ON THE OCEANS OF ETERNITY
by S.M. Stirling
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
On the Oceans of Eternity is the third, and at the moment final, installment in S.M. Stirling’s time travel sequence, although in the current age of publishing it is dangerous to assume that the series won’t be continued at some point in the future. In this particular series, Stirling has sent the island of Nantucket back five thousand years.
Although Stirling incorporates an enormous cast of characters, ranging from the Nantucketters to indigenous characters from a variety of different areas, all of the characters seem to either agree with Stirling’s (and each other’s) viewpoint or disagree with it. Those who disagree are portrayed as evil, while those who agree are almost entirely altruistic, with few intervening shades of gray. None of the characters are likable, or even interesting, with the possible exception of William Walker (interesting, not likable). Most of them have found themselves in relationships which seem pro forma rather than based on any actual emotional bond.
Instead of focusing on the characters, Stirling seems to have decided to focus on the details of the world. Unfortunately, in doing so, he tends to slow down the action rather than bring verisimilitude to the world. About 100 pages into the book, he spends several lengthy paragraphs explaining Pete Giernas’s decisions concerning the butchering of an elk. This type of detail doesn’t add much to the story and slows it down. The inclusion of extraneous information has been a problem throughout the trilogy. That said, many of Stirling’s fans have expressed that they enjoy this level of detail.
Mixed in with the agonizing details and flat relationships, Stirling includes a variety of intriguing ideas and plenty of military action, ranging from a recreation of O’Rourke’s Ford to Armageddon. During these battles, Stirling’s attention to detail takes on a new significance, focusing on the tactics and strategies which influence the outcome. The war between Walker and the Nantucketters could be recreated as easily as any conflict in the real world.
While Stirling’s individuals do not always seem to be particularly realistic, he has done a much better job creating cultures. Some of these, such as the Assyrians or the Hittites, are firmly based on historical research, while others, such as the Tartessians or the Fiernans, appear to be created by Stirling based on some historical precedents but much speculations. All live in equally believable and complex societies.
Stirling has provided clues that On the Oceans of Eternity will not be the final work in this sequence. So far, he has avoided any definite conclusions about what actually happened to the Nantucketters and, more interesting, what happened to the world they left. Does it still exist in some timeline wondering what happened to Nantucket? Did it completely cease to exist, to be replaced by a lineal descendent of the history influenced by the misplaced persons? Such issues could form further novels to which Stirling could bring fresh speculations.
On the Oceans of Eternity end the initial foray into this strange past Stirling has created. For readers with an interest in the minutiae of warfare, survival and mechanics, On the Oceans of Eternity and the previous novels are a good read. Readers more interested in seeing the relationships of the people with each other and to their changed circumstances will find themselves disappointed that Stirling didn’t do more in these areas.
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