George R.R. Martin and S.M. Stirling walk into a bar. It sounds like a joke, but I’m pretty sure that it has happened, and as I was reading Dies the Fire, The Protector’s War, and A Meeting at Corvallis I often imagined the two men, both round-faced and balding, sitting in a dark-wood-paneled pub and discussing their respective universes. “Westeros, blah blah blah” says George R.R. Martin. He tells a joke. The men laugh. “Portland, Oregon blah blah blah,” says S.M. Stirling. George R.R. makes fun of him for being too lazy to invent a new universe in which to set his stories. S.M. Stirling feels jealous of George R.R.’s HBO series. They drink frothy dark beers.
I had been hearing about Stirling’s post-apocalyptic book Dies the Fire for a long time. It was on every post-apocalypse (PA) book list. I liked the title. When I discovered a vein of English language books being sold in Germany online that included the trilogy sometimes referred to as the Emberverse series, but called the Change Series on Stirling’s own website (consisting of Dies the Fire, The Protector’s War, and A Meeting at Corvallis), I placed an order. It was high time that I was initiated.
In Stirling’s “alternate history” (though it feels more accurate to call it “potential future”) the electricity has gone out. There is a flash of light and POM! nothing electrical works anymore anywhere in the world. Gunpowder no longer burns at a rate that would make firearms possible either. Why this happens is not explained in this trilogy, though the characters whimsically muse that it must have been the “Alien Space Bats,” as they can conceive of no logical human-caused explanation. What I wish I had never found out was that the Change is caused by a freak incident that occurs in another one of Stirling’s books, a book in which Nantucket gets sucked back thousands of years in time. Aliens may or may not have been involved, and, damn it, the series would have been better without that bit of absolute ridiculousness. I want to be able to actually believe that this world is possible you fool! Either way, taking guns out of the equation really stirs things up, and the result is a lot of scavenged, piece-meal armour, sword fighting, and archery.
Though the premise may be ludicrous, the resulting PA tale is really fun, addictive, and worth a read if you fulfill one of the following requirements:
1. You are in the SCA. (A reenactment group that features largely in the story.)
2. You are a fan of Tolkien. (Whose books also feature largely in the story and the world post-Change.)
3. You love post-apocalyptic fiction.
4. You love archery and sword fighting and war logistic geekery.
5. You like reading and the characters get under your skin (in the good way) before you have time to realize that you are reading the book equivalent of a half ton of lollipops. Some might even call it trash.
But I should explain. Stirling’s books aren’t trash in the way that, say, Nora Roberts’ books are trash. They are however, not anything you could consider literature, and there is nothing breathtaking about the writing. (In fact there are some very troubling issues with chronology and sudden stops in the middle of the action, though they are easy to read around.) This doesn’t mean that Stirling isn’t talented. He is a fantastic storyteller, and he creates characters that are easy to fall for, stories that you want to find out the end of. But it is important to differentiate between great storytellers and great writers. Vladamir Nabokov is a great writer. Stephen King is a great storyteller. And so is S.M. Stirling. If the world ever does come to an end, I wouldn’t mind having him sitting around my fire to tell a tale.
tell us about the damn books already
So. Dies the Fire. Great. The excrement hits the air conditioning, and we get to watch it scatter. People in cities think the power is out. People in air planes fall from the sky. Millions of people have trouble wrapping their heads around what has happened and the fact that it is permanent. This results in their deaths. Those who survive have a good run of luck, a few important skills, and the ability to accept that what has happened is going to completely change their paradigm forever and to act on that knowledge. There is a lot of what-the-fuck!? scrambling, and the luckiest, most resourceful folks come out of it alive.
It doesn’t take (the book) long to have the two main surviving groups of characters—the Bearkillers and the MacKenzies—put together working, if incredibly small, tribes through resourceful moves (like stealing old-school farm equipment from museums), charity (taking in all the survivors they can), and a hell of a lot of luck, particularly when it comes to age and injury (the post-Change world does not house many over 50). The amount of sweat and labor needed to harvest a field of wheat sounds exhausting, and I found myself wondering why there isn’t more scavenging—beyond hunting, particularly as the wild boar and deer populations explode in the decade following the Change—going on. In The Protector’s War and A Meeting at Corvallis, Stirling jumps ahead nine years to show us how these two groups are continuing to function, and how they deal with the problems posed by the medeival dictatorship that Norman Arminger has set up in Portland.
What I really love about Stirling—and apparently he does this in most of his books—is that he doesn’t limit his characters to hetereo-normativity, or any normativity for that matter. There are homosexual characters, for one, and the trilogy directly addresses the way that homosexuality is accepted in certain communities post-change and ridiculed in others (ehem, those who hold onto the teachings of the Catholic church). You would think that including something that is totally normal in everyday life wouldn’t be a big thang, but shit, take a look at the books on a shelf of best sellers (or any shelf really) and count how many homosexual characters get face and name time. For two, one of the main surviving groups, the MacKenzies, are Wiccans, and the religion plays a huge role in the book because of it.
In an effort to keep what could very easily become a thirty-page discussion to a blog-able length, I’ll say this: the books are so expansive, so epic, so rich in well-thought-out detail that despite their lollipop-like nutritional content, they do offer quite a lot of fodder for thought. I was particularly fond of the handling of the issue of how ordinary events become legends and how children of the Change are so different than those born before it. Though Stirling doesn’t mention the fact that more child-bearing women and babies are dying than modern folks were used to, he does have the forethought to mention the return of wet nurses, the renewed danger of childhood diseases, and, rather randomly, a few characters’ laments that in a few years there will no longer be any more stretch fabric for sports bras.
emberverse, the change, sunrise lands, and montival, OR: why write a trilogy when you can keep writing books in your series forever?, OR: how s.m. stirling took a page from george r.r.r.r.r.r.r martin
Once I became addicted—to the Dies the Fire universe, to the characters, to the story arcs of the Bearkillers and the MacKenzies (two groups of Change survivors)—I was happy that Stirling had stretched the tale into a trilogy. Once the second book brought that addiction to a level of obsession, I was ecstatic that he hadn’t stopped at three, but had written six more books in the same universe. The Sunrise Lands, The Sword of the Lady, and The Scourge of God comprise the Sunrise Lands series, while The Tears of the Sun, The High King of Montival, and Lord of Mountains comprise the Montival series. All of them take place a generation after the Change. Same characters, same universe, same addiction. Looks like I am going to be reading a lot of sweets this winter.