Flint, Eric. 2000. 1632. New York: Baen.
Reviewed 28 May 2000
At one point in this overlong novel, Flint's mouthpiece character criticizes the enthusiasms of several of the "geek wargamer kids." With due respect to Mr. Flint, the same criticism can be made of this entire novel. 1632 has more than a few echoes of H. Beam Piper's Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen () (out of print), which first saw print over a third of a century ago. Although Mr. Flint's prose and fictional facade are superior to Piper'swhich never rose above workmanlike1632, in the end, shares the wargamer's disease with Kalvan: "I'm a better general than the great captains of history, and I'm going to prove it to you."
It is just possible that Mr. Flint has not read, and perhaps not even
heard of, Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen. At least one other reviewer
in recent memory has made an even more radical assumption and
flat on his face, because the author of the more-recent, prize-winning
work had neither
read nor heard of the supposed predecessor which she had allegedly copied.
Do not take any of my comments
comparing Mr. Flint's work with Mr. Piper's as anything more than
critical license. Most especially, do not take them as either an "older
is better" or a "newer is better" diatribe.
The premise of 1632 is as implausible as that of any recent novel of speculative fiction. But it's not the premise that matters hereit's the consequences. Mr. Flint wastes even less time and energy on setup than did Mr. Piper. 1632 takes not just one Pennsylvania constable, but an entire town in West Virginia, and transplants it to a parallel timeline. In both cases, the technological base is roughly that of the Thirty Years' War. There is, however, one crucial difference. Piper's Calvin Morrison ends up in a parallel universe with no parallel to Europe at all. That is consistent with the development of alternate history works on this side of the Atlantic (and in English) to the 1950s and early 1960s. The 40 years since have brought Kafka, Mann, and above all Dostoevskii, Todorov, and a number of other influences from outside the rather conservative traditions of Anglo-American commercial fiction into alternate history; this has, ironically, resulted in novels that go back to change actual events and make them come out betteror at least different. The irony may be apparent only to those of us with too much lit crit shit in our brains, who can recognize Formalism and know its sources, and are amused by the almost relentlessly conservative tenor of the contemporary alternate history movement and its reliance on Formalism. (If we're going to look at a book that depends on understandings of "history," we're going to put it in some historical context, dammitthe kind of history that one typically does not learn about until graduate school, when all of one's illusions about life and literature get melted down into random globules on the floor.) It is nonetheless ironic all the same.
In any event, Mike Stearns, his fellow coal miners, and the rest of Pleasantvilleoops, GrantvilleWest Virginia are instantaneously transferred to Thuringia immediately after the Sack of Magdeburg (the defining event of the Thirty Years' War). Unlike Calvin Morrison, who had only his own Smith & Wesson .38 Special and 15 rounds of "modern" ammunition, Stearns and his town have a veritable arsenal, including plenty of spare tires, POL, dry lubricants, medical supplies, and potable water (to name just the top few logistical nightmares of every twentieth-century army). Pike-and-musket armies just can't stand against the invincible American fighting forces, who have also evaded Murphy's law in virtually every other fashion. For example, not only do the central "strategists" understand the importance of C3I (command, control, communications, and intelligence), but the subordinate leaders and troops do, tooand manage to get it nearly perfect without practice. Eli Cross's imperious order at the end of The Stunt Man captures this perfectly:
That monstrosity is the one and only Duesenberg remaining in stock. We must have this shot. I therefore order that no camera shall jam, and no cloud pass before the sun.
And therein is the camel's nose. Once one notices that things go just a little too perfectly for the American immigrants, one notices a lot more problems. Apparently, Grantville didn't have any ne'er-do-wells, let alone hoodlums, drug addicts, thieves, con men, or endemic untreated disease, to become additional burdens on the "American" war effort. Neither were the residents vulnerable to any of the diseases common in seventeenth-century central Europediseases for which they would have neither available treatments nor developed immunities. The same goes for their livestock and crops.
At this point, the camel's head and neck are in the tent, and it's getting a bit crowded. Some of these objections may seem like the battles that rage over minutiae in history department colloquia. Perhaps so. Nonetheless, Mr. Flint makes a number of assertionsfor example, that Gustavus Adolphus did not bring any leather cannon to Germany, when in fact several have been unearthed in northern Germanythat further undermine his milieu. The Jewish-American princess adapts just too perfectly to hillbilly country; conversely, none of the opposition thinks to send assassins, which was a perfectly normal means of keeping unruly minor princes in line. There is only one serious attempt to strike at the heart of the anachronistic USA, and it's an attempt that would have been viewed as unusually inept even by the standards of generalship prevalent in seventeenth-century Europe. Mr. Flint's novel really founders as a work of literaturenot as a Gedankenexperiment, of which it is a first-rate efforton these interactions between the historical (and quasihistorical) personages and the modern characters.
This model of alternate history has, in some ways, advanced from that available to Mr. Piper. As in any military maneuver, though, an advance exposes the flanks. While the infodumping is handled more adroitly than in Lord Kalvan, there is a helluva lot more of it. While the range of characters is greater, and generally more artfully presented, than in Lord Kalvan, nothing serious really happens to anyone (ok, there's one battle casualty) from Grantville. While the writing is of greater coherence, it has sacrificed Mr. Piper's humorous self-awareness and a certain verve for a flat, even, polished finish. And so on. I could not maintain my suspension of disbelief beyond the first forty pages.
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