ISLAND IN THE SEA OF TIME
by S.M. Stirling
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
The basic plot of S.M. Stirling's latest novel, Island In the Sea of Time, is relatively straight forward. For unknown reasons and through an unknown agency, the island of Nantucket and everything in the sea around it is transported from March 1998 to sometime around the year 1250 BC. Stirling's islanders, led by Police Chief Jared Cofflin, make do as best they can in the strange circumstances. Fortunately for the Nantucketers, a US Coast Guard vessel, the Eagle, was also caught in the Event.
Stirling brings a large cast of characters to his tale, ranging from the visiting historian Ian Arnstein to the Coast Guard Captain Marian Alston. Each character brings their own viewpoints and abilities to the situation. While many of these characters complement each other, Stirling is aware that no community, even as small as Nantucket's, will remain a cohesive unit under any circumstances. Other characters, such as Lt. Walker and Lisketter bring their own agendas and ambitions to the situation, often with catastrophic results for the colony.
One of the strengths of the novel is the realistic portrayal of the characters. Island In the Sea of Time does not contain any Smithian or Heinleinian superheroes who rarely make mistakes and always learn from those mistakes. All the characters tend to do things which are short-sighted and can't be corrected, and frequently make the same mistakes over when their actions remain consistant with their world view. To the same end, none of the characters has superior knowledge. By choosing Nantucket, which has a rather strange mix of population, Stirling was able to ensure a realistic convergence of skills, mechanical, artisan and even agricultural, which serve the populace well, even if it is not a self-supporting island.
Stirling has several likable characters in his cast, only occasionally resorting to caricature. Although he has ample room to give center stage to most of his characters, there are a few who could stand to take up more space. Most notable among these are Ian Arnstein and Doreen Rosenthal, both of whom will have more substantial roles in the next volume according to Stirling.
If the novel does have a weakness, it is Stirling's attention to detail. Another SF author has noted that when doing research it is important to remember what to use and what to jettison. Unfortunately, Stirling opts to use too much of his research. Scenes about the Eagle or in the machinery shop tend to bog down a little too much as Stirling tries to give the reader the flavor of the area by describing in minute detail the specific processes being followed. Stirling's editor probably could have cut between 1/6 and 1/3 of the length of the book without sacrificing substance.
Island In the Sea of Time can stand on its own, however it is the first of a trilogy dealing with these characters and their strange situation. This give Stirling the opportunity to explore more of his world, which may seem like a strange request given my comment about his long-windedness, but there is enough material for Stirling to write about if he can just avoid allowing too much of his research to show through.
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