This week on Down the Stacks, we’re going back in time and rewriting history, courtesy of Eric Flint. Flint is a contemporary author who collaborates frequently with David Weber on a spin-off series to Honor Harrington, and Weber had returned to favor by co-authoring books in Flint’s own long-running project, which is the subject of this week’s review. 1632 is an action- and romance-packed romp through the Thirty-years War, blue-collar American-style.
The idea behind 1632 is quite basic: what happens when you take an entire modern West Virginian coal mining town and drop it wholesale into the middle of the war-torn 17th century Germanic states? As one of the displaced puts it (in paraphrase), you get the American Revolution far ahead of schedule and in entirely the wrong place.
In the year 2000, the town of Grantville has descended upon the local high school to celebrate a wedding. The bride is the sister of the leader of the local miners union and the groom is a local college football star. Things are going along in typical manner when, in a mysterious flash of light, Grantville and a six-mile diameter circle of the surrounding landscape is moved back in time and several thousand miles out of place. While investigating, Mike Stearns, the union leader, and his buddies come across some mercenary soldiers raping and torturing at a farmstead and step in to interfere and then promptly rescue a Jewess and her father from another band of marauders. Once the dust has settled and crucial information is exchanged, Mike leads his town in organizing itself according to American ideals and preparing to defend itself against the chaos of the Thirty-years War. Meanwhile, King Gustav II Adolf of Sweden is attempting to bring some form of order and sanity to Germany despite undisciplined and stingy allies and facing some of the era’s greatest generals in the field. A detachment of Scottish cavalry working for the king stumble upon Grantville, and given the technological superiority of the Americans over everyone else and the Swedish army’s general lack of war crimes compared to everyone else, an alliance is inevitable.
Eric Flint takes a Hard Science Fiction approach to his writing, which means he doesn’t ignore most of the logistical questions about time travel and its impacts. In the prologue, which sets the stage and gives an actual explanation for how and why a modern-day American town ended up in 17th century Germany (short version: it was aliens), and throughout the novel Flint makes it crystal clear that he’s using the multiverse time-travel theory. The multiverse theory states that i one were to go back in time, the universe would split into two separate but parallel timelines: the one the time traveler came from would continue on unaffected and a new one with alterations would split off from the moment of the traveler’s arrival in the past. That theory avoids all the headaches of grandfather paradoxes, time ripples, and whatnot that can get in the way of other plots.
The impact on space-time isn’t the only worry when one travels through time, however. Travel back far enough, and modern technology becomes useless or extremely limited in lifespan due to a lack of electricity, internet connections, sewer systems, ammo manufacturing… Flint covers his bases on these counts in two ways. First, the six-mile diameter chunk of American soil Grantville sits is spherical, meaning they brought up to three miles of crust with them, including pockets of natural gas and the entire, barely tapped, coal mine the town originally existed for. The territory also includes a power plant and a stretch of river the coincidently lined up well enough with a German river. Second, Grantville’s population is hardy, working-class stock with good education, a pro-gun culture, and a mindset for practicality. They realize that 17th century Europe just can’t support attempts to keep the town’s tech level at early 2000s levels, but they can “gear down” to and maintain a steam-power, early-industrial tech level that still puts them ahead of Europe’s horsepower, manual labor, and muzzle-loaded firearms.
Disease is a big concern as well for time travelers. In the worst case, either the “future” strains of disease the time traveler carries will inflict a pandemic on the past or the traveler’s immune system, geared for modern bugs, can’t cope with the ancient mutations. Even in the best case, the average time traveler probably isn’t medically trained. Eric Flint solves that problem by placing a fully-trained surgeon and his EMT daughter at the wedding reception in the first chapter. So not only does Grantville bring modern guns and the Bill of Rights into the Thirty-years War, but also modern medicine and people who know how to use it.
The one thing Flint does gloss over a little for the sake of the story is language. Granted, the 17th century characters who take center stage are a Scotsman, Alex Mackay, and a Jewish woman, Rebeccas Abrabanel, who was born in London and has picked up half a dozen languages thanks to traveling and her father’s own scholarly inclinations but three hundred years can have a profound impact on a language, especially if that language is English. Early on, Rebecca is a little confused over modern-day idioms and medical terminology, but once the plot gets rolling the language barriers disappear almost entirely. The Americans study up on German to communicate with their prisoners and recruits, some German characters pick up English out of necessity.
In terms of characters, 1632 is a series of collisions between strong personalities. The 21st century characters are led by Mike Stearns, whose experience leading a miner’s union against corporate bigwigs makes him a natural pick to lead the displaced town, even if he lacks the political and military experience of folks like Gustav and Cardinal Richelieu of France. Mike is backed by not only his miner’s union, but by former Chicago gang-banger and current surgeon James Nichols, high school history teacher and anti-establishmentarian Melissa Mailey, and other colorful individuals drawn from Grantsville’s population of Appalachian rednecks and high school seniors. From the 17th century, we have not only high-class and educated people like King Gustav and Rebecca Abrabanel but representatives of the downtrodden Germanic peasantry like Gretchen Richter who are caught up in the middle of the horrors of the Thirty-years War and all too eager to join up with the relative safety and better living standards of the Americans. Romance between “up-timers” and Europeans starts happening quickly, leading to some good character moments.
Although I’ve focused heavily on the time travel science in 1632, Eric Flint seems more interested in the exploring the political ramifications of dropping a sample of American Democratic-republicanism in the middle of the almost purely aristocratically-run 17th century Europe. The Americans have the technological superiority to prevent anyone from conquering them right off the bat, but the limits of supplies for that technology forces them to consider diplomatic relations with somebody outside their little plot of land. Balanced with the military and romance sections, the politics of 1632 provide another interesting angle.
All in all, I highly recommend 1632, and I’m enjoying the next entry in the series as well.