Sunday, September 03, 2006

1632 by Eric Flint

(Book Review)
1632" is yet another time travel story, where present day Americans travel back to medieval Europe. What makes “1632" unique is that instead of one person or a small group, an entire town is suddenly lifted up and transported back in time

Obviously the premise is unprobable, and the author makes little attempt to justify it. You just have to go along with it or find another book. A brief one paragraph description tells how a form of alien art ruptured the space-time continuum, causing the entire fictional town of Grantville, West Virginia to be transported to central Germany during the 30 Years’ War. (I forget the exact year).

Time travel books have become a bit of a genre, but this is the only book I know of in which the entire town (people, buildings, land, everything) is transported whole. Thus it presents some interesting questions for people who like to play the “what if” game. What if a whole American town was transplanted into Germany during the middle of the 30 Years’ War? Would they have to learn German, or would the Germans begin learning English? Would they be able to spread the idea of modern enlightenment? Would they be overwhelmed by the native population, or would they be able to use their modern technology to gain dominance? And if so, would they be able to maintain this, or would the modern machinery eventually start to break down?

If you’re the kind of person who enjoys wondering about these things, then you’ll probably find this book an interesting read. There’s also a lot of historical detail mixed into this book. Apparently the author is a historian, so it’s well researched.

I bought this book because I was looking for light reading. And in the scheme of things it is still pretty light reading I guess. (It’s no “Sound and the Fury”). But you do have to wade through a lot of stuff about King Gustavus Adolphus and his generals, and the political situation in Europe in the 17th century. History geek though I am, I thought a lot of this broke the momentum of the story. On the other hand, I did learn a lot of new stuff. Just the other week, “Gustavus Adolphus College” came up in conversation at the family dinner table, and I was able to tell everyone who he was.

The 30 Years’ War was not a high point of human history, and Eric Flint portrays it as a time of religious wars, mercenary armies, raping and pillaging, and tyranny. Obviously this is a shock to the modern day residents of Grantville, West Virginia. Eric Flint could easily have set this up as a conflict between ancient and the modern values, but interestingly enough he chooses to frame it as a clash between “American” and European values. Every time one of the characters tries to talk about modern values such as freedom of religion or republican governments, it is framed as the American way. I’m not sure if “1632" has been translated into German, but I doubt it would be popular in Europe. (On the other hand, maybe those Europeans are getting a little full of themselves lately and need to be reminded of their history).

Still, I found this mildly irritating. It is a certainly a sentiment I often run into among my conservative friends, who insist that the USA is the only free country in the world, as if we were the only republican government in the world and all of Europe is frozen in 1776.

But to be fair to Eric Flint, based on his sympathetic portrayal of Union activists in this book I gather he’s on the liberal side of the spectrum himself. And it was also from this book that I learned about the Dutch Republics, which preceded the American revolution. (I mentioned this way back in my 4th of July post. I’m a slow reader).

There are also several battle scenes in which the well armed Americans are able to dominate the 17th Century German armies. If you look in the right places, there seem to be a lot of time travel stories in which the heroes are able to travel back in time with modern weapons and annilate the enemy armies. I’m not sure why this makes for interesting reading, but it does. I mean logically you would think it would be a more interesting story if the heroes were struggling against superior weaponry, wouldn’t you? I love Rambo movies as much as the next guy, but if you ask me to explain its appeal, I’d be hard pressed. What is the fascination men have with guns and superior fire arms? Wouldn’t it be more manly to meet your enemies unarmed?

And yet there is some sort of thrill, lived vicariously through the fictional characters, in cutting down all your enemies with big guns. Left over evolutionary impulses or Freud’s theory about the phallic appeal of guns? Or perhaps this is an extension of that peculiarly American supposition that the superior firepower is always in the hands of the good guys.

And yet despite all the bloodshed, the book is very optimistic about the ability of Grantville’s citizens to create a new free and equal society with the surrounding German refugees. This is perhaps another characteristic of American myths: violent stories with idyllic endings. (Actually, come to think of it, that’s probably true of the myths of any people).

The book presents an idealistic portrait of American values and the common American man. The German refugees are welcomed into Grantville, fed and clothed, and given equal voting rights. Eric Flint defends his idealism in the afterward to the book. However, given the current rhetoric on immigration, I’m a bit more skeptical about the American willingness to welcome the outsiders. Since this book was published in 2000, I wonder if Eric Flint would have written it any differently today.

This book is actually the start of a whole series of books that follow the town of Grantville and the new European history in this alternate universe. Although this book was entertaining enough, at this point I don’t think I’m going to pursue the series. There are just too many other books on my list.

Useless Wikipedia Fact
The high demand for tea in Britain caused a huge trade deficit with China. The British set up tea plantations in colonial India to provide their own supply. They also tried to balance the trade deficit by selling opium to the Chinese, which later led to the First Opium War in 1838–1842. So there, Bear!

Link of the Day
So we just got high speed internet set up here, which means I'm back to wasting time on Youtube (as you may have noticed from the last post).
Today's theme is "The Star Wars Christmas Special". This is the infamous TV holiday special produced in 1979 using all the original actors that was so bad that George Lucas declared that it would never again be shown on TV or released on Video.
But now thanks to the internet it's available for those of us too young to remember. I haven't found the whole special yet (maybe somebody could help me out), but based on what I've seen so far I'm not sure I'd even want to.
In the meantime check out: The first ten minutes here
Princess Leia's singing scene here
The Cantina scene here
and the animated segment which ended the holiday special is here

I do realize that in all likely hood if you're interested, you've probably already seen this. But what kind of geek would I be if I didn't link to the Star Wars Holiday special at least once.

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