Reading Eric Flint’s 1632 reminded me of two classc science fiction works. The first is L. Sprague de Camp’s Lest Darkness Fall, which is predicated on a similar premise: a man from the present finds himself suddenly transported to the collapsing Roman Empire, where he uses his knowledge of modern ways to change history. In this novel, however, it is not a solitary historian who is dropped into the past, but an entire West Virginia town. This gives them a significant advantage over de Camp’s character, as they have tools, weapons, even a functioning power plant to provide electricity in a pre-steam engine age. The circumstances may not be quite as challenging, but the similar goals lead to a lot of fun, as the residents of Grantville find themselves bringing American values and know-how to the tumultuous struggle of the Thirty Years War.
This transformation of 17th century Germany brought to mind another science fiction tale, the Janissaries series by Jerry Pournelle. In it, a group of American mercenaries are plucked off of a hill in Africa and taken to a planet to supervise the harvesting of a narcotic plant. Like Eric Flint’s West Virginians, they encounter humans from earlier ages who had been deposited there previously. Yet whereas Pournelle used this scenario to depict very human fragmentation and conflict between the mercenaries, Flint’s Grantvillians present a virtuous front adhering to idealized values – a front that is perhaps a little TOO virtuous. Such an approach constricts the novel, as well as creating lopsided clashes between the united Americans and their outmatched opponents. It would have been far more interesting to depict a divided community with opportunists allying themselves with Grantville’s enemies.
It all adds up to a series that is entertaining but largely predictable. Hopefully Flint and his subsequent collaborators overcame these limitations in later volumes of this popular series, which makes for enjoyable reading but left me with the sense that it could have been so much better.