S.M. Stirling, Against the Tide of Years (Roc Science Fiction: New York, 1999) links to buy it on the author’s website
S.M. Stirling’s Nantucket trilogy is a Late Bronze Age alternate history which does not involve Akhenaten or the Exodus (it does involve the Trojan War). That makes it a novel for me. It even quotes some Stan Rogers lyrics! So in 2021 I re-read my copy of the second volume in Canada. After being cast back to the Late Bronze Age, the Nantucketers have been divided into a majority based on their island and a renegade faction lead by William Walker (not the filibuster). Both factions are rushing to industrialize and expand like unto a game of Civilization.
S.M. Stirling wants do to the 19th century again and do it right. To him, that means doing it without racial oppression, sexism, homophobia, or the death of too many children to hunger and infectious diseases (but with the ubiquitous beatings, stabbings, and shootings). He is skilled at creating creative and vivid cultures in the gaps in the archaeological record, particularly his Old European Moon People in Britain. Maybe this novel will lead some people to finally read Marija Gimbutas?
One thing I had not noticed is how well-constructed this novel is. Stirling uses parallelism to show his heroes and his villains parenting, building a steel foundry, and so on. Not many adventure novels admit that in a span of nine years, most hot-blooded people in the prime of their life will have children and that these children will shape their choices from then on. Nor do they show different characters engaging in the same practical tasks as a means of portraying character. He uses vivid sensory descriptions to bring his settings to life. There are allusions to many adventure novels written in the century before 1914. So this is a literate, well-constructed novel.
However, I also noticed some of the deep contradictions between the words of the characters and the message of the story. This is a story with many lovingly-described battles with black powder weapons. The up-timers carefully tell themselves how horrid this is and how they wish they were not doing it, but the reason they are doing it is because the author set up a situation that requires it, and the reason it is lovingly described is that the author and editor believes readers will enjoy it.
To have power means not to have to give in, and to force the environment or the other person to do so. Power in this narrow sense is the priority of output over intake, the ability to talk instead of listen. In a sense, it is the ability to afford not to learn.Karl W. Deutsch The Nerves of Government. Models of Political Communication and Control (London: The Free Press of Glencoe, 1963) p. 111 (according to an unverified online source anyways)
The up-timers tell themselves that it is dangerous to underestimate the up-timers, but I can’t think of an example of the good guys doing so. The down-time baddies (!) once underestimate the bushmen and suffer because of it. The good guys tend to be effortlessly superior to the down-timers at fighting, arguing (the priesthood of Babylonia has not yet experienced its first Sophistic), political intrigue, and whatever else the story demands. Some down-timers are better at learning languages and doing farm work than the up-timers, but this does not create interesting problems for the up-timers. It just helps the up-timers solve their problems faster so they can focus on Great Works.
The main uptime characters include a doctor, the Nantucketers’ head of state, the head of the Nantucket coast guard, the head of the Nantucket marine corps, and a vacationing professor of classics. Ordinary uptime people get supporting roles, like leading a “Lewis and Clark” expedition west of Nantucket or getting shot or bombed to show that the uptimers can die too. Three uptimers marry princes or princesses (if Swindapa counts). This is not exactly “The Man who Came Early,” Poul Anderson’s story of an American cast back to the Iceland of the Sagas who find that he can’t use any of his uptime skills in his new environment while he is not worth his food as a farmhand! Not is it Eric Flint’s 1632 stories, which carefully centre ordinary West Virginians not officials and professionals. Both the Nantuckers and the breakaways industrialize the Late Bronze Age quicker than Kenyans or Vietnamese industrialized their own society. And that classics professor even pronounces that cuneiform is doomed because “you can’t print cuneiform” (p. 302/ch. 20) If you can’t print a few hundred cuneiform signs, that must be news to the Chinese who were printing books with wood blocks cheaper than Europeans could print them with movable type in the 18th century! But this is a standard European colonialist trope that indigenous peoples and cultures are doomed by impersonal forces so settlers might as well grab what they can while they can. The scene where native priests driven by archaic superstition and fear that their privileges are being undermined lead a riot that threatens a vaccination program, so the rational uptimers have to shoot a few hundred natives for their own good and herd the rest into concentration camps, is also straight out of colonialist rhetoric. (And maybe Beam Piper’s Uller Uprising).
The up-timer breakaways land in Agamemnon’s Achaea, and after a few years Agamemnon suffers a series of accidents and needed to be placed under the protection of his new friends. Agamemnon of Mycenae is not exactly a wise and even-tempered king. But would he and his advisors really be so naive? Some of the up-timers throw around the term “oriental despotism” with their tongues not in their cheeks, but lets look at the succession in one family of kings between the Aegean and the Indus.
- Tiglath-Pilser III: took the throne after a revolt against king Aššur-nerari. Not a son of the previous king. Dies peacefully?
- Shalmaneser V: takes throne as father wishes. Loses the throne after five years to his brother and is never heard of again.
- Sargon II: siezes the throne from his brother. Crushes Assyrian resistance. Probably killed in battle and his body is lost.
- Sennacherib: takes throne as father wishes. Probably murdered by a son who had been rejected as successor.
- Esarhaddon: kills his father’s murderers and takes the throne. Kills all kinds of people in reprisal, reign full of sickness and suspicion. Dies peacefully?
- Assurbanipal: takes the throne as his father wishes. Fights a terrible war with his brother Šamaš-šum-ukin. End of reign is shadowy and his chosen heir may have become impatient.
Two or three of these six kings were overthrown by palace intrigue, and three had to fight to become king. Walker has one big advantage of knowing gambits which have not been invented yet, like a chess player in 2020 knows openings which were not yet taught in 1920. And Agamemnon is not a wise king. But are we really supposed to believe that someone who can survive as High King of the Achaeans in an environment like this would be so blind? In this story, a single Great Leader can pull a whole society kicking and screaming into the light. Everyone else either gets with the program or makes one act of futile resistance. I think this is the wrongest thing about this book’s depiction of ancient Mesopotamia. Ancient Mesopotamia was less like Stalin’s USSR than like Central Africa or indigenous Turtle Island in the 18th and 19th century, with local leaders struggling to make different communities acknowledge their authority.
This is a thoughtful, literate adventure novel, but in doing the 19th century again it reproduces some attitudes of the British and settler upper class. It rejects ideas from the novels of H. Rider Haggard, Leo Tolstoy, Jaroslav Hašek, L. Sprague de Camp, and Poul Anderson which are much more skeptical that imperialists can shape their subjects like clay, that outsiders can outwit natives, and that great men cause great events. This book speaks against misogyny and homophobia, but for the colonialist ideas that great leaders from superior cultures can effortlessly dominate inferior cultures. For all its care with the archaeology and military science, this book does not test all its assumptions.
There are links to buy Against the Tide of Years on the author’s website.
Further Reading: Marc van die Mieroop, The Mesopotamian City (1997)
(written in early 2021, scheduled 26 September 2021)