When I’m an invalid, I want reading that is light, long, and moderately intelligent. Last week when my left knee decided to complain about its lack of cartilage, my choice was the first half dozen books of Eric Flint’s Ring of Fire or 1632 series. Mostly, the choice fit my requirements, although I have a few reservations about the books.
The premise of the series is simple: A small town in West Virginia suddenly finds itself in Germany in the middle of the Thirty Years’ War. With its technological edge, the town rapidly becomes a major power, allying itself with Gustav Adolphus of Sweden, and history begins to change. Originally a single book, the series has expanded as Flint has thrown open the series to other writers and encouraged fan fiction set in the same universe.
Beyond the actual pages, the series is also interesting because Flint is one of the first science fiction writers to see the possibility in ebooks and free downloads. Although he doesn’t go so far as Cory Doctorow and make all his books available for free downloads, Flint has seen the advantage of releasing his earlier works to keep them available, which means that the first two books in the series are free ebooks.
The series’ attractions are not stylistic ones. Flint and his growing list of co-authors are competent writers at best, and fall into the category of storytellers rather than artists or even strong plotters. Not that there is anything wrong with that; I respect an intelligent light read, and appreciate one in certain moods, such as coming home on public transit at the end of the day or — as recently, when I was doped on ibuprofen.
Rather, the series is interesting for two reasons. First, it deals with European history, a topic that most of his English-speaking audience is likely to know little about. Since the era includes such larger than life characters as Gustav Adolphus, Oliver Cromwell, and Cardinal Richelieu, there is plenty to entertain and inform, although obviously these characters soon start acting in non-historical ways. However, if you do know the characters who appear on its pages, then seeing where and how they depart from our history becomes intriguing – all the more so since Flint and the other writers largely resist the temptation to make antagonists outright or villains.
Second, the early books of the series focus on the West Virginian’s survival strategies. Their technological advantage is limited because they lack the infrastructure to support it, so much of their planning involves figuring how to downgrade their knowledge – for example, they decide to focus on 19th Century firearms rather than modern ones. These survival efforts are all the more interesting because the emergent leader and many of his supporters are unionists, and express a vision of the future that is more idealistic than the conscious or unconscious free market philosophy of most American science fiction.
However, as often happens when you read a series (or a chunk of it) in one sitting, The Ring of Fire series soon reveals itself as formula fiction. Each of the books I have read in the series revolves around a plot against the West Virginians by political opponents. Through devious means and native ingenuity, these opponents seek to even the technological odds against them, but, although these efforts keep the books from being a completely adolescent power fantasy, there is never much doubt that the moderns and their allies will win, amalgamating their noble enemies and forcing the rest into retreat. In other words, American imperialism is still very much a part of these books — even if it is a liberal imperialism — and the outcome is never much in doubt.
Another problem is that the scenes in each book tend to be one of two kinds: talking heads – often politicians – and loving descriptions of battles and action that I can only describe as war-porn.
I can mostly endure the talking heads, although I wouldn’t mind more variation in technique. However, the war porn soon becomes tedious.
By “war porn” I do not mean graphic, nauseating descriptions of violence – which are mostly absent in the series – but a devotion to action sequences for their own sake. For the most part, battles in the Ring of Fire series are not described to give background to individual characters’ actions or to make clear why other events are happening, the way they are in Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe series. Instead, from the tone and the undue length of the descriptions, I get the impression that readers are assumed to be as fascinated with the descriptions as the writers are. I’m not, and often amuse myself in them by deciding which scenes could be deleted and thereby speed up the pace of the books.
Yet another problem is the depiction of women. The series is by no means overtly sexist – although so far, no one has mentioned how family planning might fit into the priorities of the stranded moderns. Rather, the depiction of women tends to be token and limited. With no exception that I can readily recall, major female characters tend have one-note in a way that the male characters don’t: One is an old activist, another wise, another full of revolutionary fervor, and so on. Mostly, too, they tend to be introduced in a quirky love story, after which any attempt to develop them comes to an abrupt halt. I suppose that Flint and the others deserve points for trying, but I’d still like to see one of them tackle a story about a woman with her own concerns someday.
Some of this criticism is probably due to an overdose. After all, no series is supposed to be read over a few days. Still, while I will probably return to the series some time when I want intelligent light reading, for now I find myself in no great hurry to do so.