A Long Time Until Now by Michael Z. Williamson
One of the little things I love about traveling is that it gives me time to catch up on my reading. So while I’m here in Kansas City, I’m taking the time to check out a book that first caught by eye at the Baen Traveling Road Show at MystiCon this year, A Long Time Until Now by Michael Z. Williamson. Rather aptly for travel reading, A Long Time Until Now is about a small group of American soldiers on a trip of their own. Unfortunately for them, this trip isn’t to Kansas City, but through a rift in space time that leaves them stranded in prehistoric Afghanistan.
While on patrol in Afghanistan, a group of ten soldiers find themselves sent back to Paleolithic-era Asia, with no clue how it happened, no way to return home, and nothing but their wits, weapons and whatever gear and materials they’ve got stashed on two MRAPs to help them survive the Stone Age. Thousands of years before the end of the Ice Age, much less the rise of anything recognizable as civilization, the ten of them will have to face any number of hurdles to eke out a living and survive, to say nothing of handling the implications of having been sent back in time or learning to deal with each other. Then of course, there are the natives to deal with – as well as the OTHER groups thrown back in time.
While time-travel stories are as old as the science fiction genre itself, part of what makes A Long Time Until Now so appealing is the combination of its grounded, realistic approach to a small group of modern Americans being sent back in time, and its gripping focus on what it would take to survive in this period at all. Where a lot of time-travel stories would typically have the time-travelers use their weapons and know-how to set themselves up as gods or kings in short order, A Long Time Until Now takes great strides to avoid familiar time-travel story territory. Part of this has to do with how the story is set up – ten people, no matter what tools or knowledge are at their disposal, face long odds at surviving or not being overrun, much less going all William Walker or Grantville on the natives, as fun as stories like this can be. Another part is the Ice Age setting, where humanity is still firmly in its semi-nomadic hunter gathering stage of development, without agriculture, much less cities, the gap between the Stone Age natives and the stranded time travelers makes uplifting a daunting, likely impossible prospect. As fun as stories where people sent back in time shake things up or go all Conan the Barbarian on the past, A Long Time Until Now offers a nice change of pace where part of the struggle is how little our time travelers may be able to change, and where surviving itself will take a lot of hard work and a fair amount of luck
In terms of the survival aspect of A Long Time Until Now, author Michael Z. Williamson is an editor at SurvivalBlog, and it shows, his eye for even the smallest details of what it would take to survive being stranded in this time period is one of the more notable charms of the novel. A lot of things that so many other time travel novels seem to overlook or ignore – one of the soldiers has a stomach issue that can’t be treated without modern medicine, the lack of birth control and tampons causes some issues for the two female soldiers, to name a couple examples – become real issues to be tackled or worked around over the course of the novel. Even chapters detailing how they set up camp are written in such a way to be almost informative while still making for gripping reading.
Part of what made A Long Time Until Now so gripping is our squad of stranded soldiers are a compelling cast, While there is some handwavium applied to the groups skill sets being the bare minimum you’d need to survive being sent this far back in time – indeed, swap out some of our cast with some of the more clueless soldiers I’ve served with, and they’d have been up creek without a paddle – but I was willing to overlook this given how they’re so well characterized, strengths, personalities and flaws in all. Lieutenant Sean Elliot feels very much like most young officers would handle the situation, even as he grows into leadership. Dalton, the youngest member of the group, is a Young Earth creationist struggling coming to terms with having that world view disproved by his very surroundings, without slipping into being the token religious zealot. Even Caswell, who at times risks becoming a straw feminist, I’ll give a pass because I served with women with many of her views, and she’s just as capable as any other solider at carrying her weight. Seeing how each of them comes to grips with the situation, and with each other, really helps make A Long Time Until Now as appealing as it is – I wanted to see what happened to this group of soldiers next, I wanted them to find a way home, or at least carve a home for themselves.
There are little fun details throughout the novel I liked as well, such as them using the packs of Patriotic Sugar Cookies that come in MREs and trade goods, or how each soldier in the unit has a hard drive full of music and movies, as well as more, illicit material, that add some color to the narrative.
Like a lot of novels from Baen Books, there is some groundwork for a possible series, but A Long Time Until Now actually manages to stand well enough on its own as a stand-alone work that those not wanting to be roped into a series don’t need to fear commitment.
All in all, A Long Time Until Now is a cleverly handled time-travel story that manages to remain engaging from start to finish largely by keeping you invested on finding out just how this stranded platoon of soldiers can survive and make a place for themselves. A mass market paperback comes out in June, but its worth tracking down now while you can still buy it in hardcover. A Long Time Until Now made for some solid adventure reading, traveling or not, and I heartily recommend you check it out.