Stirling - Nantucket Trilogy

March 05, 2005

S.M. Stirling
Island in the Sea of Time (1997)
Against the Tide of Years (1998)
On the Oceans of Eternity (2000)

I read these in early January and just now got around to blogging them. I am running several books behind and need to start writing less and posting faster.

This is a trilogy, and each book has a mighty lot of words in it. It is also a romp, combining the fun of historical fiction (Hi famous_person_number_seventeen) with the fun of a rebuilding narrative.

Like Eric Flint's 1632, which was written later but which I read first, Stirling takes a small community, in this case Nantucket Island, and moves it back in time. A LONG WAY back in time - to the early iron age. He sends the Coast Guard's training ship, the U.S.S. Eagle, along with them, and the Eagle's captain and crew become crucial characters and crucial plot points.

One of the officers decides to strike out on his own, steals a shipload of useful goodies, and the rest of the trilogy is about how the townsmen chase down the renegade in the middle of an iron age turned into an industrial revolution.

Most of the book is a romp, and I only had one big thought while reading it, but it is a doozy even if I am having trouble formulating it.

One of the common threads in alternate history books or in rebuild-from-the-ground-up books or in the-technology-goes-away books is that historians matter because we know what happened before. We matter because we know the people and the background events, and can use that knowledge to change things once the past becomes the lived present due to time travel or other plot devices. We also matter because we know how things were done before the current generation of technological change. And, as a corollary to that, history books matter because they tell the details of all the old stuff.

I am not so sure. I am a 19th century cultural and intellectual historian, so it is not all that surprising that I could not describe for you the differences between ancient Babylonian and ancient Egyptian power structures, or deduce the vocabulary of an iron-age Aryan dialect, or build a steam engine from scratch. And I could, if teamed with a blacksmith or metalworker, probably help them work out the best way to turn a pile of car parts into a wheeled plow with cutting strake and moldboard. But that is not what most historians do, and it is not the level of detail contained in the books in most high school libraries. It is flattering, in a way, to be told by these literary genres that historians know everything and that everything we don't know is tidily contained in your average high school library, but I am not sure that the reality can live up to those expectations.

And so to go read about the civil religion of the founders.

Posted by Red Ted at March 5, 2005 10:59 AM
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