There’s something to be said for sheer audacity. 1632, the first book in Eric Flint’s RING OF FIRE series, published in February, 2000, has got audacity in container-ship-sized loads.
In the year 2000, a section of West Virginia disappears from our world during an event called the Ring of Fire. It reappears in Thuringia (northern Germany), in the year 1631. The residents of Grantsville, the biggest town in the affected area, led by the steely-eyed protagonist Mike Stearns, promptly decide that they’re stuck there, so they’ll re-create the United State of America on another continent one hundred-forty-years sooner than usual.
That’s a noble experiment and it faces a couple of obstacles. Well, only one obstacle, actually. Europe is in the middle of the Thirty Years’ War, and various armies are rampaging through Thuringia, supporting themselves between sieges and battles by looting, plundering and pillaging. Mercenary troops collide with the transplanted Americans early in the book. How sad for the seventeenth century fighters that practically everyone in Grantsville is a gun-collecting, deer-hunting war veteran (one of whom smuggled home a machine gun and ammo from Viet Nam and buried it in the woods). In short order, the army of the United Mine Workers of America is offering the local peasants a protective cordon, accepting refugees and convening a constitutional convention.
Here is one of my favorite lines in the book:
“Specifically,” he stated, “you are under the protection of the United Mine Workers of America.”
Flint lets us know in the prologue of 1632 that there’s going to be no discussion of quantum physics, magical portals, of clicking our heels together and going home. The story is an exciting live-action role-playing game with a small force of Americans who completely outgun the competition. The competition are evil mercenaries, so we don’t have to feel sorry for them as they are chopped down like a summer lawn under the blades of a riding mower.
There are also a few other things that are not going to be problems for twentieth-century people dumped into the seventeenth century. Here’s a short list: no one’s going to struggle with a sense of psychic displacement or post-traumatic stress; no one’s going to pine for family or loved ones left behind; no one’s going to question the basic premise that they are stuck in the 1630s. No one is going to turn, irrationally, on another group; no one is going to scapegoat anyone; no one’s going to have a spiritual crisis.
A few more things no one in the new America is going to have to worry about: sufficient food, clean water, sanitation, electrical power, medicine, radios or even TV, except they do have to create their own programming. That’s because all that stuff came with them. They have their own coal vein, and Grantsville landed next to a river in Europe, so they have water and fuel for steam power. The area had its own power plant and three machine shops, several doctors and a jewelry store, so that as the various couples hook up, they can all get wedding-ring sets. It’s nice. Knowing they can’t maintain their current level of technology for too long, the Americans decide to “gear down,” and convert to steam power, settling at late-eighteenth/early nineteenth century tech. This is smart. All of this clears away survival-level problems so that Flint can get on with what’s important; those battles.
Most of the American characters are lightly sketched. Mike Stearns is some bigwig in the mine workers’ union. Other characters keep telling us that he is a prince and a natural leader; mostly he glares about with a steely gaze and growls authoritatively. In other cases, Flint gives a stereotypical character a contradiction, like Julie, the squealing, bouncing cheerleader who is also an Olympic-caliber sharpshooter; basically, Death With Pom-Poms. For the most part, this stuff is funny. Rebecca, the modest, beautiful and brilliant seventeenth-century Jewish maiden who falls in love with Mike (because, who wouldn’t?) really is brilliant. She is also educated and diplomatic, and her actions drive the plot in several places.
The book really takes off, though, when Flint indulges his man-crush on King Gustav Adolf of Sweden, an historic character who is sometimes called the Father of Modern Warfare. In one section of the book, Flint writes the famed battle of Breitenveld. This section has nothing to do with 1632’s story, and reads like exuberant non-fiction, the kind of thing you might see in a military history journal. And it’s interesting! Gustav and his advisor Axel Oxenstierna are passionate, arrogant, good-hearted and smart men, so well-drawn they nearly rise off the page.
The book is a lot of fun and the battle scenes are exciting, but what I found most interesting, while I was reading, was how deep the story’s twentieth-century sensibilities ran. We talk sometimes about a book being dated, and this one is; but it’s not just slang or gadgets. 1632 carries a “front-porch Americana” optimism that I don’t think a writer could pull off now. The book was written before the destruction of the World Trade Towers, before Daesh, before the near-total collapse of our economy, before Detroit declared bankruptcy, before countless incidents of mass shootings, before the internet, before Facebook, cyber-bullying and Twitter. Even for 2000, Flint stacked the deck in his story, tilting the playing field so that only the “good guys” could win, but it’s more than that. How many fantasy books have you read recently where an American labor union was the heroic group? I’m betting not too many.
If I’m counting right, there are twenty-three related books in this series. Most if not all are written collaboratively and a couple of them are anthologies. I honestly don’t think this is a series for me and I don’t want to make a 23-book commitment to this world. I’m glad I read 1632, though. I loved the exuberance.
I love the exuberance, too, and a lot more. But, being Eric’s collaborator on two of the books in the series, my opinion obviously must be taken with a “grain” of salt that is of iceberg proportions.
I would like to add, however, that as the series has continued, the “Up-timers” (folks from the 20th Century) do begin to show all the cracks you would expect: depression, displacement, division–with some of them becoming traitors and homicidal bigots, along the way.
And within 3 years time, they are also swiftly losing their military edge. For instance, in the first book I wrote in the series, The Papal Stakes, the elite commando/hit-squad that Mike Stearns put together takes a drubbing (as in, is almost half wiped out) by some clever Spanish who have studied the Up-time playbook, and bait them into a scenario where their actions are predictable. And once your adversary can predict your actions, even advanced technology will not save your bacon.
At the bottom, I think Eric’s books endure so well because he understands that the majority of readers, to this day, want a story that never loses hope, or loses sight of the common decency of common folk. He has plenty of villains (I’ve written no small number of them), and terrible things routinely happen to people who deserve better if this were anything like a just universe. But those villains are not mustachio-twirling sociopaths, any more than the universe can be damned for being indifferent to the affairs of humans.
And it is exuberant even its embrace of those dark verities.
A great and penetrating review, Marion.
I feel better knowing that some of the psychological issues are going to surface, and I thought he did a good job in this book of discussing (thus, foreshadowing) the closing of the military gap — as well as, to some extent, the techno-gap.
I’ll say also that this book made me want to find a good biography of King Gustav! I wish Flint had written one.
I’d originally passed on this series precisely because I’d known that the psychological issues had been glossed over, and that’s a pet peeve of mine with regards to time-travel narratives. Knowing that they’re addressed later is making me re-think that decision!
Yes, that reassures me too.
I am not really sure how I feel about making a fun romp out of one of the darkest chapters of german history (30-40% of the german population died during the Thirty Years’War), but given that a felt 90% of all “historic fantasy novels” use Londone and/or the british empires as a setting you have to take what you can get. Thüringen (Thuringia) is not in northern germany though ;-)
Gerd, I’m sure the geographical error is mine and not Flint’s! The book is exciting. Flint does realize that the real 30 Year’s War wasn’t really a good time for anyone. Still, as you point out, he is writing a fantasy and his approach is to change that world completely, so I think the book works at that level.
“Here’s a short list: no one’s going to struggle with a sense of psychic displacement or post-traumatic stress; no one’s going to pine for family or loved ones left behind; no one’s going to question the basic premise that they are stuck in the 1630s.”
There is a serious problem with that statement if you read more of the Ring of Fire series. The thing to read is 1636: The Kremlin Games. It is about Bernie who suffers from PTSD as a result of The Battle of the Crapper and leaves Grantville for Russia. There is just so much you can put into one book and that is part of what makes the RoF series so FUN and interesting. So much literature is fun but not interesting.
It is also curious to mention 9/11 and the Twin Towers. Are SF readers into physics at all? Do you think that you can analyse a skyscraper without reasonably accurate data on the steel and concrete distributions down the towers? It seems most people don’t even understand enough to ask the questions. That is another reason to read Kremlin Games. The Russians had to struggle with Aristotle’s ideas about physics. LOL