Review: The Nantucket Trilogy by S.M. Stirling

Review: The Nantucket Trilogy by S.M. Stirling

I’ve finally finished S.M. Stirling’s Nantucketer series of books, which is actually older than his Changeverse books (Dies the Fire is the first one of that trilogy) that I read first.

While I prefer the Changeverse—Stirling has refined his craft—I liked the Nantucket series. (And let’s not forget that they are narratively linked, but not in a substantive way; you don’t need to read one to enjoy the other.)

Let’s get my complaints out of the way: First and foremost, the publisher did a terrible job. There were way too many grammatical and typographical errors that should have been caught by the editor. For example, a secondary character’s name changed spelling from one book to the next— “Pete Girenas” became “Pete Giernas”— and this wasn’t just an isolated change; it was consistently one way in one book and another way in the next. There were other annoyances like that.

Stylistically, Stirling has a habit of jumping around through time in his narrative. One part of the story that takes place over a few days will be broken up and spread out among other narrative sections that occur over months. Others will remain consistently out of time: You’ll jump from October to December to next April and back to November and then to December again. This would be less confusing if these sections had the date and location to start them off. Instead, the author or the editor or publisher decided to put them all at the beginning of the chapter, like so, (with location names removed to keep from spoiling the story):

May 11 A.E.—{Location 1}
June 11 A.E.—{Location 2}
December 10 A.E.—{Location 3}
September 11 A.E.—{Location 4}
June 11 A.E.—{Location 5}
September 11 A.E.—{Location 4 again}

The what-if questions

Okay, now for the good. Stirling is obviously interested in the “what-if” questions, as in “What if a group of 20th-century Americans and their entire community were thrown back in time 3,000 years?” Throw in the Coast Guard’s tall ship USCGS Eagle for good measure and what would happen? Obviously, the first step is basic survival. An island community like Nantucket relies on the mainland for much of its needs, including fuel, food, and the like. Then there’s the human toll: How would people adapt to being cut off from the world they know and forced to live in the Bronze Age?

Some wouldn’t be able to handle it at all and would end their lives. Some would try to translate their flawed notions of the “noble” savages of the time into present actions with predictably disastrous consequences. Others would have delusions of grandeur, believing their knowledge could bring them power and wealth. Others would simply want to make a new life for the families. This is the story of how these people—most of them hardy and hardcore Yankees thrown in with a ship full of Coast Guardsmen and cadets—make it work by using their ingenuity and technology and hard work to bear. After ten years, they’ve about reached the mid-19th century in their reconstruction efforts, which isn’t bad.

What’s especially interesting is seeing how Stirling imagines the Bronze Age cultures—Babylon, Egypt, Trojan War-era Greeks, and the precursors of the Celts in the British Isles all react and adapt to the appearance of these people out of the West. Stirling doesn’t insult our intelligence or theirs by making them ignorant savages incapable of learning that technology and science are not magic, but he also respects the changes in man and his approach to the world around him over three millennia. I’d say it’s even educational, especially since Stirling is obviously a good researcher who knows his stuff.

Characters

I’m still bemused by his obvious fascination with lesbians. As in the Changeverse, lesbians are prominently featured and quite often, while homosexuals—although present occasionally—are not nearly as visible. Frankly, the major lesbian character could just as easily have been a man without much harm to the overall story, especially since the character being a lesbian did not add much. I think it would have been less of a distraction and could have added another element of contrast with the primary antagonist.

The antagonists are once again not cardboard-cutouts, but are fleshed out. A man may be evil in thought and deed and yet be kind to his children and treat his trusted servants well. I believe Stirling made a decision to show how an ordinary 20th-century man or woman with average character flaws and quietly debauched proclivities could blossom, if you will, in the right environment to become legendarily evil. It’s not a bad exploration of the concept of “There but for the grace of God go I.”

Stirling’s main interest in these novels seems to be the exploration of a new world more than the telling of epic tales. That’s not a criticism per se. The epic tales themselves are worth telling and enjoyable, but it seems like they come second to the more interesting task of “world-building”. This has it’s most visible consequence in the abruptness of how his stories end, whether it’s the Nantucket series or the Changeverse trilogy or his standalone novel, Conquistador. It’s as if he’s rolling along at full speed and suddenly he realizes this has all gone on too long and it needs to end now. I recall looking at the 30 or so pages left to read in the third book and wondering how he could possibly wrap up all the loose ends suitably and do them all justice. Well, he does wrap them up, but almost too quickly.

Again, that doesn’t detract from my enjoyment of the novels. I like the world-building what-if, having done it time and again in my own youth. I never played a single game of Dungeons & Dragons as a kid, although I owned all the books, because none of my friends were interested, but I did spend hours and hours building campaigns. Later, I did the same thing with science fiction worlds, devising starships and their crews and planets and cultures. I suppose I was inspired by J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth.

As I said at the beginning, I prefer the Changeverse series only because I think Stirling’s writing has gotten better over time and because having created one major work in this genre, he started with a firmer foundation. It almost seems as if the Changeverse came out of a desire to start the Nantucket concept over from scratch, and take it all a bit further, incorporating the lessons learned from the earlier work. That’s not to take away from the Nantucket trilogy; it stands alone as a worthy story.

In fact, I’d love to see Stirling re-visit it perhaps, maybe even imagining that world in the year 2007, and what kind of world would result from introducing 20th century technology and ideas and culture into the world 3,000 years ago. Maybe even a short story.

My next Stirling book will be The Sky People or The Peshawar Lancers, both of which are sitting on my shelf. But first, it’s Tolkien’s The Children of Hurin

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Written by
Domenico Bettinelli

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