Stirling - Dies the Fire

September 24, 2004

S. M. Stirling
Dies the Fire
New York : New American Library, 2004.

There is a genre of science fiction and fantasy that I refer to as the "re-enactors revenge": because of some plot device our characters are left in a situation where high tech does not work, but low tech does, and a few geeks who study the low tech life as a hobby suddenly become world-changing heros. It is a fine variant of the geeks' revenge that lies behind a lot of alternative fiction. And, like any genre and sub-genre, what matters for any particular book is not that it is geeks' revenge but that it is done well or done poorly; Eric Flint's 1632 was done very well and is one of the first books I recommend to new readers. An aside, some folks file Flint into alternate history, time travel, or Lord Kalvin, all of which sub-genres it also fits into. Any worthwhile piece of writing can be classified several different ways.

One recent set of changes on the geeks' revenge is one that I call The Technology Goes Away, a variant on The Magic Goes Away. Larry Niven's short story of the same name, and his subsequent fiction in the same world, discuss a well thought out society built around working magic which discovers that mana, the source of magic, is a limited resource that is being consumed, and as it is consumed the magical technology that drives their society fails. In The Technology Goes Away, a plot device alters the basic laws of physics in a technological world, society collapses, no high energy devices work, and people re-create the medieval world, but with modern political science and modern low-energy technology.

The earliest example of The Technology Goes Away that I am aware of is John Ringo's There Will be Dragons in which he takes a future nanotech society that does indeed feel like magic, breaks it, and creates a world that looks distressingly like Gary Gygax's work from the 1980s. I found Dragons to be pretty good, his followup The Emerals Sea was a distressingly stupid book. The only other example of The Technology Goes Away that I have found is S.M. Stirling's Dies the Fire which I finished reading the other night.

Ringo spends the first quarter of Dragons introducing characters, setting up his war between good and evil, and producing a series of plot devices that will give him his world made of: technological magic; elves, dwarves and dragons; Roman legionaries fighting the orc hordes; and so on. In contrast, Stirling introduces us to the two main characters in the moment where the technology goes away. This is a plot device, and he does not try to give an explanation. Instead we know what the characters know, and all they figure out is that there was a flash of light, high energy explosions don't work - including gunpowder and gasoline - high energy steam becomes low energy steam, and electricity fails utterly. They speculate on the why, but they don't know and Stirling does not tell us.

Stirling wrote some mindless dreck during the 1980s - The High Lifters and David's Sling come to mind - but Over the last decade Stirling has matured as an author, going from someone to avoid to someone to seek out. This is a smart book - like David's Sling - and it is also a well composed and well written book. His characters are uncommon folks - a former Force Recon Marine who became a bush pilot in the Northwest, a folk singer who is high priestess of a high-church Wiccan coven "think of us as Anglicans," and as crucial sidekicks a black Texas rodeo cowboy turned horse trainer and blacksmith and a former British marine turned avid bowhunter who manages to get into a predicament and then be saved by the Wiccan priestess. But, only uncommon folks in a somewhat rural environment are likely to survive the human catastrophe that Stirling posits as communication and food distribution break down, food production breaks down as the farm tractors and powered water pumps all fail, law and order breaks down, and the cities burn.

He places these folks on the edges of the Williamette valley in Oregon, arguing that only on the truck-farming fringes between urban density and rural factory farms are people likely to find enough old infrastructure to make the transition from modern technology to bastard technology: swords beaten out of car springs, horses pulling wagons made out of fiberglass, and so on.

Stirling goes from there, and by about partway through it is clear that he has chosen the classic fantasy structure of the evil overlord expanding his evil empire, blocked by a loose coalition of free states. The interesting thing in all this is that all of the roles are played by modern people who are adapting skills and hobbies that they once knew to modern situations, and who are combining their knowledge of medieval history with modern political science, sociology, and low energy technology. And so we see the Marine leading a group of knights - chainmail, horsebow, sabre, and a support system. The singer leads a Scottish clan - bagpipes, plaids, and a lot of Wiccans following the threefold rule. Other minor groups are the loose coalition of ranchers to the east of the Williamette valley, a university town that organizes itself like, well, a medieval free city or university complete to the town council and militia, and various strongmen who set themselves up as barons or warlords.

What I found impressive was that, even after I figured out that Stirling was moving towards the evil overlord v. the coalition of the free, each of the individual decisions and actions was relatively plausible.

What I also found impressive was that magic works - or psychology works and the people find that it feels like magic. Lets just say that the Wiccan singer is very lucky, that when she loses her temper and calls up a battle frenzy people get a battle frenzy, and when she leads a religious ritual we see it from her perspective and she experiences something. Stirling is making a point - he has some control over the characters after all - but he does so in the same manner that, say, Richard Bushman discusses the visions of Joseph Smith or that David D. Hall discusses the visions
seen by seventeenth-century Puritans. We have no idea whether this person was contacted by the Divine, but we can be pretty sure that they "thought" they had been contacted by the divine, and that they changed their actions after this moment of contact. The rest is speculation and can be resolved at a later date, as Franklin said of life after death.

It was a good book, although I was ready for it to end 50 pages before it ended. It was a smart book, smarter than Ringo's The Emerald Sea. It was written with an eye to a sequel - branding and series are the way to go these days - and I do hope that it sells well enough that we will see the rest of them.

Good stuff.

EDIT - Spelling and grammar, corrected misattributions, added links to Bushman and Hall. 10/2/04

Posted by Red Ted at September 24, 2004 07:08 AM | TrackBack
Comments

This is an excellent review, intelligent and penetrating.

However, I did not write "David's Sling" or "The High Lifters"... 8-)

S.M. Stirling

Posted by: S.M. Stirling at October 1, 2004 07:52 PM

Feh, I apologize for the confusion.

David's Sling is Mark Steigler. I am not sure who wrote High Lifters - I read a borrowed copy back in the 1980s and associated it with your name.

Glad you liked the review; I enjoyed reading your book and I enjoyed writing about your book.

Posted by: Ted K at October 2, 2004 10:05 AM
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