Monday, October 12, 2009

14. 1632 by Eric Flint

Someone commenting as The Ancient Skeptic left a few science fiction suggestions on my first Magnolia Reads post, one of which was 1632 by Eric Flint. My dad seconded the suggestion and lent me his copy of the book, which sat forlorn on my coffee table for weeks as I struggled to get through An American Tragedy. I finally picked it up the day after I finished that post and I haven't put it down until finishing today. By the way, my dad made sure to mention that he also owns a shelf-full of the sequels, in case I'm interested (1633, 1634 and so on).

1632 opens during a wedding reception in a West Virginia coal-mining community named Grantville. Mike Stearns, president of the local United Mine Workers of America, reflects upon the marriage of his sister and new brother-in-law as well as the various guests, introducing readers to many of the main characters. After a sudden flash of light outside, Mike and a band of friends decide to investigate the cause. Even then they can tell that the event, which will eventually come to be known as the Ring of Fire, was no ordinary inclement weather. Not far from the high school where the wedding reception is taking place, they come upon an ancient farmhouse, the likes of which they've never seen. From a distance they can see a man and woman being assaulted by what looks like a small band of soldiers. They intervene using the firearms stored in their trucks, saving the woman (although they are too late to help her husband). They also come across an elderly man and his beautiful daughter traveling on the same road in a coach. Mike leads the group back to the high school, where all involved come to realize what has transpired -- the town of Grantville has been transported to Germany in the year 1631, right in the middle of the devastation of the Thirty Years War. The community adapts to the new surroundings amazingly well, calling upon all of their various resources from the high school history teacher to the power plant manager. Mike, a natural-born leader, proposes that the community begin the American Revolution 150 years early and is elected to head up the temporary governing body. The main focus of Grantville's population is to gear down before their modern resources are exhausted, as well as solidify a new constitution and form of government. Amidst those challenges, they also have to defend themselves against enemy armies (mainly comprised of ruthless mercenaries). Grantville becomes a force to be reckoned with, not only because of their modern weaponry, but also their acceptance of refugees. The town grows by leaps and bounds, with a unique combination of old world and new world ideas.

Flint excels at putting the time and place, and especially the conflict of the war, in context. You don't have to be very familiar with this historical period to follow the story and enjoy it. I didn't know much at all about this war, and I feel like I learned a few things. Some were funny, such as the fact that in 1631 not even prostitutes in Amsterdam would go out dressed the way that American women do in the present day. Most were not, such as the descriptions of mercenaries raping and pillaging. I respect that those descriptions were accurate to the time and not gratuitous in nature, yet I still found them disturbing. I didn't like reading about the abuse of power by religious institutions, although I know it is important to understand how damaging it can be. The atrocities committed in the name of faith are astounding. I very much appreciated how Flint emphasized the mentality of the refugees taken in by Grantville, and their difficulty coming to grips with their new surroundings after being abused and repressed for so long.

As Colin can tell you, I am not very interested in action scenes. During most movies we watch, I lose track of what's happening in the action sequences and shrug that there's simply too much action. I don't get anything out of it; I'm much more interested in the story than the action. Unsurprisingly, there were many descriptions of fighting in this book. I found myself very involved in those scenes when they included characters that I was familiar with; I was very invested in finding out what happened to them. There were a few chapters describing battles in which no main characters were present. I think they were meant to convey historical background, and they certainly affected the main characters, but I found myself struggling to pay attention.

I really admire many of the main characters. They were incredibly smart about how to use their resources and how to replace the ones that would inevitably be exhausted. Their acceptance of refugees was kind but not wholly unselfish; they were able to train the thousands of refugees in different trades and ultimately helped themselves survive. They took advantage of historical hindsight in building their new government, and recognized that varying points of view needed to be represented. Many people flourished in their new surroundings, finding love and lasting friendships, learning new languages and really stepping up the task at hand, whatever that might be on a given day. Flint took turns narrating through different characters, showing the many different viewpoints of people involved. You are able to strategize with Mike, adapt to a new world with his wife, experience terror with a refugee, fall in love with a young man. This effect can be hit or miss -- in the wrong hands, it can feel jarring. But Flint handles it expertly, and really rounds out the entire story.

Toward the end I realized that Mike, arguably the true main character, doesn't really have any flaws. He is a good, standup guy. He looks out for others, he's smart and decent and kind. He doesn't cave under pressure. This didn't really bother me or take away from the story, but I thought it was interesting. I think I understand why Flint wrote him this way after reading the Author's Note at the end. Flint states that he is "more than a little sick and tired of two characteristics of modern fiction, including science fiction. The first is that the common folk who built this country and keep it running -- blue-collar workers, schoolteachers, farmers, and the like -- hardly ever appear... The second is the pervasive cynicism which seems to be accepted 'sophisticated' wisdom of so many of today's writers." The Americans depicted in 1632 are mostly "common folk" who have a great deal of confidence and optimism. There's little whining or hand-wringing, and it's easy to believe that they would succeed in building a new country and keep it running. I think Flint is celebrating the American spirit that he sees in so-called common folk.

Overall I liked this book very much, and think it was a good first sci-fi pick. It was very accessible, much more so than I expected. It seemed more like a history or war story, with a science fiction element that set the plot in motion.  

No comments: