© 2000 Eric Flint
What happens when you throw a small American mining town from the 20th century into the middle of Germany…during the 17th-century’s Thirty Years War? Chaos — and fun. One morning out of the clear blue, the town of Grantville, West Virginia, suddenly found itself picked up and plopped down into one of the worst wars in history. Left to fend for themselves in an era of disease, ignorance, and marauding armies, they decide to rebuild the American vision from scratch, in the middle of Europe. 1632 is the start of a large and not-very-orderly series of novels that depict the evolution of Europe following the sudden infusion of 20th-century knowhow and American bravado, and it’s a ball to read.
The novel’s premise is largely fantastical, and subject to a handwave in the introduction. What matters is not how the Americans came to be thrown back into time, with their library of knowledge and modern tools. The store explores what that knowledge and tools does to Europe’s fiendishly complicated political scene. In 1632, Europe’s multitude of powers were involved in a technically religious war between Catholics and Protestants in which some Protestant powers were fighting on the Catholic side, and vice versa. Cardinal Richileu, the diabolical chessmaster running France and working fiendishly to keep the balance of power in Europe favoring himself, is busy moving armies and juggling two sets of Hapsburgs (some in Spain, some in Germany) as well as the plucky Swedish nation. The sudden takeover of part of Germany by a mouthy, irreligious Republic is a matter of some concern — especially as the Americans begin moving outward.
Grantville is not the typical American town: it is a mining town, and a unionized one that. It is led by intelligent, technically-savvy men who are used to a fight and determined to stick together, who know how to break a jaw in defense of principles. Mike Stearns, president of the local United Mine Workers of America, becomes the city’s de facto leader, for he and his men have the energy and toughness to stand against whatever brigands Europe throws at them. Although it may look primitive by their standards, 17th century Europe is a dangerous place. Its armies carry muskets, and while rumors of witchcraft abound, its leaders know technology when they see it. They won’t be scared off for long. Realizing how overwhelming the odds are against them, Stearns decides against isolation. To survive, Grantville is going to have to build on what it has already — and expand. But not as an empire: as the idealistic Republic they were once members of, and now constitute. Their goal is to start winning the hearts and minds of their neighbors, and from the downtrodden German folk create a shining city set upon a hill, amidst the forests of Thuringia.
1632 covers Grantville’s first year, and much happens — raids and battles, politicking between the American factions over the city’s future and between the warring powers of Europe, America now included — and a great deal of character development. Idling teenagers who spend their days throwing dice are forced into responsible manhood: schoolteachers and engineers now govern a nation. But the Americans are not alone, for the cast of viewpoint characters steadily expands to includes ‘downtime’ Europeans (some Jewish refugees, some Germans) who become citizens of the new republic, beguiled by its tolerance, high (if charmingly native) ideals, and liberties. These characters are standouts, especially the women of both cultures. One woman grows from a rape victim-concubine hiding her family in a cesspit to a lady of war who terrifies grown men with her stare and strikes the characters as being a creature out of legend.
Although the chronology of the books that follow this is bewildering, I may have to try, for 1632 is such a delightful novel I’d like very much to see what develops from it. The insertion of 20th century knowledge and mores into the middle of early industrial Europe is fascinating enough — what will become of the Dutch Republic, I wonder? will it make common cause? — but the storytelling is exuberantly fun. Despite being alone in the middle of deadly chaos, the Grantville townsfolk seize the danger as an opportunity. They’re full of bravado, flying around in pickup trucks and shotguns, rescuing damsels in distress and killing hordes of evil raping mercenaries with an M-60 while screaming “‘MERICA!”. They aren’t hicks — just country folk used to fighting for what they believe in, and what they believe in most is equality and liberty. I’d wager European readers might be a touch turned off by the notion of cheerfully confident Americans remolding the continent in their own image, but for Americans, the first book at least should find a broad audience in anyone who can gamely tolerate speculative fiction, as it supplies a little of everything, from politics to romance to combat. This first book is available for free on Kindle, no doubt a nefarious plan on Amazon’s part to hook readers like myself into wanting to read the dozen or so that follow it..