12 February 2008

Booklog, 1632

David Weber
Paperback, 608 pages

A modern-day West Virginia town is transported back in time and across the globe, to central Germany in 1631. How? The author gives a nothing answer, basically saying that it as a cosmic accident by an advanced species that had no idea about what they were doing. Flint's story, instead, is about what the citizens of the fictional Grantville do once they find themselves in the middle of the Thirty Years' War.

This is the kind of premise that is chintzy, laughable, even. It might serve as the premise for an old Twilight Zone episode or a short story from sixty years ago. But the mark of a great story is not in what it is about but how it is about it, and Flint provides a wonderful story within the confines of a well-trod premise.

The central protagonist is Mike Stearns, local union boss who has lived in Grantville all his life. When the town is transported to the past, he finds himself basically in charge -- the local police force is really just a few people, and the union membership is the only government that still exists at the town level. Stearns is a pretty standard Heinleinian "competent man," a genre affectation that I generally dislike, but which is used here sparingly -- Mike is shown usually deferring to the superior experience of others, acting more as a realistic administrator than as a hypercompetent man of the world solving every problem with brute force and incredible intellect. He uses politicking and deal-making to get what he wants, and through his leadership the town sets up a coal mining operation and begins to harvest food for the long winter approaching.

It's a possible criticism of the book that the residents of Grantville get used to the idea of being stuck in the past relatively quickly. It's a fair one, but Flint gives reasonable justifications for quick adaptation -- the town's residents mostly stick to themselves and each other, and few of the original three thousand people have lost relatives in what is now their distant future. Furthermore, at least to begin with, there is still power and many of the amenities of home to rely on to get used to the situation. It's still a bit quick, but Flint's characters are shown as basically practical hillbilly folk, and it's acceptable dramatic license to get to the story that Flint is really wanting to tell.

And that story is really why this book is as good as it is.

Let me step back. Flint is a die-hard Socialist with a capital S -- he worked for twenty-five years as a factory worker and as a union organizer, and is a self-described socialist. And this book is absolute and total proof that it is possible to be a socialist and an absolutely patriotic American. For the story that Flint really wants to tell is the story of how this group of three thousand modern-day hillbillies start the American Revolution a hundred and fifty years early, spreading human rights and personal freedom throughout as much of war-savaged Europe as they can.

In other hands, this would seem like an overly polemical story, a story treasuring empty words over the realistic actions of its characters. But Flint lets the power of freedom ring through the actions and attitudes of his characters. Such as the former librarian of the local school, assumed to be a duchess by the peasants who come into contact with her, holding herself with head held high like their nobility, and yet assuming that even the lowest peasant has an equal right to the dignity that she does. Or a powerful Scottish warrior who falls in love with the town's head cheerleader because of her beauty and energy, but who falls even further in love when he learns that in addition to being beautiful, she is incredibly capable with a high-powered rifle, and becomes one of the greatest warriors in the world.

In one memorable scene, the King of Sweden Gustavus Adolphus (who becomes a major character as the book moves on) watches as this powerful soldier acts as a "spotter" for the beautiful young girl.
As he watched the ensuing slaughter, the king of Sweden was not sure which disturbed him the most. Seeing the casual ease with which a young American girl from the future struck down men at a third of a mile—or the casual ease with which her Scots fiancĂ© of the time assisted her in the task. The first introduced a very bizarre and rather frightening new world. The latter opened the entire book.

And this is just one example of many. Flint's seventeenth century characters begin with their seventeenth century attitudes, and only gradually, with difficulty, are brought around to modern ideals. And not all of them -- even those considered heroes -- are fully converted. In 1632, respect for freedom and equality are earned by the characters, and while Flint is clearly writing these characters as genre figures, with all that that implies with regard to quality of writing, he's done his research, and doesn't allow things to ever become too easy for the transplanted Americans.

The greatest sequence of the book, though, involves a young man who was separated from his family by the Ring of Fire (the official name given to the event transplanting the town). His name is Jeff, and he was staying with three of his D&D-playing friends in town with his parents gone when the Ring took them. Bereft, he and his friends go into war armed with shotguns and riding dirtbikes, where Jeff runs across a young woman Gretchen who has given herself to one of the mercenary warlords as a sexual object in order to safeguard the other children around her. Jeff (followed quickly by his three friends) steps forward against impossible odds to defend the young woman, and this is only the first step on a long sequence of horrors and heroism that these characters will go through. Each page of this section contains deeply human moments, and the twists that Flint drives through this section of the narrative end in a single night between two people that might have been among the most cliched ideas ever, but here rises to a crescendo of honest, earned emotional content.

Sorry to be so vague, there, but I'd hate to ruin even a moment of that section.

In most novels of this type the female characters are pretty much just cardboard cutouts, but even in the sketch given above it should be clear that Flint has other plans. While the relationship between Mike and a travelling Jewish princess is a bit overdone, seeming at times to belong in a romance novel rather than SF, most of the strong characters are both recognizably female and incredibly powerful. In fact, on balance, the female characters are richer and more interesting than the male characters, and more easily differentiated. Just one more way in which Flint shows he means what he says about freedom and equality.

Flint has clearly done his homework on the era and on the possibilities inherent in this premise, and while this book is not quite on the level of classic SF, it's about as good as you can expect a novel with this premise to be. Flint's prose is a bit flat, but serviceable, and I highly recommend this book to anyone looking for a solid SF novel with plenty of patriotism and heroism. Despite the novel's length, Flint keeps the story moving well, and there's scant a wasted page here. It doesn't elevate its genre, but it's a wonderful read nonetheless.

1 comment:

Jonathan said...

I'm glad you enjoyed the book. I hope that this wipes some of the Karmic stain I incurred by suggesting you read There Will be Dragons...

This was a pretty interesting and enjoyable review. Your enthusiasm and enjoyment of the book was palpable - made the review itself fun to read. I'm currently reading the third novel in the series - 1634: The Gallileo Affair - and while I roared through '32 and '33, it's taken me a while to get to '34; I could probably profit from rereading them.

And in case any of your readers are unaware, '32 and '33 can both be found at the Baen Free Library, http://www.baen.com/library/