As many of you know, sci-fi author Michael Z. Williamson and I have been friends for well over a decade now. My memory is faulty, so I can’t remember exactly how we met. I do know that Mike and I have nearly identical political views, and the conversations we have – whether in person, or online – are always fun, sometimes weird, but always interesting in some way. I provided some basic feedback and edits on his novel “Freehold” before it was published and edited by real professionals, and since then, I’ve read every novel Mike has written, as well as reviewed quite a few.
Mike’s latest novel, “A Long Time Until Now” is by far one of his best. It showcases his superb storytelling ability, as well as his knowledge of military operations, and his ability to turn what I consider to be dry research into something readable, fast-paced, and exciting. From the description on Amazon:
Ten soldiers on convoy in Afghanistan suddenly find themselves lost in time. Somehow, they arrived in Earth’s Paleolithic Asia. With no idea how they arrived or how to get back, the shock of the event is severe. They discover groups of the similarly displaced: Imperial Romans, Neolithic Europeans, and a small cadre of East Indian peasants. Despite their technological advantage, the soldiers only have ten people, and know no way home. Then two more time travelers arrive from a future far beyond the present. These time travelers may have the means to get back, but they aren’t giving it up. In fact, they may have a treacherous agenda of their own, one that may very well lead to the death of the displaced in a harsh and dangerous era.
Is the concept new or unique? Probably not. But the style, the writing, the characters, the story… I was hooked from the first page, much like I was when I first read “Freehold.” I understood the characters. I didn’t like some of them, and that’s a sign of a remarkable author – an author who can make characters seem real enough and human enough to make the reader have actual personal feelings for them.
The knowledge of military operations and the need to build an op from the ground up with few resources and a small number of personnel. I’d forgotten how important admins were to a unit. We sometimes look at them as REMFs who sit in their offices playing solitaire and lose our leave paperwork. We sometimes forget that they serve a critical function. Mike reminds us.
Cross training. We sometimes forget how important being a Soldier – first and foremost – is. We focus on our MOS, thinking we probably won’t need to use all those skills they taught us in basic training… combat aid, shooting, all the common tasks every troop should know. But what happens if you’re thrown into an unfamiliar environment, and you have to survive? How much will you remember? And beyond the basic skills of knowing how to put on a tourniquet and starting an IV line? How much do you know about astronomy, land navigation, basic sanitation, cooking, erecting a shelter? Do you know a foreign language? Do you know enough about its roots to adapt that skill to a completely unknown method of communication? Do you know about other cultures – enough to establish a respectful relationship with them, even though they may be something completely foreign compared to anything you’ve ever seen?
All these fields… medicine, history, sociology, foreign languages and culture, geography, astronomy… Mike demonstrates in a stark and emotional way just how critical it is for the modern Soldier to become a well-rounded individual. There’s no skill that our troops should eschew as unnecessary, especially with the current deployment tempo.
The research done for this novel is quite staggering. Mike describes it in an essay on Baen’s site, and it’s enough to make my head spin.
I sought professional papers on the subject. They’re sparse. Still, I read what there was, and quite a bit on other parts of Eurasia. I found one academic in the field who’d respond to my requests for help; Michael Williams (no relation) of the UK was helpful with some other sources and papers. His site is http://www.prehistoricshamanism.com/. My friends Jessica Schlenker (biologist) and Dale Josephs (research librarian) found a few more. Ross Martinek (petrologist) had some information on terrain and climate. I gathered what I could from all these.
Next, I started experimenting. I learned or refreshed quite a few skills while writing this. I made fire by friction with a firebow and fire plow. I tried several types of bugs, and prefer them cooked. Emily Baehr brought a bag of weeds (that’s plural, okay?) and showed me how to find an entire salad’s worth of greens in temperate biomes, even in residential lawns. I used primitive weapons to bag a few targets. I use bows regularly, and have thrown spears. I tried atl-atls and slings. I knapped some bottle glass.
Then I developed several recipes that will appear in my next collection of stories and articles. How do you cook a tasty meal with minimal spices and no cooking utensils? Well, it turns out you can create quite a few spices and seasonings from plants in the carrot family.
There are a lot of edible plants and quite a few spices in the Apiaceae family. In fact, almost all edible plants come from about six families, and do so in the last 7000 years or so. Before that, there’s some evidence of rice and wheat, and occasional possible evidence of fruit domestication (versus actual agriculture).
If you think any of this is easy, I would urge you to think again. Research in and of itself is a laborious process, but try and synthesize dry scientific data into a fascinating look into what could happen when a group of modern warriors is thrown into a frightening environment that challenges them to utilize every skill they have, as well as develop new ones, while throwing into doubtful chaos some very basic religious and social mores, and you have something special.
That’s what this book is. I’m not saying this because I have a personal relationship with the author. I’m saying this because it’s true.