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Eric Flint

In February of last year, I received an email from David Brin telling me that, moved by a sudden impulse, he’d just written a story set in my 1632 universe. The novelette, titled “71,” was attached to the email. He hoped it would fit within the series and could be published in one of the venues associated with it.

The submission came as a complete surprise to me. David and I have been friends for a number of years, and I knew that he followed the 1632 series quite closely. (For the record, I’ve been a fan of David’s work since reading Startide Rising more than thirty years ago.) But I’d had no idea that David was considering writing for the 1632 series himself.

My reaction was…mixed, to be honest. On the one hand, I was delighted—ecstatic wouldn’t be too strong a term—to get a submission from David Brin. David’s been at the top of the science fiction field for a very long time and there are few if any authors as well known and respected as he is. Leaving aside such intangible issues as prestige-by-association, I’m a professional author and as such never take my eye for very long off the commercial aspects of my trade. Having a story by David Brin in one of the 1632 anthologies was bound to boost sales for it.

On the other hand…

Writing stories that are set in another author’s universe is easy to do. Witness the ongoing popularity and voluminous output associated with so-called “fan fiction.” But it’s very hard to do well. Writing in a universe you didn’t create yourself does not eliminate the need to tell a story that works on its own terms. It just adds the difficulty of making sure the story works within the terms of the established setting as well.

That problem is compounded by the nature of the 1632 series itself. By now, fifteen years after the series was launched with my novel 1632, the series—also known as the Ring of Fire series—has generated seventeen novels, fourteen anthologies of short fiction (counting this one) and sixty-five issues of a professional magazine devoted to the series, the Grantville Gazette. Since I hadn’t done it in several years, I took the time while writing this preface to add up what that all came to currently in terms of word count. (Professionals in publishing generally use word counts to calculate length, not number of pages. That’s because words are fixed whereas pages are extremely variable depending on such things as the margins, font type used, font size, etc.)

It came to the following, rounded off to the nearest thousand. Novels: 2,895,000 words; print anthologies: 2,193,000 words; electronic books and magazine: 5,673,000 words. Allowing for the fact that a little over one million words in the magazine were reissued in paper editions and should be subtracted to determine a net amount, the total count for the series as a whole comes to around 9,674,000 words.

If you’re wondering what that number translates into in Reader Terms, think of it this way: The total word count for Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy is about 455,000 words; that of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, a little over 587,000 words. In other words, as of today the 1632 series is twenty-one times longer than Lord of the Rings and more than sixteen times the length of War and Peace.

It’s not just a question of numbers, either. The multitude of stories in the 1632 series constantly intercept each other, overlap both in chronology and characters, and have plots whose elements are determined or at least shaped by the plots of other stories.

And…that was the setting into which one David Brin, jaunty raconteur, chose to place a story.

What could go wrong?

Mind you, I wasn’t concerned that David’s story wouldn’t work on its own terms. There’s a reason David has the status he does. I was no more worried that he’d tell a poor story than I’d be of a top-ranked major league pitcher not being able to reach the plate. My concern was that however good the story might be, it would fit so poorly within the framework of my series that I’d be confronted with the awkward necessity of explaining to an author who’s a lot more famous than I am, has sold a hell of a lot more books, has a ton of awards where mine can be weighed in ounces if not grams—not to mention that he appears on television quite frequently whereas my relationship with the device is to sit in front of it with a bowl of popcorn in my lap—that his story either needed to be scrapped or at the very least completely rewritten.

Gah. Most authors in the 1632 series—of which there are now almost one hundred and fifty—start as fans of the series and learn to write fiction within that universe. That’s true of most of my coauthors of novels, too, not just short fiction. Andrew Dennis, Virginia DeMarce, Gorg Huff, Paula Goodlett, David Carrico, Griffin Barber (forthcoming), Iver Cooper (forthcoming), Mark Huston (forthcoming)—all of them began as fans writing for the magazine or one or another anthology, before they went on to work with me on novel-length stories. That same trajectory is true as well of authors who’ve produced books of their own in the series: Virginia DeMarce (1635: The Tangled Web), Iver Cooper (1636: Seas of Fortune), Herbert Sakalaucks (The Danish Scheme), Kerryn Offord and Rick Boatright (1636: The Chronicles of Dr. Gribbleflotz—forthcoming August 2016), Anette Pedersen, The Wars on the Rhine (forthcoming), Robert Waters (title-to-be-determined, forthcoming) and it will be true of others as well.

Only six established professional authors have worked regularly within the series. Those are David Weber, Mercedes Lackey, Dave Freer, K.D. Wentworth, Charles H. Gannon and Walter H. Hunt. But the first four of them are long-time collaborators of mine, in other settings as well as my own. I’ve coauthored five novels (so far) with David Weber, two of them in the 1632 universe and three in his own Honor Harrington universe. I’ve coauthored five novels (so far) with Misty Lackey, none of them in the 1632 setting. I’ve coauthored no fewer than ten novels with Dave Freer, in five separate settings. I coauthored two novels with Kathy Wentworth in our Jao Empire setting before her untimely death cut that partnership short. (David Carrico, who emerged in the 1632 series, is my coauthor on the third book in the series, The Span of Empire, which is coming out this September.)

The point being that these were all authors with whom I’d collaborated many times and with whom I had a well-established, tried and tested working relationship. And when Chuck Gannon and Walter Hunt came into the universe, they came in full-bore. Both of them have works and settings of their own—three of Chuck’s novels have been nominated for the Nebula award—but for both of them the 1632 series is an integral part of their unfolding careers.

I had no such relationship with David Brin. We’re friends, yes, and we like and admire each other’s work. But that’s not the same thing—trust me, it really isn’t—as being able to call Chuck or Walter on the phone and tell them their latest chapter isn’t fit for anything except to be torn up for kitty litter and listen to them explain to me that the chapters were fine and the problem is entirely on my end because I’m too dumb to know good writing when I see it.

Happily, my worries proved groundless. David did a brilliant job of figuring out how he could couch his own uniquely Briniac story (of course the word exists—I just used it, didn’t I?) in the 1632 series by going all the way back to the very root of the series and tweaking what we might call its cosmological constant. This is no small feat, given that the same cosmological constant applies to (so far) two other connected universes—that of the novels Time Spike, which I coauthored with Marilyn Kosmatka, and the forthcoming The Alexander Inheritance, coauthored with Paula Goodlett and Gorg Huff.

But, he managed to do it. David’s speculation on the possible implications of the Ring of Fire are fascinating on their own terms without causing any problem for the established premises of the series. And the story he told on that speculative basis fits nicely within the series itself, advances it in certain directions—and, most important of all, is a lot of fun to read. You will enjoy it.

* * *

I normally use my preface to encapsulate most of the stories in these Ring of Fire anthologies. But this preface has grown overlong, so I’ll only talk a little about my own story.

Scarface has several purposes. The first—always the basic one for any story—is to entertain the reader. This I believe it does; in fact, does quite well—but you will be the judge of that yourself.

The other two purposes belong to the series as a whole. One of them is to bring back on stage two characters who were at the center of one novel in the 1632 series—those being Ron Stone and Missy Jenkins from 1635: The Dreeson Incident—and, in the case of Ron Stone, he is also an integral part of the Stone family which has figured so prominently in the 1632 series since Mercedes Lackey introduced them in the very first Ring of Fire anthology in her story “To Dye For.” In one way or another, one or another—usually more than one—of the Stones has appeared and had an impact on several other novels: 1634: The Galileo Affair; 1635: The Cannon Law and 1635: The Papal Stakes.

They will continue to do so, and hence I felt it would be valuable to bring Ron and Missy (and to a lesser extent Gerry Stone) back onto the center court of the series.

The final purpose was even more important to me. I first introduced Harry Lefferts in the founding novel of the series, 1632. He’s a vivid character, but a rather one-dimensional one. He retained that basic nature in the next two mainline novels of the series, 1633 and 1634: The Baltic War. He was a prominent character in both novels—more than he was in 1632, certainly—but still remained quite similar to the character as he first appeared.

You can only go so far with characters like that. After a while, you either have to drop them, allow them to quietly fade away, or you have to develop them. I don’t like to drop characters I’ve put that much work into, unless it’s really necessary—and I didn’t think it was with Harry.

There was this, as well. His best friend, Darryl McCarthy, was very similar in type. But because of his situation, Darryl, who came into his own in 1633, 1634: The Baltic War and 1635: A Parcel of Rogues, had no choice but to evolve and mature. Wouldn’t it be interesting, I thought, to continue that friendship?—but with the friends now separated and each undergoing his own evolution.

That was a large part of the thinking that lay behind the first novel I wrote with Chuck Cannon, 1635: The Papal Stakes. There, for the first time in his life, the brash and overly self-confident Harry Lefferts gets knocked down. Hammered flat, in fact. By the end of the novel he’s recovered a great deal of his poise, but he’ll obviously never be the same again.

So, what happens to Harry next? Well, you’re about to find out.

Eric Flint

February 23, 2016

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