will never exist, and in its place will be one shaped by late 20th-century industrial, social, and philosophical concepts suddenly introduced into a much more primitive period.

Stirling paints on a literally world sized canvas, creating a large cast of epic figures, both heroic and villainous, to populate his thundering romantic pageant. Nantucket needs heroes to lead it through this unprecedented temporal transposition, and Stirling provides them in plenty. Nantucket’s police chief, a singularly even-tempered, practical, and thoroughly sensible fellow named Jared Cofflin, finds himself thrust into the role of chief executive of the budding nation-state, while visiting scholars in history and astronomy, Ian Arnstein and Doreen Rapiewicz, suddenly find their previously obscure and impractical academic specialties to be of enormous value in plotting a course through the ill-defined world of the second millennium before the birth of Christ. Most vitally for the transplanted Islanders, a steel-hulled windjammer belonging to the Coast Guard, under the command of black female Captain Marian Alston, is also swept up in the Event, as the inexplicable (and never explained) temporal transposition comes to be called, and a good thing, too, since without Captain Alston and her ship the Eagle, the timelost castaways would almost certainly have perished within a few months of their misfortune.

Stirling’s fiction likes to teach us that there are never any unmixed blessings, so along with Marian Alston, arguably the hero and protagonist of at least the first of the Islander books, the Bronze Age receives Lt. William Walker, also a member of the Eagle’s Coast Guard crew, an amoral schemer who is intelligent enough to see the kind of opportunities that this new situation presents to someone like him, ambitious enough to take a shot at making his fantasies of carving out an empire come true, and ruthless enough to actually succeed in doing so.

So Stirling sets us up for a grand conflict, with Marian Alston and the entire Island of Nantucket on one side, basically representing all the most idealistic principles of late 20th-century American culture, and William Walker on the other, more or less embodying a more piratical and predatory time, when a man of superior education, intelligence, charisma and will could reach out and reshape the raw materials that were a world and its peoples, remaking them into his own image.

The Republic of Nantucket, with its government arising from the strict one for one democracy of the Town Meeting, is directly opposed by William Walker, slaver, pirate, robber baron, and eventually, King of Kings in ancient Achaean Greece.

The most interesting thing about William Walker to me is the astonishing resemblance he bears to H. Beam Piper’s character Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen; a parallel I’m not at all sure is a coincidence. However, even if the similarities are unintentional, I find Walker’s casting as the main villain to be an interesting commentary on how cultural philosophies have changed in the past thirty to forty years.

Back in the 1960s and 1970s, had a story like this been written, the stodgy establishment of Nantucket would have been depicted as conservative, unenlightened, and determined to preserve its own existence, position, privilege, power, and prosperity at the expense of the primitive world around it, while the Walker character would have been a ruggedly individualistic hero prototype, a non-conformist, and a two fisted gun-totin’ sword-swingin’ champion of the local, oh so noble primitive folks. Where the corrupt, materialistic and power-hungry merchants and would-be imperialists of the Island’s 20th-century ruling class would have been busy attempting to exploit the locals with their superior technology, the renegade... er, I mean, rebel... Coast Guard Lieutenant would have been the only 20th-century American with any sense of honor or compassion, who would have taken the technological secrets of his own time and kind to the poor downtrodden savages and helped them band together to battle for their own survival and sovereignty.

All this is indicative of a major shift in the cultural Zeitgeist from the 1960s to now. Back then, the authoritarian, centralized, imperialist government had to be bad, while the lone wolf/individual achiever by necessity was always good (and inevitably triumphant over the better organized, hivelike forces of evil, as well). Nowadays, though, the loner has come to be an archetype that even science fiction (a sub-genre generally embraced and supported by outsiders and misfits) has come to largely suspect, while the team/organization has very much come to exemplify nobility and goodness and other socially acceptable virtues. Lord Kalvan was fine for an otherdimensional, imperialist, manifest-destiny type SF fantasy of its time, but nowadays, a character who shows up in a backwards era and sets himself up as a big boss using his superior knowledge of gunpowder would have to be regarded as slightly creepy and not a little bit exploitative.

Stirling’s exploration of evil in these books (specifically, the wickedness of pure, unrestrained power when married to the pure, unrestrained gratification of all fleshly desires without conscience or morals) is very similar to what he almost lovingly depicts in his Draka novels, although most of the modern day Draka would probably turn their noses up at William Walker as little more than a parvenu and an amateur in the amoral exercise of sheer raw power over lesser humanity. (On the other hand, Walker would fit right in with the Draka’s 18th-century founders.)

If Walker’s excesses are necessarily more restrained than those of the entire Draka race (or, for that matter, just various of the von Shrakenbergs), Stirling’ s address of same thankfully seems much more in line with the necessities of moral fiction, and although Stirling does allow a seed to be planted that will doubtless grow into future conflicts (assuming he continues to write within the series), he ends up dealing with Walker and his coterie of amoral renegades in a far more satisfying fashion than he could apparently bring himself to mete out to the even more deserving Draka.

If there’s any one annoying point in the Islander books, it lies in just how resolutely soap opera-ish they are, at least, in terms of the instant symmetry with which couples cohere out of random social chaos. Every major character in the book is single pre-Event, and most of them are nearing or at middle age and pretty much have given up on the idea of ever meeting their true loves. Immediately post-Event, every single major character almost instantly couples up into what turn out to be near-perfect, long-term, romantically idyllic relationships of the sort most of us here in the real world can only swoon at the thought of.

And Stirling doesn’t simply do this for his cast of characters in the first novel; as he continues to introduce new major characters while the saga unfolds over the next two volumes and ten years in the new/ancient millennium, he also continues to issue these newly created characters their own true loves as if he’s programmed this as a function into his word processor... highlight ‘Justin’, hit Alt-F9, and bingo, here comes Justin’s soul mate in the next paragraph.

One of the benefits of being an S.M. Stirling character is, apparently, that within a few months at most of the start of the story, your ideal mate will somehow turn up in your bedroll without you having to do a damned thing to find him or her. No awkward mating rituals are required here, folks... if you’ve got S.M. Stirling writing your life, you’re not only going to get seriously laid early and often, but you’re going to get laid by someone you find absolutely gorgeous, who’s great in bed, and who you want to spend all your non-sack time hanging out with, too.

Ah, if only real life worked out so conveniently...

For one brief moment it seemed as if Stirling might have become aware of his perhaps over-emphasis on utterly balanced, completely monogamous, perfectly romantic hearts & flowers, when he presents us with a stalwart young doctor figure whose heart is broken because his marriage is in its final stages of dissolution. But no, no, all that is just stage setting, preparatory to sending the pining young lunk halfway around the world to Babylon, where he gets neatly paired up with the only female Bronze Age Babylonian healer/chirurgeon in the history of the universe. (And so what if she has a big nose and a mustache. Justin is fat, so he doesn’t get a hottie like Marion and Ian and Brigadier General Kenneth Hollard and the King of freakin’ Babylon all end up with. But I’m sure he’s grateful to be getting any at all, and Lord knows I would be, too.)


Proceed to part 4...

Copyright © 2005 by D. A. Madigan

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