One of my all-time favourite alternate history (alt-hist) series is The Nantucket Trilogy by S.M. Stirling, also known as the Islander trilogy. The Nantucket/Islander books are: Island in The Sea of Time, Against the Tide of Years, and On the Oceans of Eternity.
The island of Nantucket, USA, is suddenly struck by a mysterious “Event,” which separates it from its time and plunges it back, with its entire population of around 5,000 citizens (which includes tourists and vacationers) several thousands of years into the past. Specifically, the Bronze Age, or what’s popularly identified as the age of Troy (as in the recent film of the same name).
Like all alt-Hist novels, Island in the Sea of Time doesn’t dwell on how the Event was caused, or the scientific phenomenon behind it—even the Islanders never find out—but on the consequences of that Event and how the main characters deal with it.
And what fun it is!
First off, the Islanders are scared stiff at the challenges they’re faced with, bereft of the 20th century and its luxuries, comforts, and support systems.
They’re geographically still in continental America (or to be precise, just off the coast, since they’re on an island—which is probably the reason why the Event cut them off)—but the land is a wilderness overrun by the ancestors of what they know as Native Americans.
After a period of struggling to come to terms with their new situation, during which phase different Islanders react in widely different ways—some commit suicide, others become lawless criminals, still others rise to the occasion and take charge of the crisis and restore order and sanity—they start to realize that they’re here to stay. And since this is now their world, they had better start preparing and planning for the future. This means building ships and exploring the world, seeking out potential allies (and potential enemies), trading for things they need but don’t possess, like certain crops and herbs and raw materials.
Inevitably, as in any end-of-the-world tale, two factions emerge, one faction the Good Guys, the other the Bad Guys. (It is an American novel, after all!)
The Bad Guys are led by Walker, who sees the opportunity to rule the whole world, using his superior technological knowledge, and his knowledge of warfare, to build an Empire. By the end of the first book, Walker and his team break away from the Islanders and start their own quest to build an Empire.
Over the next two books, this quest becomes a race to gain allies and conquer territories, using 20th-century weaponry and technology (and helped along by a knowledge of the history of the period) to build not one, but two separate American Empires across the otherwise barbaric world. (Boy, Bush would wet his pants in joy!)
S.M. Stirling uses brilliant research—the books are filled with piles of detail, yet the details never overwhelm or bore you—and amazing characterization, to weave a story that’s exciting, suspenseful, action-packed (there are wars and battles galore), as well as profoundly moving and emotionally touching. He even weaves in philosophy and morality, raising the key questions of American empirical ambitions. At times, the series offers fascinating insights into the mindset of the country that’s trying so hard to dominate the world by any means possible right here and now.
One of the most entertaining elements of the Nantucket books is the manner in which the Islanders shrewdly mingle with the various cultures of the time—all of which, to repeat, are thoroughly researched and portrayed with impressive accuracy—and manipulate, control, and motivate them, using whatever means necessary, be it trade, bribery, coercion, or, as a last resort, open warfare.
Sound familiar? That’s right. At times, it reads like a contemporary account of American “handling” of various foreign situations, be it in the South Americas, South East Asia, Africa, or, as now, West Asia.
Stirling’s strength lies in his characters, all of which are not just credible, but interesting, whether they’re a tough-as-nails coastguard captain and her native consort, or Walker and his main associate, a devilish Dr Hong who is an upfront psychotic who loves to torture people, as well as manage Walker’s medical and health governance. I can’t even begin to list all the characters here, but trust me, none are boring.
And these fascinating characters have lots of interesting things to do, crises to face. From lion hunts to charging elephants, to wild savages, to skirmishes, ambushes, outright battles—these last are most exciting because of the mixture of technology, bullets versus arrows, 20th-century tactics versus classic ancient-world strategies, intrigue and espionage, politicking and karma, and through it all, the constant theme of “controlling or being controlled.”
Stirling may not endorse his characters’ politics but the recurring theme in the books (and several of his other books as well) is that of US Joe Everyman, Mr Typical Red-Blooded American, adrift in a hostile world filled with savage non-Americans.
He tempers this by disclaiming with the familiar quote from SF author Larry Niven (also known for his jingoistic character, and equally entertaining hard SF novels): “There is a technical term for anyone who thinks that a fictional character’s biases and prejudices are those of the author’s; that technical term is: ‘idiot’.” And to a large extent, Niven’s Law does apply to Stirling’s marvelously inventive novels—but if you’ve read as many of them as I have, then you will probably wonder as I did why all his novels feature such characters. And don’t tell me that only bigoted racist rednecks make for interesting protagonists, because that’s not just a cop-out, it’s a whole different bias in its own right!
But as I said before, if you can get past that… Then, you’ll certainly find, as I did, that this is not just a hugely entertaining and informative trilogy, it’s a brilliant exercise of the intellect and imagination. A must-read.
After the success of the Nantucket trilogy, Stirling also wrote a one-off alt-hist book titled Conquistador.
Conquistador is nowhere near as good as the Nantucket trilogy, because, although it has some exciting action sequences, it goes so heavily overboard on the US-versus-Them imbalance that it gets too much to take at times. Even though you know that Stirling obviously isn’t a racist bigot as some of his characters, the fact is that those racist bigots happen to be the protagonists of the story, and there’s only so much time you can spend in the mindset of such persons.
If you read and like the Nantucket books, Conquistador is worth a dekho too. [Ed: That's a "look," for the dialect-impaired.] If nothing else, it’s got terrific action sequences. In a way, it’s more of a “military alt-hist” novel than the Islander/Nantucket books, and in that context, even the bigotry actually makes sense.
Stirling’s other one-off alt-hist book is much better, especially for Indian readers or those interested in these climes: It’s titled The Peshawar Lancers. This time he jumps forward in time, to a period some fifty years ahead, but in a somewhat changed scenario. What happened is: in the year 1878, a meteor strike wiped out most of the northern hemisphere, forcing most British and Europeans to move eastwards. Here, the British Empire still rules.
And here the recurring theme of Stirling’s work assumes new meaning, because he attempts for the first time to get into the skin (and mind) of several non-western, non-bigoted characters, including a Sikh, a British soldier sympathetic to regional sentiments, a Jew, and others.
And he fails quite badly, I’m sorry to say. Not only because these characters never truly come alive off the page, but the entire novel bogs down and never escapes a certain wordy satirical tone, almost as if he started out with a great concept (“What if Kipling wrote an alternate history novel about the British Raj in the future?”) but couldn’t really figure out how to expand it further.
Hey, maybe it’s just the absence of his “George Bush” staple, “I’m an Americano and I’m Here To Conquer/Save/Slave Da World” protagonist that makes this one stay dead in the water. But I still think it’s a noble effort and worth a dekho.
But if you liked the Nantucket books as I did and are looking for more like that, then, I’d strongly recommend you try Stirling’s new series next. And I’m loving it so far! I’ve read only the first book of the new series, titled Dies the Fire, and the second is due to be published shortly, as of this writing.
I can recommend it as highly as the Nantucket novel. In this, Stirling does something truly ingenious and clever: He reverses his “camera” and shows us what happened to another community after the same Event that split Nantucket Island off from the 20th century. Except that here it’s called the “Change” and the consquences are totally different.
Again, he explores the notions of survival and then, supremacy, recurring themes in all his work. (They’re also the recurrent themes in most alt-hist books, as well as in, you guessed it, history itself. After all, as is well known, history is written by the victors: “I came, I saw, I wrote the history!”)
The second book, The Protector’s War, is just out, and I can’t wait to read it. On that as well as the third untitled book—I assume it’s going to be a trilogy and not an endless series—which is due out next year, I’ll report back in more detail.
But next, I’m going to chat a bit about another hugely entertaining alt-hist author, one with a much better-balanced worldview (and interestingly, somewhat less action-packed and interesting) than Stirling. Am I concluding that in order for an alt-hist to be a really fun read, it must have a bigoted protagonist and an American empirical worldview?
Well, if history is written by the victors, and that’s why so many books, history as well as alt-hist, are victor-oriented, then maybe it’s not so strange that their stories are the most interesting. After all, who wants to read about losers, right? Except that it’s not so simple. History, and good alt-hist as well, is far more complex. And this next author captures that complexity with admirable skill and talent, even if he doesn’t deliver the slambang action that Stirling and other authors, like Eric Flint, for instance, do.
After all, it’s not for nothing that he’s called the “Master of Alternate History.”
…to be continued in Part III tomorrow.
Part I is here.