Monday, November 05, 2007

Stirling : Against The Tide Of Years

Title : Against The Tide Of Years (1999)
Author : S.M. Stirling
Genre : Alternate History (454 pages)
Rating : B+

This Month I Read...
ATTOY is the second part of Stirling's "Nantucket" trilogy, where that island gets zapped from present-day back to the 1250 B.C. Bronze Age. Volume One (Island In The Sea Of Time) was previously reviewed. ATTOY takes place 8-10 years after IITSOT. The bad guys have been building up an empire in the Mediterranean. The good guys have been sailing all over the globe, have turned the British Isles into an oasis of civilization, have started Lewis-&-Clarking the North American continent, and have decided it's time to have a showdown with the bad guys.

What's To Like...
Like IITSOT, this is a fast-paced, action-packed book. The good guys go courting the Babylonians as allies (well, the Akkadians, actually) in an out-flanking maneuver. After disposing of the nasty Assyrians, they also go wooing the Hittites and the Trojans. How's that for some non-stereotypical allies?

Unlike Clive Cussler novels, bad things happen to the good guys. The Nantucket naval fleet runs smack-dab into a hurricane (with devastating results). The Babylonian venture is jeopardized by an outbreak of small-pox. The native priests blame it on the foreigners, and they might be right. It's never quite clear exactly how the outbreak started.

Meanwhile, the bad guys are actually doing some smart (and good) things. They overrun Sicily, they set up a fortified city at the straits of Gibraltar, and they reward some of their slaves by freeing them after years of faithful service.

In short, the two sides are very equally balanced.

What's Not To Like...
The plot loses just a bit of steam in ATTOY, but that's inherent in the middle book of any trilogy, including Tolkien's The Two Towers.

The same minor irritations from IITSOT carry over - Stirling's penchant for the emptying of the bowels as people die in battle, the excruciatingly tedious details about the science of sailing, etc. And now, about 25% of the political hero's vocabulary seems to consist of one word : "Ayup!"

Finally, unlike Volume One, there isn't any great big climax to close out Volume Two. The tension builds, the two forces meet on the plains of Ilium, and... um... and it's time to buy Volume Three.

Why Theology And Time-Travel Don't Mix...
Stirling isn't a big one to go into the theological implications of dropping a bunch of Yankee Christians back into 1250 B.C. The good guys allow the proselytizing of the Bronze Age England natives, and Stirling touches briefly on the fact that inroads are made. It's never clear if the natives comprehend the dogma, or if they merely accept the gods simply because they came with the conquering heroes.

Which got me to thinking - just how would one go about preaching the Gospel? Do you ask the barbarians to accept Jesus as their Saviour, when He's not going to show up for another 12½ centuries? And if you die before He does show up (which is a certainty), exactly what happens to you? Do you get a "Get Into Heaven Early" pass? Do you get to sleep for 1250 years (putting Rip Van Winkle to shame)? And do you make a note to interfere with Biblical history in the future, to make the Gospel story come out different? Did God zap these blokes back 300 years as some sort of cosmic joke, or did He have a purpose? Or perhaps this is all better explained as being an example of the Butterfly Effect.

But I digress. ATTOY is still a good read, albeit not quite up to the lofty standards of IITSOT. Despite being a bit anticlimactic, you'll still want to immediately start into the 630 pages of Volume Three, to make sure Good does triumph over Evil. This is still the best Alt-History I've read so far.

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