Home / S.M. Stirling’s Nantucket Trilogy: Alternate History Part II

S.M. Stirling’s Nantucket Trilogy: Alternate History Part II

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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&#8212even the Islanders never find out&#8212but 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&#8212which is probably the reason why the Event cut them off)&#8212but 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&#8212some commit suicide, others become lawless criminals, still others rise to the occasion and take charge of the crisis and restore order and sanity&#8212they 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&#8212the books are filled with piles of detail, yet the details never overwhelm or bore you&#8212and 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&#8212all of which, to repeat, are thoroughly researched and portrayed with impressive accuracy&#8212and 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&#8212these 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&#8212but 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&#8212I assume it’s going to be a trilogy and not an endless series&#8212which 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.
Edited: PC

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  • Andrew Secrest

    Speaking of India, Nantucket, wars, colonialism and non-violent revolutions (which were not actually mentioned, but perhaps should have been, especially in relation to India)… I know that *military* alt-hist is SMS’s specialty of sorts, but here’s an intriguing thought: What about non-violent and/or pacifist social change? SMS comments on the lack of Quakers on modern-day Nantucket, which is true enough (I know for a fact that there were only one or two Quakers living year-round on the Island as of 1990). But there are rather more Quakers in present-day England and Oregon, including George Fox University in Newburg, OR, which offers degrees in peace and conflict studies. You might think they would show up in the Change series, since Quakers, like the Amish, would be fairly comfortable adapting to a low-tech future, as well as believing and teaching that violence is not necessary to make people safe even from violent opponents. What if a leader like Gandhi were to arise in post-Change Oregon? Would she/he challenge some of SMS’s assumptions? Many Wiccans are familiar with Quakers as one of the only Christian groups to have opposed the persecution of witches. I must admit this is just wishful speculation. I have only just finished reading the Nantucket trilogy, and I am just starting _Dies the Fire_. But interesting speculation, n’est-ce pas? There is a documentary called _A Force More Powerful_ which points out that much of the social change in the 20th Century was brought about by non-violent methods inspired by Gandhi, even though most of the people involved, interestingly enough, were not pacifists.

  • Capt.George Eller

    Please tell me there will be more islander books,,,remember Althea Walker.. is still on the loose….THANKS..Capt.George…

  • That should have read “1.5 million” Indians.

  • “I know it took a long time to get from one to the other.”

    Actually, it didn’t. But intervening was a long period of European invasion and conquest (under the guise of trade agreements) and what really took long was getting these latter invaders to leave. As for the Moghuls, or their latter-day descendants, the substantial population of Indian muslims, they’re extremely well integrated and very much a part of our culture then and now. As are the sizable number of Christian Indians. It was only the British and Europeans who were unwilling by and large to integrate, unlike the Muslims who did, and had to be forced to ‘quit India’. And it was only after they had been exhausted by two successive World Wars (and the equally gruelling Boer Wars)–by the way, over 1.5 Indians fought for the Allies and died in WWII–that they relinquished their stranglehold on this ‘colony’ and packed their bags. And it was only after they left that we were able to rebuild ourselves and craft the world’s largest democracy.

  • Actually, I didn’t bring up the American issue, the books did!

    “Is India a better place under a democracy, or under the Moghuls?”

    A strange question! It’s like asking any person if his country would be better under invaders and conquerors, or as a free democratic republic–the largest democracy in the world, and one of the healthiest democracies where we certainly don’t elect a governing head and then have half the nation claiming that he doesn’t speak for us, the way the US population keeps carping about the “Bush adminstration”. India is definitely very happy being free, thank you. And being one of the last bastions of freedom and peace in these war-mongering times.

  • SFC Ski

    IT’s great hat SMS has created a race like the Draka, humans you can’t (admit being able to) relate to. THe Draka are a fascinating but horrifying people.

    SMS’s books show that the thin veneer of civilization allows some to overcome their surroundings, and others will readily abandon it if thrown into a more brutal past.

    I wish that he’d written more in the Peshawar Lancers series, I can still hope.

    As for the US vs. them mentality, as above, some Americans would probably accept the situation of being thrown into a brutal past, others would resist it and work to bring about change. I am sure that a modern Indian would probably do the same, but SMS is an American, he writes from an American perspective. Sure we’re discussing fiction but you brought the American issue up.

    Is India a better place under a democracy, or under the Moghuls? I know it took a long time to get from one to the other. I did not know that Jews had fled to India during WWII, though it makes sense. I’ve made it as far as the Iranian border, hopefully someday soon I can finally get to India.

  • Stu Shiffman wrote:
    “Maybe it’s me, with my liberal Jewish bias, but a racist oligarchic and techno-totalitatian state is not what I want to read about (or live in). It is curious how many of these hierarchical societies that Stirling writes about.”

    No, it’s not just you. The Draka books don’t have the restraint and somewhat more balanced mix of characters that Stirling’s later series do. It is curious that he returns repeatedly to these themes, isn’t it? I suppose I’m sensitised to them as well as I grew up in a neighbourhood of Bombay called Byculla which had a substantial population of European Jews–over 300,000–all refugees from German-occupied countries in WWII. Many of my friends were Jewish, and I studied in a Jewish school, my best friend was a rabbi and I even visited the synagogue and kept the Shabbath fast often! So I grew up hearing many stories and understanding such chauvinism at its core. Today, almost all of Bombay’s Jews have moved on to Israel (I’m still in touch with a few) but it’s a strong reminder that we’re all part of the historical stream and choose to stand on one bank or the other.

    Well, at least here we’re just discussing fiction!

    (By the way, I don’t know how I could not mention Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula series–wonderful, baroque stuff!)

  • One of the interesting bits about The Peshawar Lancers is that Steve has taken characters from Talbot Mundy’s fiction (King of the Khyber Rifles and others) and extrapolated the characters as existing in his alternate history world. They’re all there, the King family, the Sikhs, Jews and “babus” (if you’ll excuse the expression). It’s rather like the way that Kim Newman used characters from Dracula and other Victorian fiction in his alt hist Anno Dracula, or William Gibson and Bruce Sterling in The Difference Engine used characters from one of Benjamin Disraeli’s novels.

    I personally found the Draka series, er, interesting although personally repellant. Maybe it’s me, with my liberal Jewish bias, but a racist oligarchic and techno-totalitatian state is not what I want to read about (or live in). It is curious how many of these hierarchical societies that Stirling writes about.

  • H. L. Mencken

    “He shares that quality with H.L. Mencken, then…”

    I resemble that remark!


  • me too, Thanks RJ, and Dr. Pat. I thought I had the correct closing tag, but evidently not. Yikes.

  • Thanks, RJ! Mary, The closing italics tag is:

    < /i>

    Without the space, of course… You had the slash on the other side of the I.

  • RJ

    Okay, fixed! 🙂

  • RJ


  • RJ

    Fixed, I hope…

  • Doh! It’s Katherine with a “K” Neville, I messed up in my earlier comment. Sorry!

  • >Even Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code

    Now that’s the book the Pope reads when he’s in the mood for some good horror fiction, right? :~)

    Never read Catherine Neville, Mary. Thanks for pointing me to a new author!

  • excuse my exuberance with the italics. Not so good at the manual use of the html tags.grr!

  • Ashok and Dr. Pat:
    Good points, both of you. I have not read Brown’s book yet (DaVinci Code), but it reminded me of some novels I have read by Catherine Neville, The Magic Circle, and The Eight. I suppose these would be classified as historical fiction? Anyway I enjoyed them both, and I think part of the appeal is the mixing of real history as a setting for an author’s plots and characters.

  • I love alt-history BECAUSE I love history. I find that viewing it from a slightly different perspective — even a fictional one — makes it much easier to comprehend such an interconnected and broad-based subject.

    Even Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code has a place in that mix. Not that I’ve read it, mind you, just that it has a place there.


  • Hey Mary, a lot of history isn’t distinguishable from fiction, some would say – although Steve Stirling and I might disagree on which is which! But I get where you’re coming from and love my fiction fix too. The thing is, when it comes to a book, as in a self-contained world that exists unto itself with only a tenuous psychological connection to reality, how much does it matter whether what we’re reading and enjoying is based on something that really happened, or just made-up stuff? To me, it’s how real it is on the page that matters in the end, which is why newspapers and TV can be just plain boring or depressing, or worse, whereas only really good fiction can bring you closer to reality the way hard news or even non-fiction never can. So hold your fiction-loving head up high!

  • I am woefully under-read. Or at least in the genre of history, ‘alt’ or otherwise. I tend to be more of a fiction person, nothing like a good chick-lit (like Keyes) or horror (King or Koontz)to get you through the day. ‘cours, that’s just IMHO. Anyway, this isn’t about my personal favorites, so I’ll surrend the thread back to those who want to talk alt-history.

  • Hey Mary, haven’t read the Heinlein but it sounds interesting. A bit like the John Travolta film, White Man’s Burden. Of course, Turtledove has explored the race question quite effectively in his Great War series and other books, where the African American population turns Marxist and starts their own revolution in the midst of the Civil War. And there’s an interesting, but not really successful alt-hist novel by an African American author that I haven’t read, but which looks at a world where the black-white equation is reversed as well. And of course, there’s Kim Stanley Robinson’s Years of Rice and Salt.

    For what it’s worth, I’ve never been to Nantucket either, nor to the ‘other’ other island. But hey, I saw the Taj Mahal finally, a couple years ago, at 39, so I done that, been there at least!

  • LOL< I forgot why I started reading this post, I was attracted to the "Nantucket" in the title. I've been to Martha's Vineyard several times, but never to the 'other' island off Cape Cod. This will be on my list of things to do before I die, right up there with seeing U2 in concert and meeting Adam Vinatieri (New England Patriots) - among other very worthy goals. : )

  • The idea of a group or society thrust into a new/changed existance reminds me somewhat Robert Heinlein’s “Farnham’s Freehold”. My brain is a bit, um, caffeine deprived, and I can barely remember the story, let alone explain the gist of it — but I remember a real shift, an upheavel really of what the protagonist (Farnham) is used to. Basically it’s an alternative society where whites are slaves – and this all takes place after a nuclear ‘event’. (just borrowing the word from this post *smile*). I havn’t read it in prolly 20 years or more, it’d be interesting to give it another read.

  • He shares that quality with H.L. Mencken, then…

  • RJ

    SMS is not afraid of attacking his readers, if they attack his books online.

    He’s not being intentionally rude. He’s just a real pedant when it comes to interpreting his writings the “correct” way…

  • We all carry that baggage of what we know from history — it’s why you rarely read a book (or see movies) where the aliens are truly alien. Like Suzette Hadin Elgin trying to write about a completely artificial feminine language in Native Tongue, the author must provide recognizable referents.

    Going down that road, therefore, you could argue that all SF is a kind of alt-hist. I don’t advise it: It’s an unnecessary trip!

  • Dr Pat wrote:
    > had just finished reading Frezza’s series that starts with A Small Colonial War, about a truly-skewed alt-hist future Earth, with a Japanese empire deeply embroiled in a Boer War. I thought VMR might be more of the same.

    And that reminds me (my book-memory is like the ‘keychain’ function in Mac OS X) of Walter Hunt’s military SF novels, that are about an Earth-based US empire battling an alien race that’s patently based on the Japanese. In a way, it’s almost alt-hist dressed as military SF, but since it doesn’t claim to be alt-hist, it gets away with many differentials. I wondered while reading it what would have happened if Hunt had actually called it ‘alt-hist’ and hewed closer to the historical record.

    Then again, it probably wouldn’t have worked as SF as well as it did, and the US-Japanese contrast could have turned out repulsively racist in tone, so I guess it was all for the best.

  • S.M. Stirling wrote:
    >– you’re rather missing the point here.

    Actually, Mr Stirling, you’re the one missing the point. I *like* your work. Hell, more than like, I’m a fan. I’ve even written you twice before but for some reason you never replied, which is fine by me, because I still like your books every bit as much. May I suggest, gently, that you accept that there are people out there who have their own pov’s regarding books (just as I, as the author of 20+ books, have readers who have their own pov’s regarding my books) and just let it go at that?

    Dr Pat: Thanks for pointing out that very important detail: Yes, the reason we read ‘alt-hist’ is because we have some interest in history itself, and so the author of an alt-hist novel enters into an unspoken contract with the reader to take his existing ‘baggage’ as you put it, of existing historical records, and then play with them intellectually through the medium of story telling. So it’s quite pointless hammering home your view that the ‘British’ soldiers in Peshawar Lancers aren’t ‘British’ at all. I know what you’ve done in the novel, but I also read the sub-text, that unwritten contract that is off the page.

    And in the end, hell, as long as I read your novels and loved them to bits and am saying so, well, hey, man, I’m entitled to your opinion–just as you’re entitled to your novels! You’ve already won this battle–you’ve written the books. Now, just sit back and let us chat about it, however ineptly we may be at it. Sloppy as we are, we are your readers, sir. Like the current hit Hindi film song goes, “Just chill, chill, just chill…”

  • >That was before I discovered “VMR” meant “Vampire Master Race.” Goofy, but good!

    Sounds interesting. Must look that up. (More for my endless must-read list!) Reminds me of…hmm, Brian Lumley’s Necroscope series. Or maybe not?

    I think the Domination books have been reissued (or are about to be) in one of those massive hardcover omnibus editions that Baen has started putting out. But I’ll check out the first book in mm pbk first and see if I like it. Thank your wife for the recommendation!

  • I once received a letter from an author who objected to the directions my musings took after I read one of her books. I framed the letter, but profoundly disagree with her premise.

    I read alternate history because I like the way it illuminates “real” (equally fictional, but widely accepted) history. If the writer didn’t intend his characters to be taken as examples of real historic actors on a slightly different stage, he would write a totally different setting.

    By borrowing history to stage his story, the author agrees, as it were, to acquire the baggage already carried by his reader’s knowledge of that history.

  • S.M. Stirling

    >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.

    — you’re rather missing the point here. There are no British characters in “The Peshawar Lancers”; the Angrezi characters are no more British than the Mughals or their sub-Mughal successors were actually Mongols.

    Some of their _ancestors_ were British; they themselves are an Indian ethnic group, sort of neo-Rajputs.

    In that timeline, Britain is a remote colony ruled from Delhi, and its inhabitants are looked down on as bumpkins of questionable, and rather ‘unclean’ origins.

  • Just what I needed — more books on my must-read list! [grin]

    My spouse is deeply enamoured of the Draka Domination series. I read the first two, and went on to other things. Like The VMR Theory by Robert Frezza.

    I had just finished reading Frezza’s series that starts with A Small Colonial War, about a truly-skewed alt-hist future Earth, with a Japanese empire deeply embroiled in a Boer War. I thought VMR might be more of the same.

    That was before I discovered “VMR” meant “Vampire Master Race.” Goofy, but good!

  • >Draka is the same conflict transposed to us-versus-aliens.

    Is that just plain us-versus-aliens, or US-versus-aliens?


  • Haven’t read the Draka books yet. Are they as good as the Islander series?

    Flashman! Hoo, what a terrific read. Historian Peter Hopkins has a great trio of books about the Great Game, starting with a book of the same name. They’re all absolute must-reads if you’ve read Flashman or have any interest in that period of history.

  • S.M. Stirling’s other SF is conquest-focused, too — I’m not sure you can point at Conquistador or the Nantucket Trilogy as revealing anything about history, when Draka is the same conflict transposed to us-versus-aliens.

    That said, I loved Conquistador and The Peshawar Lancers. After I read the latter, I got out George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman in the Great Game [ASIN: 0452263034] Fraser’s Flashman was my original encounter with alt-hist written from a comedic, rather than conquest-centric, view.