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Peacetime MilSF

The Ship That Sailed the Time Stream  (The Ship That Sailed the Time Stream, volume 1)

By G C Edmondson 

27 May, 2015

Military Speculative Fiction That Doesn't Suck


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I expect that WWII-era Marine José Mario Garry Ordoñez Edmondson y Cotton (1922 – 1995), who published under the name G. C. Edmondson, is filed under obscure by this point. Twenty years after his death, the only book he wrote that may still have some currency is The Ship That Sailed the Time Stream, first published in 1965. Even this book has been out of print since 1981. Sic transit gloria mundi.


The Alice, based in San Diego, is one of the odder ships in the United States Navy. She’s a small sailing ship better suited to the USN of the pre-Civil War era than to the atomic age USN. What the Alice offers the USN is the proper test bed for Professor Krom’s experimental hydrophone array [1]. What the Alice offers its captain, Ensign Joseph Rate, is a chance to earn some points with senior staff by catching its crew using the ship as a party boat. The Navy is certain something hinky is happening, but, to its utter frustration, cannot prove it. It’s almost as if the ship manages to be in two places — out at sea, filled with naked women, and back in its slip where it is supposed to be — at the same time.

There is a logical explanation but the senior staff won’t like it.

A ship in the middle of the ocean during a storm makes an admirable lightning rod. Even as the smell of ozone is dispersing, the crew begins to twig to the fact that something very peculiar has happened. The fathometer reports depths beyond anything found near San Diego. The boatload of Vikings who try to board and take the Alice is also fairly atypical for California waters. 

Somehow (it takes Rate a while to work out exactly what the necessary preconditions are) the Alice has been moved in time (back to the 990s) and space (eastward into the Atlantic). 

The inexperienced Rate manages to fend off the Vikings more or less by accident (Alice runs their longboat down) and the knorr (Viking merchant ship) the Alice encounters soon afterward isn’t much harder to deal with. He’s not so lucky with the Moors who show up next; the Alice and all its crew are captured and enslaved.

The Moorish trader who now claims to own them is a fairly gullible fellow, who believes the lies that Rate feeds him re the origin of the Alice and its crew. The Greek-born imam traveling with the Moors is a much more canny man; he sees through Rate’s lies. However, as he is an educated fellow, he is more interested in learning about the fascinating future world of the Alice than he is in betraying the Americans to his patron. As a result, the old fellow is spared after the inevitable uprising by the Americans (or more specifically, by sailor Howie McGrath).

Although the Americans don’t completely understand what caused the time shift, they manage to recreate the necessary conditions. This time they end up in the first century BCE Aegean, where they manage to land on an island full of naked, beautiful women [2]. All too soon, armed Romans to show up. The Romans prove to be tougher customers than the Moors.

The Alice again escapes through space-time. Captain and crew still do not completely understand what triggers the shifts and cannot control their destination. Each shift takes them farther east and further back in time.…


I dithered about whether to include this here (under MilSpecFic That Doesn’t Suck) or over in Because My Tears Are Delicious to You. In the end I decided to go with the first option. This book clearly qualifies as MilSpecFic by my definitive definition:

A: rec.arts.sf.written’s old definition (expanded to include fantasy): Military SF is SF about people who are in a chain of command.
B: I know it when I see it.

This is a fairly laid-back example of MilSpecFic, although towards the end of the book the body count mounts, due to an unsuspected side-effect of space-time jumps. The tone slides from comic, with a chance of stabbing” to tragic.

Because pitting the USS Missouri against a Viking longboat or a Roman war galley would result in a short and one-sided conflict [3], Edmondson carefully handicaps his Americans with an anachronistically primitive ship. Alice does have a supplementary diesel engine, but she only has a limited supply of fuel. Because the mission was peacetime R&D, the Alice started out with a limited supply of weapons and ordnance. Then Rate lost his command. Twice. 

We should not be too hard on Rate. He is (rather conveniently for the plot) an ex-historian recently turned sailor. Not only is he inexperienced, it is quite likely that he has never been specifically trained to repel boarders (hostile boarding actions of the sort we see in this novel are pretty rare in the modern era). Obviously he was never trained to fight Vikings and Romans … though he does manage to deal with the Romans effectively. He’s green but not dumb.

Howard McGrath deserves special mention: a fanatically religious crewman unburdened by excessive intelligence, a figure who could be played by a youthful Earl Holliman, he is the sort of fellow who can be counted on to get the plot moving again whenever it slows down. He distinguishes himself by launching a one-man uprising against Muslim infidels and later, by running off with a first century BC prostitute named Lilith in an attempt to save Christ from the Romans. Because that’s going to end well.

Edmondson’s take on the various periods is fairly even handed for its time [4]. His Moors in particular probably come off better than they would in a modern American novel.

  • On the one hand, he doesn’t seem to have made any particular effort to clean up the past or the people living in it, in order to make them more palatable to modern readers, Rachel, a Spanish Christian rescued from the Vikings, and the closest thing in this book to a love interest, is adept with a dagger and bent on revenge. Pretty much everyone they encounter is enthusiastic about enslaving strangers. The Moors are at least cultured; everyone else is best described as well-armed thug.” [5]
  • On the other hand, he doesn’t try to make the past periods appear worse than they actually were, in order to make moderns feel better about themselves. I can think of a currently popular TV series that sparks discussions like How many rapes does it take to make a dragon believable?” and conversations of boob plate armour where the Dark Ages come off as one long, brutal prison riot.

The edition I read is the 1978 version. I have not read the older 1965 version, so I cannot be certain as to what changes were made. Edmondson manages to avoid glaring anachronisms, but there are one or two minor ones that I believe may have been due to the update [6].

While this novel might not make the list of Great Novels Unjustly Neglected by History, I suspect the late 1970s reprint positioned it nicely to influence a number of later authors. In particular, I suspect that S. M. Stirling owns a copy, and I would not be surprised to learn that both Eric Flint and Taylor Anderson do as well. 

This is where I normally point to current editions. In this case, I can only recommend the usual out of print book sources: AbeBooks, BookFinder, and of course the local library. 

1: Those of you familiar with my grandfather’s experiences with the Red Rose will not be surprised that the history of the Alice reminded me a lot of the remarkable opportunities the USN offered my grandfather via the Red Rose.

2: There’s a logical explanation: they were prostitutes on their way to Rome. When the ship hit a storm, the crew abandoned ship and passengers. The women survived when the ship went aground on an island; before the women could retrieve their goods from the ship, the high tide floated it away.

Now, as to why their madam hails from 1920s Chicago.…

3: A message to all of you who leaped to your keyboard to mention Anderson’s Destroyerman series: under the right circumstances I would be happy to review those books. The Paypal button is to the upper right of this review.

4: The Alice does not, as far as I can tell, have any black crewmen, and the various Negroes who turn up in other periods are spear-carriers. Literally, in a few cases. They are there, but they play no active role in the plot.

5: With the exception of a group of hunter-gatherers living in the Reed Sea, who are not so much violent as incredibly susceptible to modern disease. They don’t appear to correspond to any known group and I have a dark suspicion that encounter with the Alice is why.

6: For an example of what I am thinking of, when Fred Pohl updated C.M. Kornbluth’s Not This August in 1981, he changed when it was set to the near future of 1981 without changing the detail that the protagonist was a youthful veteran of the Korean conflict of the early 1950s.

Moving from anachronisms to outright mistakes I am going to assume that the passage in which the captain confuses the Azores with the Canary Islands isn’t there because Edmondson was confused, but because Rate, whose academic past makes him the ship’s living history book, can’t know everything.