Book Review--Island In The Sea Of Time

By: Steve Stirling

A strong book with one near-fatal flaw (and a few smaller ones)

I've been looking forward to reading Island In The Sea Of Time since Steve Stirling started talking about it on Genie well over a year ago. I consider Steve Stirling a very strong alternate history author, though I'm somewhat wary of the way his alternate histories seem to stack the deck in favor of a greater world role for English-speaking people. I finally got the book on Friday, and read it over the weekend. I have mixed emotions about the book. Cut out one stupid and unnecessary subplot and I would rank this book among my list of the top 10 or 20 time travel stories I've read. The subplot takes it off of that list, though I would still recommend it for time travel/alternate history buffs.

Island In The Sea Of Time takes the entire island of Nantucket, plus some of the surrounding ocean, back to about 1300 BC. Stirling does a very good job of setting up believable characters in the island. He also generally does a good job of dealing with the islanders' reactions to what they call "The Event". He has obviously worked very hard to get the technology that would be available to the islanders right, and as far as I can tell he succeeds. The nearby Indians are plausible, though a little more warlike than I would expect from non-agricultural people. I doubt that the Nantucket Islanders would really give up their guns after the event as easily and with as complete compliance as he has them doing, but getting rid of most of the modern firearms helps the plot along quite a bit. I can suspend disbelief on that one.

Sterling's 1300 BC England is plausible as far as I can tell. The natives are real people, just as smart as the Nantucket Islanders and quite capable of seeing the opportunities that contact offers. That's a major plus for the story. His Nantucket and English villains are for the most part quite plausible and thoroughly but realistically nasty. The battle scenes in England are very well done. Stirling has obviously done an incredible amount of research and thinking on the technological issues involved.

So, why did I put the book down about half way through it and almost not pick it up again? Well, to explain that I have to tell you enough about part of the plot that I'm afraid I'll need to issue a spoiler alert before I go on. If you haven't read the book yet, skip the next few paragraphs and just understand that he stacked the deck against the MesoAmerican Indian civilizations in such a way that I simply couldn't suspend disbelief.

Spoiler Alert

This Section Gives Away A Major Plot Twist

I mentioned that a stupid subplot almost spoiled the book for me. It seems that a group of Nantucket Islanders--apparently 60's rejects--decide to help out the American Indians in order to keep them from being overrun by white settlement. They are egged on in this project by one of the villains, who decides that they will make a good distraction for his plot. They steal a ship and head down to Central America to try to bring advancements to the Olmecs. They are able to learn Mayan, navigate a ship to Central America, but they have no clue what Olmec culture is really like, or how to advance it once they get there. I have a little problem with that mixture of cluelessness and capability, but I could suspend disbelief that much.

The Olmecs promptly kill and eat most of this renegade band of islanders. Again, a little unlikely. Historically most Indians were either friendly or carefully watchful toward the first European ship to come their way. The second ship often got attacked for the sins of the first one. Also, while some Central American Indians were cannibals in 1519, that was probably due to the fact that they were very short of protein. The heavy populations had pushed out game animals, and the few domesticated animals (dogs and turkeys) couldn't take up the slack. Large-scale cannibalism may well have developed long after 1300 BC. On the other hand, it's possible that it went back that far. And historically there were culture clashes on first contact. I could buy that much reluctantly and with a little stretching.

What I can't buy is the way the Olmecs are killed off. It seems that one of the Nantucket crazies has a symptom-less case of the mumps. It spreads to the Olmecs, where apparently we are supposed to believe that it kills off a large part of the adult population and sterilizes almost 100% of the surviving males. That in turn totally destroys the Olmecs and aborts the development of MesoAmerican Indian civilizations.

New diseases can be extremely nasty, but I would be very interested in seeing a case where even the most nasty ones destroyed an entire culture area in one epidemic. Yeah, I can think of cases where one Indian tribe, or sometimes even several Indian tribes were destroyed as independent entities by a single epidemic--usually something really nasty like smallpox or measles. But even multiple epidemics of multiple diseases over a period of several decades usually didn't destroy all of the tribes or political groups in an entire culture area. Even in the worst cases a culture area might lose some of the aspects of their culture, but a lot of it survived for centuries, even when Europeans conquered or occupied the area in the wake of the epidemics.

So what would actually happen as a worst case scenario? I could buy 30 percent casualties among adults in the Olmec core area, with the disease hitting some but not all of the surrounding groups. I can even buy a high rate of male sterility--maybe 80-90%. That has a major impact on the culture, but it doesn't come close to destroying it. Historically the Tlaxcallans took 75% population reductions spread over several epidemics between 1519 and the 1560's and were still viable. The male sterility probably wouldn't have that huge of an impact. As long as there were some functional males, a lot more than 10-20% of the women would have children, even in the few years before existing children hit puberty. The groups in the area that couldn't accommodate that process would become weaker, while the ones that could would become stronger. An aggressive group like Stirling's Olmecs would probably kidnap or extort children from surrounding groups to make up for any shortfall.

Even if the entire Olmec culture somehow didn't make it, surrounding groups with a similar though less elaborate culture would flood into the nearly vacant area. They would absorb Olmec survivors and be influenced by those survivors. So, even if I buy a low likelihood case of silent mumps, and even if I buy an extremely high loss rate, I still can't buy the destruction of Olmec culture, and especially not the destruction of the entire MesoAmerican culture area. It simply would not happen.

End Of Spoiler Alert

I finished reading the Olmec subplot, put the book down, and almost didn't pick it up again. In my mind, that subplot erased all of the credibility and goodwill that the first part of the book had generated. I finally did decide to read the rest and I am glad I did. Once the focus shifted back to Nantucket and England, the book was fascinating again. If he had gotten rid of that one subplot this would have been a great book. With the Olmec subplot it is still on-balance a good book. I still recommend it. Just read it with the understanding that even excellent, experienced professional writers are human. They have blind spots. In this case, the blind spot does not totally overshadow the enormous amount of thought and research and talent that went into this book.

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