The Big Idea: Griffin Barber
Posted on April 4, 2017 Posted by John Scalzi 26 Comments
Never sass Eric Flint about his bestselling “1632” universe — or you might find yourself co-writing a book with him! Or so Griffin Barber tell us in this Big Idea, about the genesis of his collaboration with Flint: 1636: Mission to the Mughals.
About eight years ago, I met Charles Gannon at The World Fantasy Convention in Columbus, Ohio. Chuck, as his friends call him, had just finished separate collaborations with Steve White and Eric Flint, and was very much on the rise. He was also kind, generous with his time, and excellent company for a drink or three. During the course of the convention, we discovered a shared love of role playing games, history, and science fiction. While we were there, he read some of my work and told me that I should write for The Grantville Gazette the magazine of Eric Flint’s 1632 Universe.
Standing on my vertically challenged high horse, I poo-pooed the very idea, telling him with great certainty, “I don’t even like time travel!”
Two years later, I had seen the light Chuck kept on for me, and had the first short story I ever submitted for publication appear in The Grantville Gazette. The next WorldCon was in Chicago and hosted the 1632 MiniCon, where Eric and the other writers of the 1632 universe get together and discuss plans and the publishing schedule for the next year or so.
Sitting toward the back and considering the fact the Mughals had just begun construction on the Taj Mahal around 1632, I raised my hand and asked Eric and the other novelists and editors, “What’s going on in Mughal India?”
“We don’t know, write it,” Eric quipped.
My first thought was an aggressive: “Challenge me, will you?”
Two years of research and a couple more short stories set in India for the Gazette, and I had Eric’s full attention. I wrote an outline for the novel, which he changed a bit and then approved. Researching still, I began writing the book.
I am sometimes pretty slow on the uptake. Like, walking-into-a-minefield-and-forgetting-which-route-I-used-slow.
It wasn’t until I started really getting into the book that I realized the many pitfalls and hot-button issues I had signed up to navigate:
Three major world religions. Well, four, really. And that doesn’t count the major and minor sects of Islam. The repercussions of the conflicts between these religions and sects are to this day being felt out on the world stage.
The systematic cultural and religious oppression in every aspect of ninety-nine percent of women’s lives.
Slavery on a scale that truly boggles the mind.
The castration of vast numbers of juveniles.
The caste system.
Once I stopped shaking (but not whining to my friends), I decided to tackle some small part of those challenges the best way I knew how:
By working with only the very strongest of female characters who make their place in the world, even against the strongest opposition.
By showing even the most vilified of history’s figures were human, and history might have been different, had their choices been better, the choices they had to make easier, and the cultural framework they were working from had allowed them to see the evil that would follow.
By avoiding the pitfall of making the Up-timers, descendants of white Europeans, the ‘saviors’ of the peoples of India.
And, lastly, by being true to my understanding of the history, religions, cultures, and figures that made all the those horrible things possible yet created monuments and art of such stunning beauty they remain among the most admired to this day.
Once I had written my bit, Eric took over. He polished, corrected, and added to it, making it far better than I could have hoped to do on my own.
What we ended up with was a tale that revolved around Princess Jahanara, eldest daughter of the Emperor Shah Jahan, her role in society, and interactions within the royal family and court. Her actions form the backbone of the book, with the information brought from the future by the up-timers putting the first cracks in foundation of the wall that circumscribes her world.
Cracks she will use to shatter the wall in future books.
Ultimately, we hope to have told a tale that gives readers plenty of adventure and fun while remaining respectful of the history, religions, and people that made Mughal India so fascinating. That said, we hope you will enjoy 1636: Mission to the Mughals.
1636: Mission to the Mughals: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s
Can this be read as a standalone, without having read other books in the series? Because it sounds really interesting.
@Brucearthurs: as much as possible, yes. By which I mean as long as you are aware of the basic premise of 632: an alien art experiment brought an entire West Virginia mining town back through time from late 1999 to 1632 and into Central Europe, right in the midst of the 30 Years War and complete with its people, libraries, workshops, and history books detailing who won what succession war.
Looking forward to grabbing a copy!
Wow! Interesting. Though I wonder, if we go much further into the future, say 50 to 100 years, isn’t it likely that the USA and Canada, and perhaps the UK, will have a higher amount of immigrants, naturalized citizens from those, and intermarriages between “white people” and non-European (or non-white) people? In other words, a lesser or moderated, changed influence of “white” culture, a changed Western culture, more mixed, more globalized? So far, Western culture still tends to be chauvinistic in a white majority view. But somewhere along the way, if global travel and communications and work / migration continue, we’re likely to see that change. Also, if (as we might see coming) American and European countries are not the sole or majority economic or technological powers, that would contribute to ideological changes, and perhaps to more intermarriages. (Or offspring outside of marriages, for that matter.) But overall, I get the point about it still being a majority white viewpoint from the future travelers and settlers. I definitely get the point that a culture’s driving forces for change will be driven by people within the culture, not an outside “white savior.” My own city’s cultural and ethnic makeup is changing rapidly lately, with “minority” populations increasing and the “white majority” therefore decreasing. (And sometimes, yes, this is because of blended families who no longer want to identify as just white or one or two minorities, but as “all of the above,” because they are embracing those multiple backgrounds, more aware and accepting, and by necessity, to keep their family’s multiple sides intact for their kids and blended relationships, no longer really this or that, but a blend that is becoming a new identity (or several new identities). — Er, but yes, many towns are still that white majority, and have not yet seen that they will change too, in time.
For anyone interested in reading some of the novel before buying it you can check out Eric Flint’s website.
About the snippets: http://www.ericflint.net/index.php/about-the-snippets/
All snippets: http://www.ericflint.net/index.php/category/snippets/
163X snippets: http://www.ericflint.net/index.php/category/1632snippet/
Starting a couple of months before the publication of his novels snippets are posted every few days until the scheduled publication of the novel. Some other authors (Mostly from Baen – including David Weber & Chuck Gannon) also post snippets on his site.
I use it to see if I want them immediately in hardcover or if I’m going to wait for the paperback.
“Mission” is such a fraught word in regards to colonialism – did you intend it to be so in the title?
Hit post too soon:)
The snippets are taken from pre-publication manuscripts. Sometimes these are changes and edits. So the snippets are not always exactly what the novels are going to be but it gives you a good idea of the flavor of the novels
I’ve been interested in this series as an idea for quite a while, but this is the first book that has grabbed me and is demanding I read it. Toying with reading the 1st one first though, just to make sure I’m fully on board with the world.
Maureen: I take your point about the word “Mission” but when I heard it I had immediately thought the USE would be seeking their aid against the Turks, like ‘Diplomatic Mission’ or something similar. I didn’t think of the other meaning until you mentioned it.
I bought this book and I’m excited to read it, and a little bit wary–a new author writing in a what he admits is a really complicated era that is unfamiliar ground for a lot of westerners. It’s really hard to find historical/fantastical fiction set in India, so I’m interested to see it, and I feel like the 1632 series has gotten better over time with the addition of much more research and the support between authors.
Lindsey: I think I thought of that meaning of “mission” because I live in a part of the world (Alaska) with a significant number of Native people who don’t have fond memories of missionaries and mission schools in particular. The author actually addresses the pitfall of the “white savior” and just wondered if his title had more than one meaning.
@brucearthurs : If you’re inclined to do so, you can read 1632 for free on the Baen.com free library. I like it, but it’s very much alternate history military sci-fi and probably not to everyone’s taste. (Personally I rather enjoy it, despite frequently being diametrically opposed to the political views of authors in the genre.)
I look forward to reading this one. It’s a welcome supplement to the European (understandable — Grantville landed there!) books in the series.
@Maureen and @Maohoalloran: The title was a natural outgrowth of the story, as it is a USE trade mission and their story that drops the story firmly into the 1632 universe. It also allows this humble writer to show more than I would otherwise be able to, as religious, historic, cultural and social aspects of the setting can be commented on by characters in a natural fashion, cutting down on flat exposition that deadens the tale. For example: the trade mission in the book has no religious component, which is commented on by the Mughal characters. Beyond that, the threat of colonialism is very much on the mind of the emperor, for reasons that are revealed in the novel, and which drive the tale along.
The title also had to ‘fit in’ with the other titles in the series and yet not ‘steal’ from another title in the series, either in print or being written. An early working title was Mughal Sanction, but another 1632 novel beat me to using Sanction, and in the end it did not work quite as well with the story, anyway.
The up-timers of the series are quite used to being greeted with an almost-desperate desire for their technology by the rulers of Europe. Not to be to precious or give away spoilers, but something different happens in the Mughal court. Something I quite enjoyed writing.
I hope you will read and enjoy Mission To the Mughals.
I’m going to approach this from an entirely different angle: Griff’s prose. The extraordinary and sensitive attention to nuance, to cultural and relationship details, struck me the very first time I read his work (which was not set in the 1632 universe, as is probably obvious from his post). I’ve seen some of the book but am very much looking forward to reading the rest, in its final form.
Re: colonialism. I’ve always felt that the best novels in the 1632 universe tend to illustrate much of what Giyatri Spivack presents in “A Critique of Postcolonial Reason.” Granted, her analytical perspective upon the ultimate bidirectionality of influence in the later post-colonial relationship (which ultimately problematizes certain easy formulations of the discipline itself) evolve as a consequence of the passage of time. In the 1632 universe, however, the fact that only 3500 20th century West Virginians arrive in the past has, in my mind, the effect of radically accelerating the bidirectionality and interpenetration variables.
The “up-timers” simply cannot survive unless they decide upon opening, rather than walling-off, their 6-mile diameter slice of the future (gestures toward contemporary political realities fully intended). They do not have the technological nor numerical force to even rationalize succumbing to the siren-song of the historical Western reflex: to control the different, the Other. (That debate actually constitutes the concluding dramatic peak of the first novel.)
From what I’ve seen of the novel, and what I know of the perspectives that both Griff and Eric bring to it, I think that its vibe is likely to resonate very strongly with the subtitle of Spivack’s book, which is: “Toward a History of the Vanishing Present.”
Because, in the better 1632 narratives, the *immediate* bidirectionality of exchange–both material and cultural–means that both worlds are now forever on a path of ever-accelerating alteration. Neither group’s “present” survives the encounter with the respective Other.
And I’m really looking forward to how these two work with that trope in Mughal Mission.
And darn it if I didn’t misspell Spivak as Spivack. Too long away from the professorial part of my (one-time) existence, I guess. Apologies.
@Griffin – thanks – you have me intrigued to read this – I’ve read (and re-read) a number of the 1642 novels but not lately due to the somewhat bewildering number of plots and because (frankly) there were some that were “interesting” but heavy on historical research but lacked interesting character development – this sounds like something to get me back into the series!
I am SO down with this! India is AMAZING–some of the most beautiful achievements of Human history, and one of its greatest atrocities in the form of the caste system. I can’t wait to see the cognitive dissonance hit, and the little problem that is the fact that, with the Ming dynasty on its last legs and the Safavids being apparently congenitally incompetent, the Mughals are THE world power at this point in time.
@Maureen I am inclined to mutter, “No pressure, Griffin. None at all.”
Another daunting aspect of the series is the sheer number of novels! Which is rather ironic given the number of complaints many authors as successful as Eric get about being too slow to produce the next book! That said, I do hope you enjoy the tale!
@Floored by Our Host: And the Mughal Court also had a bit of an inferiority complex toward the Safavids as the elder, ‘more cultured’ court. The diplomatic niceties covered in the book I modeled on records and papers written on Mughal-Safavid diplomacy.
To everyone who has expressed such interest and excitement: it is truly humbling and gratifying to hear, thank you.
Hey guys this is awesome! Finally, some contemporary science fiction with India or Indians as an integral part of the story and not just the exotic elements.
A couple of points though, firstly the cover art, like my first impression was f*** this, I’m not going read this, seems more like Indian Jones style stereotyping. Like there’s nothing about the cover art which suggests that it’s Mughal (their miniatures are some of the finest art) or even Virginian. Nor does it convey that you guys are well read and have done your research. The cover art is tacky, at least from one Indian’s perspective.
The second point relates to casteism, it’s oppressive, it’s outmoded and certainly has no place in modern society. And we (I mean today’s Indians) are working towards making caste a non dominant force. But what we don’t appreciate is this historical revisionism by some westerners, where in you see something good Indians have done and immediately go “oh but they were/are casteist”, and try and negate that good thing. George Washington was a slave owner but he’s still celebrated for the good he did. You don’t try to negate all of his achievements with a simple “oh but he was an oppressive slave owner”.
And the other part regarding caste, it is not as simple as it’s made out in the west. So its not as simple as saying lets get rid of caste and magic! it’s gone the next day. The pull of the caste system is so great that only in India you have Muslim, Christian, Sikh castes, even though these religions don’t have a caste concept. Take a look at this long essay https://www.ribbonfarm.com/2016/11/10/king-ruinous-and-the-city-of-darkness/ if you want to know what caste means on the ground in India. Lastly, India is also a nation of immigrants, even though not all of them came with peaceful intentions.
A couple of good books if you’re interested in learning more about India.
Looking forward to enjoying the book!
I’ve read this book and loved it! To address a few of the points mentioned here: There are neither “white savior” nor Christian colonization themes or plots in the story. There’s a perfect balance between historical accuracy and entertainment. Also, the Barber’s respect and love for the place and period the story is set in shines through clearly. As for the cover, there is an element there that will make sense once you finish the book (no spoilers!). I’ve only read the first two books in the series and, while this one may not be entirely stand-alone, you really only need to understand the most basic premise of the series to enjoy it.
I’ll also add that I am a feminist with a strong background in martial arts and adventure (I was a professional stunt woman for film and television), and this book contains one of my new favourite kick-ass female characters! Talk about a pleasant surprise. All the female characters in this story–even the harem members–are handled exceptionally well. Believe me, I would not be happy if they weren’t.
@Pavan, I too was thrilled to see SFF set in India! I can’t wait for the next one!
@Pavan Cover art is often a challenge, especially in long-running series. Style, tastes, and intent can clash with a reader’s perception of the subject matter. I am glad you reached past your first impression and remain interested.
As to caste: there is some commentary on caste, some of it reinforcing your stance regarding the good that could be done inside/despite the system, especially from the viewpoint of a 17th century person of high caste/status. The up-timers and the people closest to them, of course, hold to different views, allowing some commentary on the points you bring up. Of course, a novel is not a study or scholarly paper, but a tale, so I make no real attempt to dissect the incredible complexities of the caste system.
The immigrant nature of the empire is very much at the forefront because the cosmopolitan nature of the court requires it. For example: The mihmindar (interlocutor) between the court and the mission is an Afghan, the royals themselves are the product of several different regions, and the harem guard on the cover, (whom Kristene is such a fan of) is from the central asian steppe.
I read several of Keay’s excellent books, also Gammons, KS Lal, Kushwant Singh, Fisher, Dee, Richards, Farooqui, Surjit Singh Ghandi, Gascoigne, and the list goes on, and on, and that’s just some of the research material I bought rather than checking it out from the library… I intentionally avoided Era of Darkness and many other books on the British Raj/Empire. As the rise of the British Empire takes place later, and will not take place at all in the New Timeline of the 1632 Universe, I did not want it coloring the lens of my perception any more than absolutely necessary.
I submitted a reply yesterday, and thought it took, but I don’t see it, nor a note saying if I’d tripped the moderation hammer. — I would not have thought my comments were hammer-prone, but apologize if so. — Did my reply get rejected, please; or land in a filter somehow; or…did teh interwebz gremlins eat it, more likely?
I thought my comment was pretty spiffy, but didn’t think to save it, and now don’t recall what I thought was so insightful. (Sigh.) Just the general idea. — Anyway, I like the sound of the book. I haven’t read 1632 either, so I bought both books. More on my precarious To Read Pile, which, virtual or physical, is surely ready to topple into a heap any second now.
I think I’ve read all of the many various novels and many of the accessory books of the 1632 saga.
Pavan, Virginia has nothing to do with this series of novels. The mistake is like confusing Pakistan and India, literally. as West Virginia split from Virginia during the American Civil War. Here, we call it West By God Virginia, even if we’re agnostic/atheist. To make the point that we seceded from Virginia after Virginia attempted to secede from the USA. No hard feelings, lots of Americans confuse the two, although not so much North and South Carolina, or North/South Dakota.
There are a lot of very fundamental differences between Virginia, which has more remnants of English culture and West Virginia, which is industrial, unionized, and not so much into slavery, ever.
I think the authors do a fine job on the history and cultural differences. Many of the historic realms are ones that I’ve disliked for always, like the Spaniards and their Inquisition, although I quite like Spain today. But the idea of dropping a bunch of Unionized technical and mechanical experts into medieval Europe and watching the changes ripple out across the known world is pretty cool.
I’m looking forward to this one, as well as all the others. And I hope Eric is really flush after this huge success!!
You really shouldn’t judge the book by it’s cover; It’s a Baen book. Baen and shitty covers go together like PB & Jelly or chips and salsa, so it has been, so it will be, until the last syllable of recorded time and the final curtain is rung down on all of creation, amen.
Baen has a dozen or so sample chapters up.
OK, now I’ve finished it. Good read, obviously not only admits of sequels but freaking demands them (Yes, Barber, that means you!)
For those unfamiliar with the Ring of Fire series: 1632 started it, but it needs to be read together with 1633, which is IMHO the real start of the series. Both are available from the Baen Free Library. Also, IMHO, at least one of the CDs.
Eric Flint, peace be upon him, has been adamant that stories in his universe focus on the “down timers” at least as much (preferably overwhelmingly) as to the “up timers.” That seems to be where it’s going, too. Several of the books in print and in the pipe are exclusively from a down-timer perspective, and the stories in the Grantville Gazette semi-monthly e-mags quite often have no up-timers at all. Manifestly, the India branch is going to be heavily directed that way (applause.) For the current instance (no spoiler) the biggest on-camera reference to medical skills included a strong endorsement of a down-time surgeon’s far-better-than-European skills.
The rules of the 1632verse are such that once GB gets the current branch established there will be plenty of room for others to get involved — India is, even today, an immense canvas (been there, can’t claim to know it.) There’s already a bit of canon wherein Danish lighter-than-air visits are in store for India, which is going to come as a surprise to all sorts of people. The Danes may be in for some surprises of their own, though.
The 1632verse is, by Flint’s design, like real history in one very important way: it’s incredibly messy. Lots and lots of authors are stirring the pot and the results can go in the damndest directions. Example: Misty Lackey’s To Dye For — apparently that wasn’t in anyone’s plans until she made it happen. Another example: Eric and a whole lot of others got caught by surprise when someone pointed out that they’d overlooked an easy solution downtime to an important tech problem — and down-timers hadn’t (I’m flirting with spoilers here, trying not to.)
There’s a reason for the Free Library: this series is addictive. Enjoy.