1632, Eric Flynn

Baen, 2000, 597 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-671-31972-8

(read as an e-book, freely available from www.baen.com)

I have always been, still am and will forever remain a paper-book geek.

Still, there’s always some room for experimentation. When I got to test a Palm Pilot for the office, I decided to take advantage of the opportunity to do a reality-check on the whole e-book concept. What can I say; I was skeptical. In order to ensure validity between this experiment and my usual reading regimen, I went to a well-known publisher (Baen) and downloaded the freely-available electronic version of one of their books. No sir, no vanity-press e-book amateur drivel for me!

Thus equipped, I started reading on the tiny 150×150 screen of my Palm Pilot… and it proved to be a reading experience more or less undistinguishable from the paper page thing. Sometimes even better; the Palm Mobipocket Reader software has its faults, but the instant-bookmark setup is a boon, and so is the backlit screen. Not to mention that a Palm Pilot can be, with some slight contortions, be read with only one hand, which is difficult to do with a paperback without breaking the spine of it. Works for me.

What about the novel itself, then?

It appears that I was lucky with my selection: Eric Flint’s 1632 is a terrific adventure book, an SF update of those Robinsonade stories I gleefully read throughout my teenage years.

Flint barely tries to justify his setup: thanks to an alien “time shard”, the West Virginia town of Grantville (mostly populated with hardy coal miners) is transported back to 17th-century Germany, smack in the middle of belligerent empires during the Thirty Years’ War. After a few moments of astonishment, the local chapter of the United Mine Workers of America chooses the side of good old-fashioned American freedom and justice. A machine-gun-powered Second American Revolution gets underway… in the heart of Europe.

As a non-American, it’s a bit difficult not to smile at such “America Über Alles” stories, but if my American readers can forgive the smirk, the truth is that 1632 remains one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read lately. (Naturally, the fact that I read it “on a break” from the middle of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged may have helped.) Flint is a gifted novelist, and the cast of characters he assembles for 1632 is well-worth cheering for. Mine workers, teachers, teenagers and farmers unite to show barbarians a lesson, and frankly, our time couldn’t send better representatives to the renaissance than a bunch of blue-collar workers. Once the initial confusion evaporates, Grantville has to figure out how to survive gracefully in a world without modern conveniences. Meanwhile, forces amass to attack the town, romance buds and a government is formed. It’s all quite fascinating, and a lot of fun whenever contemporary gadgets are unleashed on woefully ill-equipped armies. Flint isn’t a stupid writer, and the aura of realism that emanates from the accumulation of details goes a long way towards forgiving the rather easy premise.

The writing style is brisk and limpid: Flint has an eye for good scenes and sympathetic characters. The only limp passages take place whenever we get away from the Americans for some insipid court intrigue. The rest is all gravy. I found myself reading passages of the book away from my daily bus commute, which is where I had told myself I’d read 1632.

…and that brings us back to the e-book experience. After 1632, I have no doubt that the concept is viable from the reader’s point of view. I would have enjoyed the novel on paper or on-screen, and so reading it on the Palm Pilot made no difference. I’m not so convinced, however, that the e-book is a viable business model. A few days after finishing 1632, I eventually made my way to the local SF bookstore and bought a copy for my library, an act which may be seen as both damning and praising the whole e-book concept. In the end, I may remain firmly committed to dead-tree bricks but I won’t give out that skeptical frown anymore whenever I hear someone rant about electronic books.

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