Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Michael Z. Williamson's A Long Time Until Now

Once in awhile a book comes along out of nowhere and hits you with a setting that you weren't quite expecting. I mean, think about it. We're Science Fiction and Fantasy fans. We've been on a million starships, seen a million alien worlds. We've walked through the gates and into the throne rooms of more medieval kingdoms than we can even count. Each is unique and special but it's all been done and even the surprises really aren't that surprising. As exciting as the action and the characters can be, settings are just regurgitated tropes. Well, unless you're reading A Long Time Until Now by Michael Z. Williamson. Then things get different in a hurry.

The story opens with convoy in Afghanistan. Then there's a noise. The next thing we know, everything has changed, only nothing has. Our heroes (several members of the Army who were part of the convoy) are sent hurtling back in time to, well, we're never really certain when. Call it a few millennia give or take. That part is fairly standard. What makes this different is mix of peoples that show up. Prehistoric Afghanistan becomes a mixing bowl of people and time periods. We're treated to dealings with prehistoric cultures from two different places and eras, Roman legions with Indian allies from a later period and visitors from our future.The Americans are at the top of the pile due to their technological advantage right up until they're not. I don't want to give too much up here, but things do get rather interesting in that regard.

The interesting part here, to me at least, is that Williamson freely acknowledges the humanity of his characters. The young woman who decides all the men are going to rape her because she's the only woman around is believable and even understandable. The older characters (in their thirties and forties) and their aches and pains. Several have medical problems that require medicines that aren't manufactured in ancient Afghanistan and have to figure out how to take care of themselves. It's not always easy for our lost soldiers and then it gets, well... not worse, but weirder.

Dealings between cultures are always going to be weird. It's all well and good to respect someone else's culture. It's even good to try to adapt to other cultures when necessary. It's never easy though, and it gets worse when the two sides don't even have a language in common. Mad Mike nails it though. His characters are smart enough to know that they don't know how another culture works. The try to figure things out. Sometimes they succeed. Sometimes they fail miserably. Fortunately, they have a linguist with them that can help figure things out.

The amount of research that went into this book is unreal. Williamson is able to take us through the construction of an eighteenth or nineteenth century wilderness fort step by step using modern tools. He acknowledges a lot of organizational issues and addresses them. Unlike a lot of others, this book makes sense. The fort is produced by work. The tools are what the troops could reasonably expect to have. Food is gathered or hunted for by people who are aware that they are going to run out of rounds eventually. Their personal hygiene supplies run out and people get bummed out about it. It just works.

In any story, the characters are what hold interest. Williamson does a damn good job with those.  There were times in the story where I wasn't sure if I wanted to hug these guys or get them good and drunk, but they were all people I could get along with. They were well trained and motivated, yes, but they reacted right in other ways. I have a vision of a writer out there somewhere working on something similar. In this alternate story though, the people who get marooned just embrace the suck and get the job done. Williamson's characters do get the job done, but they do it while acting like real people. They mourn for their lost loved ones. They have porn downloaded to their phones. (Yes, there is a realistic way to charge them.) Life sucks when they first get there because the food is bland. It all works together. These characters live and breathe.

That brings me to my first complaint. It's not the first time I've written this. Sometimes it seems just a bit too coincidental that a group that gets lost has an exact mix of the bare minimum in skills needed to survive. I get that it's necessary for the story but for me it stretches the bounds of believability when every skill you need is present and there are no slackers around. Seriously Mr. Williamson, where is the shitbird? Every unit has one. Even more than that though, we get a lecture on how the Roman legions were so fearsome because they were so well organized and then find out that the person giving the speech has an MBA. Don't get me wrong. I'm not some idiot leftist who thinks that the only reason people enlist in the military is because they're too stupid to realized that they could get hurt in a war. But that doesn't necessarily add up to a ten man element having an organizational expert, an expert in husbandry, an expert in botany and someone who knows how to forge metal into tools in it. I know it fits the requirements of the story and it doesn't really pull me out of the story when I'm in it. A Long Time Until Now is a good book though, and I found myself thinking about it when I wasn't reading. The effect was that it took me longer to get back into the book when I picked it back up than I would have otherwise.

My only other whine is about the ending. It's plausible per the standards of the story, but if feels a bit deus ex machina to me. I know that there was no way the characters were going to find their own way out of the problem given their technical know-how and what they had available but it seems like a bit of a stretch to me. All whining aside though, this was a damn fine book. I'm looking forward to Williamson's next one.

Bottom Line: 4.5 out of 5 M4 rounds

A Long Time Until Now
Michael Z. Williamson
Baen, 2016

A Long Time Until Now is available at the link below:


1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the review. You'd be amazed the cross section of knowledge and professional degrees that show up in a unit. My ex, for example, has degrees in computer science and accounting, but she got them too old to commission. I know a poli-sci grad from Rutgers who became a broadcaster. I actually can find vets with those skill sets in a few minutes. Getting several in one place is tougher, but notice they didn't have anyone who knew ceramics, for example, which would be incredibly useful. I really didn't cheat that much. And I don't think I said anyone had an MBA. I hate MBAs. ;)