Book Review #7

The Author – Eric Flint

The Book – 1636  The Saxon Uprising

The author, Eric Flint, is a history buff, who enjoys spending hundreds of hours researching various areas and time periods, and then writing alternate-history books about them. His favorite time and place is Europe, during the Thirty Years War.  He started a series of books back in 2001, named Ring of Fire.

He studied the major players till he knew them like family, the Swedes invading the Germanies, Emperor Gustavus Adolphus, Baner, Oxenstierna – the Germans, John Georg and Wilhelm Wettin – Cardinal Richelieu and the French king’s wily brother, “Monsieur Gaston.”  Then he wondered what would happen if an impish group of intergalactic aliens moved a Virginia coal-mining town back in time and space to Thuringia in 1632  What changes would be wrought by fore-knowledge, education, critical thinking and technology?

They popped out in the middle of a campaign, and 700 Croat cavalry, attempting an attack to the Swedes’ rear, suddenly came upon the defenceless town. Fortunately, two young men, driving near the event horizon, got back soon enough to warn the residents.  A Percheron can’t keep up with a Mustang.

Coming out of the forest, the cavalry formed up in a meadow at the edge of town, with lance and sabre, to find themselves facing 40 or 50 bloody-minded Appalachian hillbilly miners.  Used to mercenaries armed with inaccurate single-shot muskets, they expected to ride over a grease-spot, or a hole where their opponents broke and ran.  But these were mountain-men, protecting their wives and daughters and their homes.

Armed with very accurate pump shotguns, semi-automatic rifles, and quickly-reloaded pistols, they taught the Croats the first new rule of warfare – Rate Of Fire – click-click, boom, click-click, boom.  This was their home!  They did not break, they did not run!  They put out a sleet-storm of high-power projectiles, quickly piling up a wall of bodies, both horse and men.  In all, they only killed 40 or 50 cavalry, barely their own number, but the horsemen had never experienced this, and it was they who broke and ran.

Next it was a favor for their new ally, the Swedish emperor, an impregnable fortress which would cost him thousands of lives to take.  They gave the job to an 18 year-old cheerleader with an eagle-eye and a sniper rifle with a telescope.  See that guy on the parapet with the plume in his hat?  Yes sir, BANG.  The guy who was beside him with the fur collar on his fancy cape?  Yes sir, BANG!  Shoot out the eyes and brains, and soon the rest want to leave town.

Not all changes were wrought through violence.  The de facto leader of the town is soon the young, miners’-union president.  Most of the aristocracy is off, playing at war, and the administrators who are left are soon faced with militia and activist groups organised on union lines.

What can five thousand uptimers do to change five million Germans, much less Swedes, French, Spanish, Italians, Dutch and English?  Like a drop of oil on a puddle, the result is quickly wide-spread and colorful.  The Thirty-Years War was fought largely because it was time for change, and the ruling classes tried to hold on to their power and privilege.  In these books, the Americans precipitate changes intentionally, and simply by existing.

As the commoners gain more strength, and the likelihood of lethal consequences for nobles in battles increases, war as a sport and an ego salve greatly reduces.  The ruling class enjoy some of the changes, but definitely not others.  Soon democratic elections are being held, medical treatment and hygiene cut deaths from plague, iron rails are cast, and VW Buses become engines for narrow-gauge railways.

Torture is officially frowned upon, Jews are set free from ghettos, and become more accepted in society, and witchcraft trials and burning at the stake fade into the past.  In a Steam-Punk way, many high-tech things are redesigned for the lower-tech capabilities.  Crude gasoline engines are assembled, Wright Brothers-level planes are built, and hot-air blimps begin transportation.

With their history books, and greater knowledge of psychology, the Americans often outthink their belligerent opponents, providing disinformation to spy networks, and doing things in unusual, non-customary ways.  Ah, so easy in books!  If only it were this easy to bring peace and harmony to the real world.

In this book, when the emperor is injured, and out of action for a couple of months, his number-two decides to take a big chunk of Germany for his personal fief.  Our union boss has been made a general in the army, so Mister Ambition assigns him and his loyal troops to subduing Poland.  He imprisons the newly-elected Prime Minister, threatens the Emperor’s daughter, and besieges the German city she’s in, thinking that there will be huge civil unrest, which he can “put down” to seize control.

The Citizens Committees keep the population angry, but under control.  The tyro general uses American organization and supply systems to provide warm clothing, boots, food and sleighs for an unheard-of winter march.  Then, to compensate for a smaller army and less battle experience, he uses walkie-talkies to direct his forces during a battle in a blinding snowstorm.  While the Swedes are away from the siege-lines, the city militia sallies forth, and takes away their fall-back position.

And they all lived happily ever after – except for the occasional beheading.  Definitely not the history expert that Flint is, I know just enough about this period to be entranced at the possible influences modern American sensibilities could exert on real live (well, actually dead) historical figures and occurrences.  Not really “science-fiction”, these books are more like historical romance/action tales, and well worth a good read.

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Food For Thought

We’re famous!  Or, our twin city to the north is….well, at least one old restaurant in it is.  I went to MSN.ca the other day, and there was an article about Harmony Lunch.  Still in its original building on the main street of Waterloo, ON, this eatery has been in business for 83 years, passed from father to son, to grand-daughter.

Opened at the beginning of The Great Depression, it is typical of 1930’s diners, which means that it is very un-typical for it to still be in business.  The heart of its appeal, the thing that got it going then, and keeps it going now, is that, the staple of its menu is pork burgers with fried onions.  The writer of the article said that they were made with ham, but there’s lots of parts of a pig that ain’t ham.

Always cheaper than beef, the patties are made with ground pork.  They are fried by the dozen on an old flat gas grill, right beside the sliced onions which are constantly replaced, and fried all day, in the pork fat, till they are tasty and caramelized.  The place goes though a fifty-pound bag of onions a day, obtained from local Mennonite farmers.  The split buns are given a quick toast at the edge of the grill, and then this delicious concoction is assembled.

Before the son achieved full-time employment, I would take him out for lunch each week I was on afternoons.  A couple of times we wound up here.  Long-time residents of the Twin Cities know about the place, and keep it busy.  It’s an un-liquor-licenced, family restaurant.  Within walking distance of both the Universities, the place doesn’t advertise.  The owner says that many students don’t know that it exists, or head for trendier eateries, but once they get dragged in by friends or family, he sees the same young faces regularly.

The lean, mean automotive world operates on a just-in-time system, and deliveries must be guaranteed.  When I worked at the auto-parts stamping shop, normal problems sometimes caused production delays, which in turn caused Saturday overtime work.  If any of my eight underlings had to work, I was expected to be present to supervise.  As the Purchasing Agent, I couldn’t call anyone, but there was always some paperwork which needed to be cleaned up.

The company president also showed up, and, about ten o’clock would ask each worker how many of these gorgeous Harmony Burgers they wanted for lunch.  Depending on the size of the necessary crew, he would phone in an order for 30 or 40, or 50, and arrange to have them delivered to the plant.  I can’t say that he was a kind, thoughtful, caring boss, just that he was cynical enough to know that he should appear to be.

In one of his how-to-be-an-asshole boss instruction sessions with me, he taught me how to get an unwanted change made.  First you start a rumor about something that’s far worse than what you want to achieve.  Then you let the workers stew about it for a few days.  Tell them on Monday that, the next Monday, when they come to work, you’re going to cut off both their hands and feet.  Let them worry about it on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.  On Friday, you tell them, that you’re only going to cut off their left big toe.  They’re so happy that that is all they’re losing, that they go along with it willingly.  What a sweetheart!  I miss him….as much as I possibly can.  Oh yeah, asshole long enough and hard enough equals dead asshole.

I usually had two burgers at the plant, but, at the end of the day, there were inevitably a few left over.  I got to take these home for the wife and kids.  We joke that we can’t take the wife anywhere to eat, because she will figure out how to make the same food as well, or better.  Even though she was born and raised in Waterloo, the wife has never been to Harmony Lunch.  Despite that, based only on the leftovers, she has developed our own version.  I had a leftover one for lunch today before I decided to start this post.

It might not be the Colonel’s 11 herbs and spices, but there’s obviously a recipe for them.  Other than ground pork instead of beef, we mix them as we do regular hamburgers, bread crumbs for filler, an egg for binder, salt, pepper, mesquite powder or liquid for tang, and some Worcestershire Sauce.  They make theirs thin, like a Big Mac single patty.  We make ours twice that thick.

To go with six burgers, for three people, I fry up two Sweet or Spanish onions, as big as melons.  It takes at least an hour and a half to render down a huge frying pan full of raw onion to a soup-bowl full of delicious condiment.  Add some mustard and sweet relish, on a lightly toasted bun, and you’ve I’ve got a meal that’ll stick to my ribs….and a lot of other places on this bowl-full-of-jelly body.

It’s nice to see a local business get some national recognition.  They must be doing something right, to have lasted for 83 years.  I hope that there is another generation to carry on the tradition.  I wish them another 83 years, although my cholesterol levels won’t let me stick around to see it.  It’s a good thing there was only the one burger left at lunch, but now I’m hungry again.  You guys talk among yourselves while I go raid the fridge.