Sunday, 24 July 2016

Lost In Time

A small population is stranded in time and must pull together to survive. Which sf novel am I describing? In SM Stirling's Island In The Sea Of Time (New York, 1998), Nantucket is transported to 1250 B.C., a one way trip to the prehistoric past. In Poul Anderson's Tau Zero, a relativistic spaceship endlessly accelerates, a one way trip to the cosmic future.

In Island..., Ian Arnstein, visitor to Nantucket, is a historian and a reader of "'...speculative fiction about things like this...'" (p. 38) He will have read Tau Zero.

"At this point in the type of novel that was his favorite reading the hero would be brimming with ideas, getting people moving, organizing things, providing some leadership.'" (p.34)

This happens in Tau Zero. Arnstein reflects:

"'The problem is...I couldn't lead three sailors into a whorehouse. Somebody else will have to do it.'" (ibid.)

Somebody else, Police Chief Cofflin, has to address the town meeting. However, as soon as that framework for discussion is in place, Arnstein gives the others the benefits of his thoughts.

"Cofflin was impressed. This one's a thinker, he decided." (p. 38)

Emergencies bring out the best or the worst in people. Here is the best. Arnstein proposes:

"'...Chief Cofflin as...ah, as chief executive officer for the duration of the emergency...'" (p. 40)

The town clerk seconds. It is carried by acclamation. Arnstein proposes that the newly elected chief executive officer appoints a council, with a legislature to be elected later. Cofflin immediately appoints to the council:

the town clerk
the Coast Guard captain
the astronomer
a local campaigner
the local farm owner
the rest of the selectmen

"Cofflin's Council..." (p. 45) soon also includes the town librarian, an amateur archaeologist. Stirling presents a competent cast of characters who will square up to the challenges ahead.

No sooner had I raised the question of the fate of the Indians (here), than the novel began to address it. I should have realized the significance of this minor detail: one of the team that visits the mainland has a cold. 


  1. Kaor, Paul!

    I don't want to belittle human intelligence too much, but thinking about these political arrangements did make me a bit skeptical. I mean, wouldn't it be more likely for there to be first some confusion and chaos before the Nantucketers worked out a governing framework of this kind? What I'm trying to say is that we see competent people coming to the fore a bit too quickly to be quite plausible to me.

    And the apparently trivial bit about one person having a COLD will have enormous consequences. But it would be unfair to expect the Nantucketers, most of them fairly decent persons, to think of everything, esp. of how devastating the common cold would be for long isolated human populations.


  2. Nantucket's a rather special case. It's a place where political matters are routinely decided by a Town Meeting -- that is, by a committee of the whole where anyone can attend and speak.

    1. Daar Mr. Stirling,

      I do understand your point. But, wouldn't a Committee of the Whole be as prone as any other arrangement in an emergency of the kind we see at the beginning of ISLAND... to confusion and chaos before workable arrangements were made? And this period of confusion needn't be for a long time, days rather than weeks.

      I still think we see competent men rising to positions of leadership a bit too implausibly quickly. But I can see why you probably did that--one reason being that having Jared Coffin and the Council he appointed taking over quickly would advance the plot of the story.