AGAINST THE TIDE OF YEARS
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Having sent the population on Nantucket back three thousand years in Island in the Sea of Time, S.M. Stirling continues their adventure in Against the Tide of Years. The novel opens about eight years after the "Event" which initially began the adventure. The Nantucketters have fought several wars, against both the indigenous populations and their own renegades, led by William Walker. Having defeated the locals, the Walker remains at large in the bronze age world, trying to carve out his own niche. The Nantucketters, of course, know that they will eventually have to deal with Walker, and elect to do so on their own terms rather than his. To this end, a diplomatic mission, led by historian-turned-councilman Ian Arnstein, travels to Mesopotamia to enlist the aid of the Babylonians against Walker.
One of the primary themes of Against the Tide of Years is the introduction of advanced technology into relatively primitive cultures. In the past, authors such as Mark Twain and L. Sprague de Camp have tackled this issue by sending highly competent men to Dark Age England and Italy. While the results are good and entertaining, they suffer from the idea that one person could bring about such massive change. Stirling solves this problem by sending back a large enough population which would have the required composite knowledge along with their library as a supplement. At times, given the amount of detail Stirling provides, the reader gets the feeling that being sent back in time with a copy of Against the Tide of Years would be enough to provide the information needed to pull the bronze age into the twentieth century.
The novels big weakness comes from the lack of diverse characterization. The Nantucketters seem to be interchangeable, although a few possess knowledge others dont. They all seem to hold the same basic philosophy which the reader is supposed to accept. Unfortunately, this philosophy is one which does not leave any room for disagreement or cultural differences. Islanders who disagree with the general populace are ostracized, both by their own desire and the islanders. Walker, portrayed as a villain by Stirling, may do reprehensible things by twentieth century standards, however, he and his band of renegades are the only ones who even attempt to fit the mores of the second millennia BCE rather than mold the world to fit their own viewpoint.
Rationality seems to be the characters catchword. On occasion, it would be nice if someone would show signs of emotion. Ian Arnstein, an historian specializing in bronze age culture, hardly pays any attention to his surroundings when he finally arrives in Mesopotamia. Rather than running around like a kid in a candy factory, trying to explore the archives and talk to the people, he stolidly goes ahead and does his duty for the Republic of Nantucket. Similarly, when another character discovers his sister, who never demonstrated any lesbian tendencies, having an affair with another woman, he doesnt ask her about her newly discovered sexual orientation, but merely accepts it, asks her to dismiss the girl and begins to talk about upcoming military plans. In fact, Stirlings relationships seem to boil down to passionless sex. There is little, if any, emotional interplay between Marion Alston and her lover Swindapa, or Ian and Doreen Arnstein. The act as colleagues rather than spouses. Even when Stirling writes about budding romances, there is no actual emotion demonstrated.
The lack of emotion between characters extends to the plot. Stirling is obviously building to a showdown between the Nantucketters and the Walker renegades. Unfortunately, the reader doesnt feel any real loyalty to one side or the other in the conflict. When the battle eventually occurs there is no real sense of tension. Stirling hasnt managed to build up the capabilities of each side and, even though he has shown Walkers depravity, Walker still seems to be something of a bogeyman rather than a serious enemy. Perhaps more interesting than the Nantucket-Walker struggle is the conflict between the Nantucketters and Isketerol, the native whose kingdom in Spain is based on his early dealings with the Nantucketters. While Walker bides his time, Isketerol is willing to risk what he has against the Nantucketters in several areas. He may come across like a Fidel Castro, Saddam Hussein or Slobodan Milosevic making war on the US, but a look at history shows that that type of war can cause as much damages as a more major war.
Against the Tide of Years is a novel of ideas, not of characters or even plot. At the end of the four-hundred plus pages, very little has actually happened, although Stirling does spend quite a bit of time giving the technical information about what the Nantucketters and Walkerites are producing and how they go about doing it. For people who miss the old-time nuts-and-bolts science fiction, Against the Tide of Years may well provide them with what they are looking for.
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