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Time Spike by Eric Flint and Marilyn Kosmatka

Cover art by David Mattingly

Published by Baen Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

I hesitate to place Time Spike in the 1632 universe, because strictly speaking it does not belong to the sequence that has developed around that book. However, the links between the two novels are impossible to miss, for the disappearance of Grantville is discussed openly in several chapters.

In fact, this novel bears a relationship to 1632 and its sequels quite similar to that of S. M. Stirling's And Dies the Fire to Island in the Sea of Time and its sequels -- namely, it deals with what happens in the world our time-transposed heroes left behind. However, this should not be taken to indicate that there is any similarity in the plotlines of the two novels -- far from it, And Dies the Fire is more akin to John Ringo's There Will Be Dragons and its sequels, dealing with a society in which technology has failed.

No such catastrophe has befallen the world Grantville left behind -- we knew that from the prolog to 1632, which spoke briefly of the scientific investigations that had followed the disappearance of the West Virginia coal mining town. However, it seems that the matter did not in fact die so quickly as was represented in that prolog. Tapper was not the only person who took interest in the disaster that whisked Grantville from the face of the earth -- and many of the physicists and other scientists whose instruments detected something that fateful day have been extremely dissatisfied with the government''s handling of the event, which has generally been regarded as a forcible expulsion of the scientific community from the process of inquiry and the descending of a cone of silence upon the entire matter.

It is interesting to speculate how events in the Primary World in the years since Eric Flint originally wrote 1632, particularly the War on Terror and the Bush Adminstration's highly questionable encroachments upon civil liberties under the rubric of the Patriot Act, may have shaped his thoughts as he returned to the question of what happened in the world Grantville left behind. Certainly there are some pretty open and unabashedly critical references to the "current administration" (this novel was published in 2008, when George W. Bush was still in office) in the text, particularly in the scene in which financier Alexander Cohen is talking with the scientists who are researching the time bolides which have struck Earth since the Grantville Event.

However, the scientists and their struggles to understand what is going on is a relatively small thread, and the political aspects of it are more throwaway lines than real plot elements. Thus it is completely possible that Flint decided to reconsider the nature of the investigations solely for story reasons, rather than to make any political point. When he originally wrote 1632, he was still a relatively unknown writer with only a few novels to his credit, and he was thinking in terms of a single stand-alone volume, not a long-term series that would become the cornerstone of his career and a moneymaker for Baen right up there with David Weber's Honor Harrington series. As a result, he may well have written the prolog mostly to set up the story he was writing at the moment, without any concern for how it would work as a story in its own, and when such a story became possible, needed to rework those ideas to remove the sense of closure and leave room for things to happen.

In the absence of any definitive word from the author (most likely to be found on his conferences on Baen's Bar), all of this is speculation, of the sort that the lit-crit community thrives upon and doctoral students write dissertations about. Given that Flint has a literature degree, it's completely possible that he's playing with our minds, planting the sort of things that lit professors love to speculate about, solely to watch the speculation happen. And in any case, the real meat of the story lies elsewhere.

In particular, in the story of the people who are caught in yet another of these time events, the biggest since the Grantville one. Except this one is behaving very differently -- instead of scooping up a chunk of space and swapping it with an equivalent one in the past, it seems to be driving backward in time but staying almost entirely in southern Illinois, picking up first a maximum-security prison full of prisoners, then a group of Cherokees on the Trail of Tears, then the Spanish conquistador Hernando De Soto and his army, then a great number of villages of the people who developed the Mounds civilization that reached its peak in the ancient city of Cahokia, and depositing them all in the early Cretaceous.

This selection provides an interesting contrast with the 1632-verse books. While Grantville is a functional society populated primarily by stable people, the population of Alexander Correctional Center is dysfunctional in the extreme, being full of people whose inability to stay within society's bounds has made them such a danger to others that they had to be removed from it. And even the guards are bereft of the solace of their families, a very important consideration the Grandvillers for the most part had to lean on. Instead, they have only their professional connections to one another to lean upon.

Worse, they are desperately understrength, thanks to budget cuts by a state that claims to be unable to afford the benefits package for additional corrections officers (this novel was written before the disgrace and removal from office of former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, who actually did claim that the Illinois budget was desperately short and close a number of state parks and other state facilities, so it's a completely believable situation). It's bad enough when they have the resources of the outside world to call upon to restore order in case of a riot, but when they are suddenly thrust into the past and thrown upon their own devices, the situation quickly becomes desperate.

Worse, the Quiver, as they call the event, occurs in the evening when many of their top staff has gone home for the night. Not just the Warden and his senior staff, but also the doctors who would normally provide medical care for the inmates -- so they have no one to call upon for medical attention but a few night nurses, and the population of a prison does not tend to healthy people. Not only are there the outright psychotic, but there are also the people whose health has been destroyed by a lifetime of abuses gross and subtle, from dangerous street drugs to bad diet that may well go all the way back to the womb, since most inmates come from dysfunctional families and mothers whose prenatal care and diet tend to be sketchy at best.

But the most pressing need is food, for their normal operations assume that they will be receiving regular food shipments from the outside. And there is no quicker trigger of trouble than hunger, so it is vital to keep the prisoners' stomachs filled, so a number of guards set out to hunt for game. In the process they come across signs of a fight and discover a wounded man curled up in a cave. Upon taking him back to the prison infirmary, they realize he is no one from the prison, and apparently represents a completely different group -- one that doesn't even come from the twenty-first century. His clothes were made by hand, and he has no signs of modern medical treatment -- no vaccination scars, no fillings in his teeth.

It is one of the inmates that provides the vital clue to his identity. James Cook was an EMT before his temper got the better of him and he got in a bar fight and ended up charged with murder. The case was so sloppy that it wouldn't even have seen the inside of a courtroom if Cook had been a white man, but he is a Cherokee Indian and from a family of extremely modest means (no casino money here), and the public defender who was assigned his case didn't even bother to fight his case, just urged him to plea-bargain the charges down to something more manageable. But he had the pride of his people and was determined to prove his own innocence, and instead ended up with the book thrown at him.

Any form of cooperation with the guards can be deadly for a prisoner, so Cook is careful to bargain for what he hopes will be some form of protection -- namely, transfer to a cell with one of the biggest, most dangerous gang leaders in the entire prison, a giant African American known as "Boomer" because of his explosive temper, although he is in fact quite gentle when calm. And that is a good thing, because trouble is brewing -- one of the guards is turning renegade, joining forces with one of the most sinister gang leaders to take over the prison as soon as a large force of guards heads out to help the nineteenth-century Cherokees who were taken from the Trail of Tears only to fall in the path of De Soto's vicious marauding conquistador army.

The renegade guard is a loser who ends up with his brains splattered all over the infirmary floor within hours of his uprising, his killer then freeing the remaining guards and helping them escape the prison turned hellhole. But the gang leader is a real piece of work.

On paper Adrian Luff looks harmless -- he wasn't even in for a violent offense, just the embezzlement of the Social Security checks of an elderly couple after they died. And to look at him, he certainly doesn't look scary -- he's retained the quiet manner of the accountant he was on the outside. But he's a master manipulator, and he has a deep-seated contempt for everyone else, and he believes that the only way for the prison population to survive is to "thin the herd" -- to eliminate the non-productive individuals, starting with the obviously sickly and crazy and working upward.

In many ways Luff is reminiscent of Adolf Eichmann, the notorious Nazi war criminal who methodolically exterminated vast number of Jews and other "undesirables" -- he has that exact same "by the numbers" attention to detail that enables him to calculate whether it's better to kill of a sickly man or a healthy man, on the basis that a healthy man will require more food, but is able to accomplish more useful work. However, he does not enjoy the sort of resources that Nazi Germany could bring to bear on the problem of systematically murdering their fellow human beings. Nor can he do it out of the sight of the rest of the prison population, so he has to depend upon bizarre rituals of humiliation and subjugation in order to secure their compliance.

And it can't last forever -- eventually the illusion that if you keep your nose clean, you can survive the executions will evaporate. And when it does, everything is going to blow. And that doesn't even consider the fact that the guards have not abandoned the prison by any means -- when the ones who fled the uprising reunite with the main body of the guards, they are going to be looking to put an end to the uprising.

Still, it does create a rather ambiguous situation for the guards, as it relieves them of the problem of the huge number of ill prisoners who would use up irreplaceable medical supplies before dying, yet allows the guards to keep their own consciences clean. Can they really be happy about the situation when it is the direct result of a crime?

I am interested in seeing whether this is going to be a stand-alone novel, or it is going to be the beginning of yet another sub-series within what looks to be a whole group of storylines dealing with the Assiti shards and their effects on various populations of humans. On one hand, I'd love to see the long-term development of the society that will grow from these disparate cultural element. On the other hand, the story is sufficiently complete that I would be able to accept it if there were no further stories set in that world.

Review posted April 15, 2009.

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