Reviewed by Matthew Appleton
This review originally appeared in the December 2000 issue (#148) of The New York Review of Science Fiction.
1632 is a novel whose popularity initially seems to defy explanation. If you go to Amazon.com, and pull up this book, you’ll immediately notice that the average customer review is four-and-a-half stars out of five. However, not knowing if this sort of thing was normal on Amazon, I checked out a few other time travel/alternate history books, which I thought were far superior, to see how they compared. Michael Swanwick’s Jack Faust: 3.5 stars; Harry Turtledove’s Guns of the South: 4.5 stars; Ward Moore’s Bring the Jubilee: 4.5 stars; Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court: 3.5 stars; L. Sprague de Camp’s Lest Darkness Fall: 4.5 stars.
Something didn’t sit quite right. In my mind, 1632 does not merit mention with these other novels, yet readers leave reviews at Amazon that gave it as high a mark as any other novel of its type. The plot certainly wasn’t incredibly original. Its depiction of a contemporary West Virginia mining town suddenly dumped in the seventeenth-century Holy Roman Empire and left to its own resources sounds an awful lot like de Camp’s Darkness, only on a slightly larger scale. As for the rapid introduction of superior technology into the past and its effects on warfare, Turtledove’s depiction in Guns somehow resonates more deeply. Finally, Swanwick’s depiction in Jack Faust of the flexibility of a medieval/early-renaissance society as it adapts to new ways of thinking and functioning feels much truer.
Another problem with 1632 is the inconsistent tone of the novel. At times it looks like a comedy, almost even an attempt at humorous satire a la Connecticut Yankee–especially when the lead cheerleader of the town’s high school is discovered to be the best sharpshooter of the displaced folk. However, the explanation of how the town found itself in the middle of early Renaissance Germany–that a discarded piece of cosmic “art” by another species caused a rift in the space-time continuum that somehow lifted this town into the past–sounds humorous in theory, but is delivered with the seriousness and dryness of a high school history text. At other times, the author seems to seriously explore anachronism shock by injecting highly dramatic, life-altering decisions filled with much introspection, such as when one of the teenage Americans contemplates a rather sudden marriage proposal from one of the local German women. As a result, the overall feel is that of a television sitcom which tries to do a serious issue-based episode in order to garner its lead actors Emmy nominations for their fine acting. In fact, the cover of the novel manages to convey this ambiguity of tone quite well. You’re not sure if you should laugh when you note the juxtaposition of seventeenth-century soldiers as they face down a pickup full of Americans, possibly rednecks, bearing down on them.
So where does the popularity stem from?
My best guess at this is the patriotic strings that Flint constantly tugs at throughout the novel, a point highlighted by the title on the cover, which uses the stars and stripes as a fill for the lettering. The protagonists are the only Americans left in the world, and immediately they decide they will maintain the Bill of Rights and go about establishing a new United States–right down to restarting the American flag with just one star and adding an additional one for each region that joins them in alliance. In addition, Flint’s play to the reader’s patriotism includes a populist feel. As the town has its first meeting to decide how to best govern themselves and handle their situation, the town shouts down John Simpson, a top executive at a large petrochemical corporation in town to attend a wedding, who wants to take control and impose martial law, and effectively gives the reins of power, both political and military, to the local coal miners’ union. This populist/patriotic slant continues throughout the novel as the townsfolk decide to encourage free immigration, to defend the weak and hopeless in the surrounding hills, and to expand the territory that its forces defend. In fact, these former West Virginians are so pragmatic that they decide to allow women into the military when it becomes obvious that filling its ranks with just the town’s men is insufficient.
The populist slant manifests itself in other aspects of the book. The American society openly practices the ideals it preaches, openly accepting Jews at a time when no other community in Europe does so and immediately teaching the locals, including the women, how to read and about American ideals. The people eventually elected to lead this new United States include James Nichols, an African-American doctor and Vietnam War veteran; Melissa Mailey, an ultra-liberal feminist school teacher; and Quentin Underwood, the former head of management relations at the coal mines. None of them are completely sure that all their actions are the right ones, but they face the adversity with a definite can-do attitude and spirit, learning from their mistakes as they trudge along. In fact, in many ways the book feels like the movie Independence Day, right down to the dramatic ending where the Americans pull victory out of a nearly certain devastating, possibly obliterating, defeat at the last second with the stereotypical help of the cavalry (I swear I’m not making this up). The only difference is that this time the Americans are the invaders, inadvertently at first, and they’ve come to liberate Europe.
Additionally, it’s easy to discern the enemies in 1632; in fact, Flint couldn’t have been blunter unless he called the main character Hero Protagonist. The bad guys are either intolerant Catholic bishops or stereotypically evil “rape the women and pillage the fields” soldiers. In fact, some are so evil that they purposely rape the fields and pillage the women. Okay, that’s an exaggeration. However, there are no shades of gray in this book to confuse the reader about what is right. This lack of antagonist characterization is made all the more apparent by the layers of complexity Flint gives the protagonists. Many of them, while trying to adhere to the ideals of a transplanted United States, realize that they won’t survive if they don’t compromise those beliefs at times. Even the locals who ally themselves with the Americans seem to sense that the status quo must go. For example, King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, one of the few historical figures actually portrayed in the novel, is convinced to allow the Americans to form a political union where he is their de facto leader without actually calling him King.
So where does all this leave 1632 in comparison to the other novels?
The best way to place it is to use an analogy that Joe Mayhew, long-time member of the Washington Science Fiction Association and Hugo-award winning fan artist, passed on to me shortly before he passed away. He said that there were three “types” of fiction: cola, beer, and whiskey. Each enjoyable in its own right, but definitely not to be confused with each other. With that in mind, 1632 definitely falls into the cola category. Almost pure mind candy, despite some pretensions otherwise, 1632 should be read the same way Independence Day needs to be watched, with a total suspension of disbelief. This way, you can let yourself get caught up in the crowd-pleasing aspects of the novel and make yourself feel good about being American. And 1633 has been announced for 2001.