Review: 1632 by Eric Flint

Review: 1632 by Eric Flint1632 (Ring of Fire #1) by Eric Flint
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: alternate history, science fiction, time travel
Series: Ring of Fire #1
Pages: 597
Published by Baen Books on 2-1-2000
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

FREEDOM AND JUSTICE -- AMERICAN STYLE 1632 And in northern Germany things couldn't get much worse. Famine. Disease. Religous war laying waste the cities. Only the aristocrats remained relatively unscathed; for the peasants, death was a mercy. 2000 Things are going OK in Grantville, West Virginia, and everybody attending the wedding of Mike Stearn's sister (including the entire local chapter of the United Mine Workers of America, which Mike leads) is having a good time. THEN, EVERYTHING CHANGED.... When the dust settles, Mike leads a group of armed miners to find out what happened and finds the road into town is cut, as with a sword. On the other side, a scene out of Hell: a man nailed to a farmhouse door, his wife and daughter attacked by men in steel vests. Faced with this, Mike and his friends don't have to ask who to shoot. At that moment Freedom and Justice, American style, are introduced to the middle of the Thirty Years' War.

My Review:

What if? That’s often the central question in science fiction. In the case of alternate history, as 1632 most definitely is, the question is just a bit more specific. What if history went down a different leg of the trousers of time than it did in the world we know?

When this book and this series, 1632, opens, it’s the year 2000 in Grantville, West Virginia. The entire town has turned out, along with quite a few selected and/or important guests, to see Rita Stearns, hometown hero Mike Stearns’ sister, get married to an out-of-towner whose parents most definitely do not approve.

Time and history, at least as far as the residents of Grantville knew it, gets knocked off the rails during the wedding reception, when what they later refer to as “The Ring of Fire” slices a 6 mile wide – and deep – circle in the earth with Grantville at its center, picks up that slice of the just barely 21st century U.S. and switches it with a corresponding slice of earth in the middle of the Holy Roman Empire in 1632 during the height of the mess that history refers to as the Thirty Years’ War.

The story in this book and the series that grew out of it, is not about the aliens. Nor is it about the mechanism of that time travel. It’s about what happens next. In 1632. Where a complete town of 3,000 people with late 20th century ideas and ideals has suddenly dropped into the midst of chaos.

No one even thinks about Star Trek’s Prime Directive. They can’t reverse what happened. They don’t even know how it happened. They can’t leave. And there are far, far too many of them to either hide that they are there or attempt to blend into the local population. Where they are, which turns out to be the middle of the Thuringian Forest, is where they are staying. And where their children, and grandchildren, etc., will be born and raised.

This is the story of who they decide to be and how they decide to make that happen in a world that isn’t ready for either what they think or what they know. They see two options laid out before them. The first is to batten down the hatches and fend off anyone from the outside who tries to get in. The second is to throw open the doors and let everyone in – as long as they are willing to abide by the conditions laid out in documents that won’t be written for another century and a half.

Can the United States of Europe get enough people to accept democracy, civil rights and American-style prosperity fast enough to change enough history to make a new, good life for themselves and everyone willing to join them?

Or will the powers-that-be of 17th century Europe wipe them out and grind them under before they have firm enough ground to stand on?

Escape Rating A: I read 1632 way back when it was originally published in 2000 and absolutely fell in love with it – and several of the subsequent volumes of the Ring of Fire series. The author and originator, Eric Flint, passed away last week and it reminded me just how much I loved this at the time. I decided to see if it held up over the intervening decades – and here we are. The answer is pretty obvious from the rating. I loved it then and I love it still and I’ll probably read more of the series – again or for the first time – as time permits.

That’s not to say it doesn’t have its flaws along with its terrific points – but I still loved it. For one thing, this is very much competence porn. The group of folks who end up as the “Founding Fathers and Mothers” are all utterly excellent at doing the jobs that have been thrust upon them.

Probably more excellent – and more cohesively – than would happen if this were real. Or if it happened now. It did feel like they came together much faster in 2000 than might occur today after the last two decades of extreme political divisiveness in the U.S.

The wedding reception also created a rather convenient excuse for a lot of people to be in this small and already dying town than would have been true on a typical Sunday. It is particularly notable that the only black people in town – a much needed doctor and his paramedic daughter – are only there for the wedding. Otherwise the town would be almost entirely monochromatic.

If there are any LGBTQ+ folks in Grantville – we certainly don’t meet them in this first book. (That being said, this was not atypical of publishing at the time this book came out. The series kept on going, 32 books and counting, with the most recent, 1636: The China Venture, published in 2019. I imagine the books got more diverse in all ways as the series continued, but I can’t prove it from here.)

What fascinated me the first time I read this, and continues to do so, was the history and the directions that the author – and his later collaborators – chose to take that history. Their initial decisions in this first book seem reasonable, especially that all-important decision to gear their technology down to the level of the Industrial Revolution. It’s a level they can reach and maintain with the knowledge they have and the level of technology they can get their neighbors to reach. And it’s still way ahead of where central Europe is when they “landed”.

This book doesn’t so much end as it does lead immediately to the next book in the series, 1633. But it still feels like it stops on a triumphant note. Not because they just won an important military victory – although they certainly did. It’s what that victory is in service of that makes the ending a high note.

First, the victory is a victory of alliance – not of Grantville using its technical superiority to turn itself into a fortress nation. They form an alliance with King Gustav II Adolphus of Sweden, who in the history that was but will not be, a very forward thinking monarch who might have changed real history – if he hadn’t died in late 1632.

Second, the victory on their home ground, protects the most dangerous thing that Grantville brought back with it – the high school library and the students studying at the school. The powers-that-be, including Cardinal Richelieu of France (the villainous mastermind in The Three Musketeers) knew that the knowledge and information that Grantville brought to the 17th century was infinitely more dangerous than any of their weapons – and they wanted it destroyed at all costs.

And I have to admit that that acknowledgement, that libraries are dangerous because they expose people to knowledge and information, warmed the cockles of my librarian’s heart. Because it is and because we are. Not because of any of the specific things that are being protested today, but because libraries open people’s minds to what is possible – and that is what reactionary forces always fear above all else. Libraries, and librarians, teach people to ask questions that no tyrant, whether of government or of thought, wants to answer.

So I had fun. I had a lot of thoughts re-reading this book, but I also had a lot of fun. Even if things were a lot easier than I expect they would have been or should have been, I enjoyed watching these highly competent people doing their best to not just survive but to make a real life for themselves, their neighbors AND their posterity in a place where none of them could ever have expected to be.

I’ll be back – again or for the first time – the next time I need a competence porn pick-me-up or just want to watch a whole bunch of people play silly buggers with history. 1633 here I come!

Review: Domesticating Dragons by Dan Koboldt

Review: Domesticating Dragons by Dan KoboldtDomesticating Dragons by Dan Koboldt
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: science fiction
Pages: 345
Published by Baen Books on January 5, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Build-A-Bear workshop meets Jurassic Park when a newly graduated genetic engineer goes to work for a company that aims to produce custom-made dragons.
Noah Parker, a newly minted Ph.D., is thrilled to land a dream job at Reptilian Corp., the hottest tech company in the American Southwest. He’s eager to put his genetic engineering expertise to use designing new lines of Reptilian’s feature product: living, breathing dragons.
Although highly specialized dragons have been used for industrial purposes for years, Reptilian is desperate to crack the general retail market. By creating a dragon that can be the perfect family pet, Reptilian hopes to put a dragon into every home.
While Noah’s research may help Reptilian create truly domesticated dragons, Noah has a secret goal. With his access to the company’s equipment and resources, Noah plans to slip changes into the dragons’ genetic code, bending the company’s products to another purpose entirely.

My Review:

The blurb calls this “Build-A-Bear workshop meets Jurassic Park” and that does sum up the top level of this story – although in the end it turns out to be WAY MORE Jurassic Park than Build-A-Bear™.

After all, those bears aren’t real, but the dragons in Jurassic Park definitely are. Although the dragons that both do and don’t get domesticated don’t run quite that far amok. But they could. And they definitely do run a bit amok, but then, so do their designers – and their owners.

There are two situations at the beginning of this story, and they play into each other in ways that I didn’t expect at that beginning.

Noah Parker got into genetic engineering because his younger brother has a muscular atrophy-type disease that could be genetic. But nobody knows and with the source of the disease unidentified – and therefore medically “vague” – Connor Parker isn’t eligible for any of the experimental testing and treatment programs that are currently underway – or that ever will be.

Noah became a genetic engineer not so he could cure his brother – because that’s not possible – but so that he could identify the genetic component of his disease and get him into effective treatment.

It’s a noble goal – although the lengths that Noah goes to in order to achieve it are sometimes less than noble.

There’s also a secondary problem that most of the world considers more important than the progress of one man’s disease. A virus has killed off nearly the entire canine population the world over – and no cure has been found.

Strangely enough, that’s what leads to dragons. Because dogs fill a lot of roles in the human ecosystem, as well as making marvelous pets. There’s a huge niche that can be exploited by someone with the genetic engineering knowhow and the economic savvy to design and build a creature that can fill all those cages that used to be filled by barking dogs.

That’s where Reptilian Corporation comes in. And eventually, where it goes out. With more than a bit of help from newly minted Ph.D. Noah Parker and all of his little friends.

Escape Rating A-: Dragons may be the ultimate in charismatic fauna. They’re certainly right up there with the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park for just how much sheer “grabby hands syndrome” the idea of having one’s very own dragon would create in pretty much anyone.

Including a whole lot of people who are incapable of being responsible pet owners for one reason or another. The transcripts of the calls to the Build-A-Dragon help line and support department are hilarious and so very real. Tech support for computers and computer software sounds very much like that – without the possibilities of death and dismemberment for either the owner or the product. Usually. (If you’ve never read the probably apocryphal tale of nosmoke.exe, now might be the time. We all need a laugh or two this week!)

As much as I chuckled over the tech support bits, this is a story that began by giving me a terrible sad. Imagining a world where there were no dogs was depressing as hell. And I’m a cat person. But seriously, as many jokes as there are about asking the deity to make someone as good of a person as their dog thinks there are, the idea that the dogs were all gone was heartbreaking. Strangely even more heartbreaking than the situation at the beginning of Connie Willis’ quirky time-travel classic, To Say Nothing of the Dog, which begins in a world where it’s the cats who have been killed off.)

It also made me wonder, throughout the story, why no one seemed to have thought about engineering dog species who were immune to the virus. Discovering the reason at the end was kind of a relief.

But the story here is about one extremely nerdy guy who sets out to save his brother and ends up saving an entire species. Because as much as he wants to treat the dragons as if they are merely clusters of experimental cells, he can’t. They worm, or rather fly, their way into Noah’s heart every bit as much as they do the readers’.

So when Noah discovers the truth about what’s really going on with the company and the dragons, we’re right there with him in his horror, his disgust, his fear and his determination. We cheer him on as he does what’s right instead of what’s easy.

And it’s marvelous that in the end, rather like the way that dogs (and cats) save us as much as we save them, Noah’s dragons save him every bit as much as he saves them – if not just a bit more.

Lab-based science fiction, with its grounding in the real world, real situations and people who feel like friends rather than out-of-this-world superheroes is a lot of fun when it’s done right. It’s done right in Domesticating Dragons, with its geeky hero who saves the day, gets the girl and fulfills all of our dreams of dragons.

Guest Review: Stardance by Spider and Jeanne Robinson

Guest Review: Stardance by Spider and Jeanne RobinsonStardance by Spider Robinson, Jeanne Robinson
Format: paperback
Source: purchased from bookstore
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: science fiction, space opera
Series: Stardance #1
Pages: 288
Published by Baen Books on February 1st 1977
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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A woman of perfect beauty is too big for perfect grace as a ballerina; she will never be more than an understudy. Stardance is the story of one such, one with the body of Venus di Milo and a talent greater than Pavlova's. But if there is an answer, genius will find it; Shara Drummond goes to Space, where her life is devoted to creating a weightless art form that is to Dance as three dimensions are to two.

Then the aliens arrive, beings of pure light who dance forever between the stars. And so it falls to Shara Drummond to prove that the human race is ... human. By her Stardance.

Guest Review by Amy:

Our story is told in the voice of Charlie Armstead, a cynical former dancer and videographer. He’s the best at what he does, (probably because he’s a former dancer), and when he gets the opportunity to shoot video of the finest dancer he’s ever known in zero gravity, he jumps at the chance. But when aliens show up, Shara Drummond must dance for them, and Charlie gets the tape of a lifetime.  But, you see, that’s just the beginning of the story.

Escape Rating: A+. If you read the cover synopsis from the publisher, you might be misled into thinking that this book is about Shara Drummond, and her Stardance. I was, and when the dance with aliens came to a climactic conclusion a third of the way through the book, I was left wondering, “now what?” Frankly, I was a little bit mad that we’d hit the “end” so soon!

But, stubborn woman that I am, I kept reading, and when I finished the book, I had to spend rather a long time sussing out how I was going to describe this book. Because the end of Shara’s Stardance isn’t the end of the story; there’s a lot more to it, and Charlie must find his own way through to the end. It’s…complicated.

Spider and Jeanne Robinson have written a sonata, if you will. In the first movement, allegro, Shara does her dance for the aliens, Charlie taping every moment of it. This tape transforms the lives of a number of people in the second movement, a rondo, wherein Charlie and Shara’s sister Norrey marry and start a zero-gee dance school. In the third movement, the scherzo, the aliens return! An almost-pastoral coda ties up a few loose ends to the story’s structure, and we’re left with a tale to make you spend the night thinking about the real question that the Robinsons pose in this work: “What does it mean to be human?” Each part of the Stardance “sonata” is a story of its own, with its own tale to tell, and it isn’t until you get near the end that you figure out that all of these stories are actually a necessary part of a larger whole.

The first “movement” of this story doesn’t move terribly fast. Charlie is a depressive alcoholic, and it shows. That sort of life isn’t all that appealing to me, and so it made him a bit hard to like. After Shara’s dance, though, the transformative power of the Stardance wakes something up in him – he even later comments that it cured him of his alcoholism – and the vast profits from the tape let him move his life onto a more positive trajectory. Norrey is, as she has always been for him, a good influence, and when other members of their dance-school team join on, they forge an extended family of six: Three couples, one of them a gay couple, who love and trust each other completely. When the challenge arises, as the aliens return and park near Saturn, all six jump at the chance to go try to communicate with them, through their own Stardance.

There were some ironic moments for me in this book; one of the diplomats who accompanies the Stardancers out to Saturn is an American, Sheldon Silverman. He is nationalistic, vain, greedy, and always seeking a strategic advantage over the other five diplomats and the dancers. When he started causing problems, I had a thought: “well, of course. Stereotypical American politician.” Indeed, all of the diplomats in the group were somewhat trope-ish to me, from the cagey Chinese man to the Russian woman who tried (briefly) to bully the dancers, to the affable and brilliant Spaniard. This was a minor distraction, and it served the point that the us-vs-them that we embrace so much of here on Earth is part of the problem–but there is a solution, and in the end, when we find out that the aliens have the solution, two of the diplomats find that it just can’t work in their worldview.

If this was the only work in this universe that Spider and Jeanne Robinson created, it would be enough; it tells us an epic story, with adventure, romance, thrills, and a bit of mystery. Even more, it challenges the reader to think about the nature of family and humanity. It’s definitely worth a look. Originally published in 1977, it has startling insight into the “progress” we’ve made in the years since its publication. But there are two other works in this trilogy (Starseed and Starmind), which I hope to track down soon. If they’re as wonderful as Stardance, I’ll be in for a couple of thoughtful, thoroughly wonderful reads.