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August 23, 2002

1632, by Eric Flint and

1632, by Eric Flint and 1633, by Eric Flint and David Weber

See this post and more, at Blogcritics
For a time back in the middle 90's I was a bookstore clerk at Barnes & Noble. If they paid a wage you could raise a family on, I might still be a bookstore clerk. I was in a unique position, because I was the only one in the store that knew how to organize the Computer book section. Almost every bookstore employee you run into is a college grad with a liberal arts degree, and they are as a whole terrified of the computer book section. I took over the section with the understanding that I would be allowed a free hand in the science fiction/fantasy section, to stock it and organize it as I saw fit. It lasted a year, until I could no longer stand the pay. But in that year that store had a hell of a science fiction section. Every Nebula, Hugo and Campbell winner that was in print was on the shelves. Every book by every local sci-fi* author I could find (in practice, this was David Drake, John Kessel and Orson Scott Card) was autographed and available. Ben Bova and L.E.Modesitt had autograph sessions as well, so all their in-print books were available. If a new book in a continuing series came out, we stocked all the previous books in the series for sale. We had the highest science fiction sales in the region.

I went in the other day and picked up Eric Flint's new book 1633. It's the second in a series, the sequel to 1632, which was not on the shelves. The section was ragged, and someone had recently reshelved the genre section to give romance books more room. It was nauseating. There was a mother there, with a son about ten, or eleven, trying to find a book to do a report on. She looked around with increasing distress as he rejected title after title, but there was no succor to be found in the staff. I grabbed Ender's Game off the shelf and handed it to him.

"It's about a kid your age. He's a military genius who gets picked on by bullies until he kills them." You gotta know how to sell the book. His mother looked alarmed, so I gave her the mother translation.

"It's not that bad. It's an award-winning book about a boy genius who has to learn how to grow into his potential and to communicate emotionally with his peers. Think of it as Harry Potter in space." Magic words, "Harry Potter in space."

"He doesn't like to read," she said.

"If he doesn't like this, he never will." I felt safe saying that. I'd said it before, during my time as a B&N wage slave, and it had never come back to haunt me. Some mothers had come back, yes, but without fail it was to ask me what to get the little man next.

You can't say that about most books. But a boy who reads it at the right age is not the same boy at the end of the book as he was at the beginning. It's a rare book that can affect a person that strongly. There are other books that I think have a similar effect, books that I will attempt to force onto anyone who expresses the slightest interest in reading. The Lord of the Rings is one, as is Pride and Prejudice, Master and Commander, Glen Cook's The Black Company, The Watchmen, Good Omens, and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

If you have a similar canon, read 1632 and 1633. There's no way to describe the premise (Alien artwork smacks a West Virginia town into medieval Germany) without sounding like a nutjob, but Eric Flint gets you through the suspension of disbelief phase quickly and with a minimum of fuss. 1632 is the faster paced of the two, and serves as an excellent introduction to an alternative history that has spawned an internet fandom comparable to Spider Robinson's. 1633, which Flint wrote with Honor Harrington author David Weber, is a denser, more sprawling book, with characters from the first book spread out across Europe. Flint says in his afterword that

You want a co-author who is going to add something--and whose weaknesses (and all authors have them) can be cancelled out by your own strengths. And vice-versa, of course.

The collaboration succeeds admirably in 1633, without veering too far from the themes that made 1632 so memorable.

1632 and 1633 also flow well as alternative history. I tend to judge alternative history and historical fiction on whether or not I check out a library book on the period they are set in after I read them. Patrick O'Brien's Aubrey/Maturin series succeeded in this, and did George MacDonald's Flashman. Two days after finishing 1633, I checked out my first book on the Thirty Year's War.

Aside from the obvious attention to detail, the thing that struck me most in each book is how unabashedly patriotic they were. The characters don't just apply American technology to their situation, they apply American values, and while the effect of the technology on the inhabitant's of the 17th century is impressive, the application of American values on a people still under the feudal thumb is both uplifting and heart-rending to read.

She jerked her head sideways, staring at Judith Roth. Back to the menorah. "You are Jewish?" she cried.

A day's terror—a lifetime's fear—erupted in an instant. Tears flooded her eyes. Her chest and shoulder heaved. A moment later, Judith Roth was sitting next to her, cradling her like a child.

Rebecca sobbed and sobbed. Desperately trying to control herself, so she could ask the only question which seemed to matter in the entire universe. Choking on the words, trying to force them through terror and hope.

Finally, she managed. "Does he know?" she gasped.

Mrs. Roth frowned. The question, obviously, meant nothing to her.

Rebecca clutched her throat and practically squeezed down the sobs. "Him. The hidalgo."

Still frowning, still uncomprehending. Hope burned terror like the sun destroys a fog.

"Michael. Does he know?" Her eyes were fixed on the menorah. Mrs. Roth's gaze followed. Her own eyes widened.

"You mean Mike?" The elderly woman stared at Rebecca for a moment, her jaw slack with surprise. "Well, of course he knows. He's known us all his life. That's why he asked us to put you up, when he called. He said he thought—he didn't understand why, he just said he had a bad feeling—but he thought it would be best if Jewish people—"

The rest of the words were lost. Rebecca was sobbing again, more fiercely than ever. Purging terror, first. Then, touching hope. Then, caressing it. Embracing it, like a child embraces legends.

There are scenes akin to this in nearly every chapter.

Mike started his speech by going straight to the point.

"There's only one issue in this campaign. Forget all the blather about at-large election. And why is Simpson so worked up about what he calls the `principle' of residential election, anyway? Back in the old days, what with his globe-trotting and his villa in Spain and his penthouse in London, I'm sure he never cast anything except absentee ballots."

The large crowd in the Gardens laughed. Mike waved his hand, as if brushing aside an insect.

"But that's all a red herring. The only thing Simpson really cares about is the same thing I care about—the franchise." Again, he made that brushing motion with his hand. "Oh, sure, there's other stuff. Lots of it. Our refugee policy, our economic policy, our foreign policy—you name it, and Simpson and I are on opposite ends. But all that's for later. This election is for delegates to the constitutional convention. The convention won't be deciding matters of policy. It will settle something far more important, which is simple. Who decides in the first place? Whatever policy is implemented, by whatever person or party—who gets to decide which person or party holds office? That's the franchise, and the franchise is ultimate power. And that's the issue. The only issue."

Patriotism is not a value recognized by the mainstream left nowadays, but the only other book I can think of that so clearly illustrated basic American principles is a book that for years was an icon of the left, Eugene Burdick's and William J. Lederer's The Ugly American. The basic tenet of The Ugly American was that the American citizen was the best representative of American values, a theory that was behind the founding of the Peace Corps soon after the book appeared. The "Ugly American" in the Burdick Lederer book is an engineer. The main character in 1632 is the president of the local chapter of the United Mine Workers of America. How the core values of each man infect the other characters is an important part of each book. In a time when it seems none of our leaders can articulate why America must be defended, 1632 and 1633 do so admirably.

*Yes, I know. You think "sci-fi" is derogatory. Well, I think it's easy to type. I could call it "spec-fic" I suppose, but people look at me funny already. There's no need to give them more ammunition.

Posted by Bigwig at August 23, 2002 08:46 PM | TrackBack
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