Monday, August 22, 2016

Alchemy, Baking Soda, and Viagra

Review: 1636: The Chronicles of Dr. Gribbleflotz (Ring of Fire Book 20) by Kerryn Offord and Rick Boatwright


First, the disclaimer: I thought the initial books in Eric Flint's Ring of Fire (R0F) series were brilliant, genius, wonderful. Then, like many alternate history series (which it rapidly became), it just gradually got too complex for me to recall which "down-time" 1630s-native character was who, and which "up-time" character from the future had done what.

I mostly stopped buying the novels, but I made an exception for the RoF Chronicles books, which are collections of short stories. 

Usually these are anthologies of tales written by authors playing in the RoF universe. A couple of them included stories featuring the Aspergerian Dr. Gribbleflotz, a 1630s alchemist dabbling in the fringes of science, that stood out as particularly enjoyable, so when I spotted this book, I grabbed it.

I was not disappointed. 1636/Gribbleflotz begins with the back-story of the sometimes-arrogant, peacockish "iatrochemist" with the social deaf ear. It isn't until we're a third of the way through that Gribbleflotz has his first encounter with the Grantville up-timers. (It's the most enjoyable part of a really delicious story, too!)

Much of the fun, as always, comes from the unexpected way down-timers react to the "modern" Grantville up-timers and their attitudes. And vice versa; his up-timer partners refer to "Herr Dr. Phillip Theophrastus Bombast Gribbleflotz" as "Doctor Phil," especially after his little blue aspirin tablets are such a success. The Doctor calls them "Gribbleflotz' Sal Vin Betula"; the up-timers market them as "Dr. Gribbleflotz' Little Blue Pills of Happiness." 

One of the most delightful observations in the various Chronicles is the eager and ingenious way the down-timer natives seize on up-timer knowledge as a source of business innovation, making scads of money from the things they learn from the Grantville newcomers. In 1636/Gribbleflotz, I was even more excited to see the ways the good Doctor's experimentation trumped the book-data of the up-timers to make him wealthy.

Couple that with multiple romances that weave through the book, and the sense of the complex background and history of even the most widespread "modern technologies" (like baking powder), and it's a superb book to while away a pleasant afternoon reading.



Liner Notes:

  • I enjoyed chasing down the dog-Latin names the Doctor gave his creations. For example, Sal Vin Betula is Latin for "salt of wine of birch." Aspirin was developed by steeping and precipitating the salicylic acid salts from willow-bark tea, even though at the time, birch-bark tea was also used as a folk medicine. This may have been deliberate misdirection by Dr. Gribbleflotz to prevent his enemies from making and selling their own aspirin tablets.
  • The Doctor's ongoing obsession with the "human Quinta Essentia" may be a slight mockery of homeopathy. Read the initial discussion of Quinta Essentia in the novel or in Quinta-essentia - The Five Elements first before you disagree.
  • One of my spouse's favorite "up-time" reads is the CRC Handbook of Chemistry and Physics. We have several editions, including an inherited version from 1936 that includes a number of "cheat-sheets" for productive reactions like those that feature in the story. Alas, most of this instructive material has been eliminated from the later editions.