Island in the Sea of Time: A fun time-travel survival story

S.M. Stirling Nantucket Series 1. Island in the Sea of Time 2. Against the Tide of Years 3. On the Oceans of EternityS.M. Stirling Nantucket Series 1. Island in the Sea of TimeIsland in the Sea of Time by S.M. Stirling

After a strange electrical storm, the residents of Nantucket discover that their entire island and its surrounding waters have been sent back to 1300 B.C. Now this society, which is mostly based on a tourist economy, must figure out how to establish a new identity in prehistory. This includes clearing and farming land, building ships, finding new sources of fuel, salt, and other necessities, and most difficult of all, developing a constitution and befriending native trading partners.

Fortunately, Nantucket has some citizens with valuable knowledge and skills who find themselves naturally rising to leadership positions: a brave and competent Baptist police chief, a widely-read and level-headed librarian, a black lesbian ship captain, a history professor, an astronomy student, the manager of the local grocery store, and a Catholic priest.

But of course there are also some citizens who cause problems: the church whose pastor teaches that sending Nantucket back in time was Satan’s plan to prevent the birth of Christ, and the “flake-and-nut contingent” who want to arm the natives so they’ll never be oppressed by future Americans. Then there’s the biggest threat of all — the ambitious Coast Guard Lieutenant William Walker who sees all this confusion as an opportunity to set up his very own kingdom.

I have a thing for time-travel novels — especially the Survivor-style stories in which modern people are forced to live in more uncivilized and unsophisticated times. Island in the Sea of Time has the added fun of actually having modern conveniences but not having the power or fuel to run them. Thus, the people of Nantucket must disassemble their cars for sheet metal while raiding their museums for whaling and milling antiques.

There’s more to this story than survival and industrial revolution, though. Island in the Sea of Time is full of characters who feel like real people — people you might actually know. For the most part their relationships and romances are believable and understandable as former strangers work together to create a new society. The villains, however, are over-the-top. It’s hard to believe in the doctor’s sadism, William Walker’s vast knowledge and foresight, and the granola crowds’ naiveté (their leader is shocked that the natives are “sexist,” “patriarchal,” and “abusive of animals” and that they don’t immediately trust the Americans).

At times, Island in the Sea of Time becomes a bit teachy as characters discuss token economies, division of labor, ship building, linguistics, farming techniques, iron casting, steam engines, canning, the production of gunpowder, the use and care of firearms, etc. And it gets a little preachy as they discuss the creation of a new constitution. But generally I thought S.M. Stirling did a good job with this aspect of the book.

I read the audio version of Island in the Sea of Time, narrated by Todd McLaren and produced by Tantor Audio. The best thing I can say about it is that I mostly forgot I was listening to an audiobook — McLaren’s voices and cadences were so natural that they never called attention to themselves. The only time I was brought out of the story was when McLaren used his “Boston” voice for the U. Mass astronomy intern. But that’s not McLaren’s fault…

Island in the Sea of Time comes to a satisfactory end, but most readers will be eager to continue the islanders’ advances and adventures in the next book in S.M. Stirling’s Nantucket series: Against the Tide of Years.


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KAT HOOPER is a professor at the University of North Florida where she teaches neuroscience, psychology, and research methods courses. She occasionally gets paid to review scientific textbooks, but reviewing speculative fiction is much more fun. Kat lives with her husband and their children in Jacksonville Florida.

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2 comments

  1. I liked the premise of that book a ton and some of the ideas he used about technology transfer between modern day and the time they were moved to. I didn’t like many of the characters….which for me is the kiss of death for a series.

  2. I see your point John. You are right that even though the characters are realistic and understandable (except I mentioned that the villains are over-the-top), there aren’t any that you fall in love with. If there had been, I’d probably have started the sequel immediately because the premise is so compelling. If I read the sequel, it’s because I want to find out how the civilization advances — I’m definitely not attached to any of the characters.

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