Friday, July 8, 2016

An Introduction to the Changed World: Why You Should Read Dies the Fire

Post-apocalyptic fiction is clogged with titles about death-matches and totalitarian governments. What first intrigued me about the world of the Emberverse (Novels of The Change) by S.M. Stirling was that its apocalypse took a different path indeed. What if God, Alien Space Bats, or any number of other forces decided that mankind was headed for nuclear meltdown? That we were too powerful for our current political climate and international relations? What if someone decided to change the laws of physics so that anything over a certain combustion point simply didn't work the way it once did? Without electricity, gas power, or guns, where would we as a society be?

S. M. Stirling's extensive series (15 projected, 13 published) covers the many ways people might react in that situation and uniquely infuses it with Arthurian myth. Like many SF/Fantasy series, the characters themselves are the backbone of the story. For the purpose of this article I am going to focus on the first trilogy: Dies the Fire, The Protector's War, and A Meeting at Corvallis. Although they just begin to dip into the greater mythos of the world, the first trilogy demonstrates what makes this series wonderful in the first place.

Dies the Fire begins on March 17th of the year 1998. At 6:15 P.M. a bright light flashes across the sky and gets the attention of any conscious person with a splitting headache and spotty vision. After the light fades, it quickly becomes clear that something has changed. Electricity no longer flows through cables and into outlets, combustion engines are little more than scrap, guns are merely an annoyance and no longer a threat. 600 years of technology vanishes in an instant. This spells immediate trouble for Mike Havel, a pilot, a former Marine, and a main character that happens to be flying a family out to their vacation property when The Change hits. Mike courageously leads the Larson family to their more livable farm property and accumulates quite a few followers along the way. They eventually are known as The Bearkillers, a group united by a similar cause and organized by Mike's tactical knowledge. 

At the same moment, a woman named Juniper MacKenzie is playing a set at a pub called The Hopping Toad, not too far off of Oregon State's campus. After helping as much as she can with the crisis in Eugene, it becomes evident to Juniper that the city is not the best place to be for her or her daughter. Thankfully many of her friends and coveners (Juniper's religion plays a big part of their settlement) have the same idea and all head for Juniper's property in the foothills. Through determination and good fortune they eventually are able to bring ancient clan life into a working model.

Their fates are entwined for a number of reasons, mainly because they both chose the Willamette Valley in Oregon as a place to settle. 

Stirling's choice to use places and landmarks that are in fact real and that people may recognize is an advantage. It gets the reader comfortable as things slide further and further away from reality. I found that spending time in Oregon really did bring this series to life. It's interesting to actually be able to visit a location featured in a fantasy novel.

The author also uses real-world religions in this way. Most of the characters in this series are either Christian (of many denominations) or Wiccan (but a faith devoted to the works of Tolkien does pop up eventually). All religions mentioned in the series are treated with respect, and examples of good and bad are presented in both. That being said, they're used as a method to build characters just as any fantasy novel would use an unfamiliar faith.  Stirling put a heck of a lot of research into every facet to make rituals, rites, and characters believable. Part of that is how Stirling uses devices and ideas of the past; people need something to embrace when all normalcy flees, whether it be a clan, a military outfit, a tribe, a novel, or their favorite period in history. 

Not everyone has the good of others directly in mind. After The Change, some decided to take advantage of the crisis at hand and implement a system of control for their own benefit. One such person being Norman Arminger, the leader of the Portland Protector's Association. The PPA exists at first under the guise of emergency leadership but quickly shows its true nature as a neo-feudalistic system. Arminger, a history professor and practiced swordsman, had done a lot of research on local gangs before things changed and therefore immediately had a class of mid-level, loyal war-lords to use as he saw fit. But that isn't your first clue that the guy is up to no good. With SCA (Society for Creative Anachronism) as a hobby, one would think that Arminger would pick something traditional  or uniting as his insignia, such as an animal head or a variation on the American Flag.  Instead, he chose an all-seeing eye wreathed in flame, also known as the Eye of Sauron. The character's reaction to his choice of emblem is pretty funny in itself and pretty accurate. Not many sane people out and admit they're the bad guy before you even meet them. He seems like the type of guy you wouldn't really want at a party. 

As a writer, I really appreciate what Stirling does with the world we currently live in. Of course, I wouldn't love it if it actually happened, but that's just the point. The best apocalyptic stories are the ones that could actually and logically happen. I enjoy a good zombie story as much as the next girl, but there's something more viscerally interesting thinking about how human nature would play out if we suddenly lost all modern convenience. That, and I've learned that when crap hits the fan, spices, toilet paper, and underwear will become worth their weight in gold. In a work of fiction it's things like what I just mentioned that sell me on a character. They're thinking logically and acting on impulse at the same time: A teen girl that loves Tolkien looks for fantasy novels and different editions of Lord of the Rings when given the opportunity and names real world things after the novels, another character turns her stage persona and status within her religion into her leadership position, a hardened former Marine sees the importance of wearing something he finds ridiculous and does it for the morale of his group. These characters are what make Stirling's world a place I want to visit.

Bonus picture from my trip to Oregon

What are some of your favorite post-apocalyptic works of fiction? What would your first plan of action be if crap hits the fan?


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