Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Escapist Literature: S.M. Stirling's Dies the Fire

In my difficult day,s one of the few bright spots is my discovery of great escapist literature. Delving into fiction has become increasingly rare for me over the years. I couldn't be bothered with most fiction anymore, preferring the more bizarre intricacies bewildering complexities of a strange reality to what is often predictable in fiction.

Before today, I think the last great fiction series I read was the Ender Wiggin Saga, by Orson Scott Card, all the way back in my university days. Now I found a new series to pique my interest nearly as much: S. M. Stirling's "Dies the Fire: A Novel of the Change." My new friend Marcie Fischer Darling introduced me to the series after a series of discussions about fantasy and sci-fi novels we have both read. I'm glad she lent me the books as well, because it is one of the more original works I've seen in science fiction/fantasy and historical fiction I've read in quite some time. It is also turning out to be one of the few bright spots in an otherwise difficult existence for me. Everyone go out and buy a copy of S. M. Stirling's "Dies the Fire: A Novel of the Change."

In this book, characters and groups of people struggle with, and ultimately triumph over a mysterious, instantaneous, and completely unexpected "change" in the minutiae of the laws of physics. Nobody can quite explain what happens, but the laws of physics alter or shift ever so slightly to do several things: 1. Render all electrical devices, electricity, and electronic devices inoperable. 2. Render any mechanical device dependent on high pressure systems or electricity inoperable (everything from steam, internal combustion to pressurised tanks and hydraulic systems. 3. Make gunpowder and high energy explosive chemical reactions far slower, making guns and cannons useless.

These changes have such a profound effect on human technology that the complete collapse of society and civilization ensues on a global scale (or so the local characters speculate, as nobody really knows what happened beyond the suddenly provincial limits of their communication with distant communities). All the mechanical clocks powered by a battery quit working at precisely 6:13 PM Pacific Time US. Mechanical clocks not dependent on electricity keep functioning.

To anyone familiar with technology and science, the implications of these changes are undoubtedly frightening. No internal combustion or steam engines means there are no cars or trucks to ship goods and food. Cities immediately run out of food. Guns and explosives no longer work, rendering police impotent against anyone utilizing a lesser technology more effectively. National and local goverments collapse and leave survivors searching for food (which is tied up in farming communities with no means of distribution).

The survivors are three disparate but connected communities of people who survive through sheer luck, an ability and willingness to adapt to new realities, and the careful application of older technologies and the hard work they require. People's interests, hopes and concerns change. Where people previously concerned themselves with the mortgage and their corporate jobs in post-industrial Oregon their hopes change to newer, simpler, and smaller ones that suddenly require Herculean effort and will: getting a crop in for the harvest. Building a new community among survivors of an apocalypse with a new order in the world. Everything is humbled and torn down to be built anew.

The first community rallies around a former Marine officer turned commercial pilot, whose airplane crashes in the rugged mountains of Idaho. His growing band of survivors make a long pilgrimage across a post apocalyptic wilderness to their new "promised land" in Oregon's fertile Willamette Valley. This group is initally completely destitute, having lost everything in the plane crash. The group ultimately survives through strong, compelling leadership, a fortuitous yet carefully and hard-won set of critical skills, and the wisdom and forsight of good management and strategy, that carefully plans for the future and also exploits opportunities in the present.

Our second community emerges in the mountains of central Oregon, where the family estate of an eccentric wiccan priestess becomes the foundation for a new post change community built around their religious values and Wiccan culture. The new culture survives by coming together, building upon their strengths, and ultimately abandoning the past and quickly embracing new realities.

The third community, our main antagonist, emerges in central Oregon, the hastily built brainchild of an over-ambitious history professor and his rapid grab for power in a vaccum of leadership in the collapsing city of Portland. His small band of followers from the society of creative anachronism ruthlessly exploit their skills in medieval combat to build a medieval community based on 13th century French Feudal society.

The conflict and drama that plays out around these three communities centers around how they choose to successfully adapt to the change, and how they interact and fight among each other.

Despite the depressing back-story, the books provide a fascinating and ultimately inspiring story of how people adapt to, and trimph over adversity. It touches on the enduring power of the human spirit. It also proves to be a fascinating sociological speculation on people in the past and how their realities shaped their worldviews, perspectives, and existence.

There are two other novels in this series which I hope to be reading in the days ahead, so stay tuned for updates. Or just read the books yourself.

Dies the Fire, by S. M. Stirling