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August 16, 2004

Dies the Fire

After aliens eat Earth's electricity, Lady Juniper and Lord Bear fight to restore civilization in a shattered world
Dies the Fire
By S.M. Stirling
Roc Books
Hardcover, August 2004
483 pages
ISBN 0-451-45979-2
MSRP: $23.95
By Paul Di Filippo
The world as we know it ended in 1998. That's when the Change occurred. In a single instant, a mysterious wave propagated around the globe, causing all electrical devices to stop. Gunpowder no longer blasted. Even steampower was short-circuited. All that mankind could rely on were brain power and muscle power. Instantly, the world had reverted to medieval times.

Dies the Fire is the story of the year or so that immediately follows the Change, seen through the eyes of two main characters and scores of subsidiary ones who cluster around the heroes.

Juniper Mackenzie is a professional musician and a Wiccan. Her husband, Rudi, does not survive the Change, but their daughter, Eilir, does. Juniper and Eilir and a friend named Denny are in the town of Corvallis, Ore., when everything goes dark and chaos descends, due mainly to the many fires that break out from falling aircraft and the like. Realizing rather quickly what's happened, the three light out for Juniper's ancestral rural homestead.

At the same time, airplane pilot Mike Havel is ferrying a rich family, the Larssons, across Idaho to their retreat in Montana. But their plane goes down shortly after takeoff. Although the Larsson parents and their three children and Mike all survive, Mrs. Larsson is gravely hurt. Mike and Eric Larsson, still mistakenly thinking their plight is unique, have to walk out of the wilderness to get help. But when they do, they find that the whole world is in the same fix.

Skipping between these two perspectives, Stirling examines in immense detail all the aspects of sheer survival in this shattered world. Juniper and Havel both pick up many stray survivors and comrades, incorporating the refugees into their similar but nuanced visions of how to stay alive. Juniper's group eventually turns into Clan Mackenzie, with herself at the center as Lady Juniper. Havel's troop, more in accordance with his ex-Marine attitude, become cavalry and soldiers, the Bearkillers, so named after Havel's monumental clash with a bear.

Havel's path finally intersects with Juniper's briefly at midpoint of the book, before they go their separate ways, only to reunite at the climax for a grand siege against the forces of the Protector, the demented tyrant of Portland. Because while simply getting enough food, staying warm and healthy and maintaining some semblance of culture are hard enough, all these trials are compounded by the presence in the detritus-filled landscape of men and women who have reverted to a predatory savagery.

Be a farmer or rule the farmers

There's a great Frederic Brown short story titled "The Waveries," which postulates the arrival on Earth of an alien life form that eats electricity, thus plunging the world into chaos. Stirling plays with a similar concept, referring to hypothetical "alien space bats" as the cause of Earth's Change. But, in fact, any revelations about these invaders are not on display here, but seem reserved for a sequel. Yet that doesn't matter, since Stirling's canvas is so much bigger than Brown's that he gets to follow up at exciting length all the practical implications of Brown's tossed-off thesis.

Here's what Stirling concentrates on. First off, the geography and the sensory reality of his altered world. The Willamette Valley of Oregon and the wilds of Idaho are depicted with loving care, each swale and tree rendered sharply. The smell of burning cities, the aftermath of carnage, the odor and sweat of horses—Stirling grounds his action in these realities with the skill of a Poul Anderson. Secondly, the characterization. Both Juniper and Havel are complex individuals, forced reluctantly into their leadership roles, yet unwilling to simply step aside and let people die. And Stirling doesn't take the easy way out by having them be soul partners and become king and queen together. Rather, they find each other a little off-putting, despite some gut attractions, and eventually each settles down with someone else. The supporting cast is excellently portrayed as well, everyone from the Larssons down to Billy Waters, the drunken bowmaker who proves pivotal in one battle.

On the third hand, Stirling does not neglect to make all his retro-tech plausible, easily visualizable and interesting. This book by itself might serve as the kind of post-crash manual in survival that its characters are always in search of. You'll get more appreciation for how heavy even a two-pound sword is in battle than you might have had from watching all three Lord of the Rings films. (Astrid Larsson, by the way, is a big LOTR fan, and, amusingly, seems pretty happy with the Change.) Finally, Stirling continually tosses out interesting speculations, such as the thesis that the developed world is a larger repository of handicraft lore than the undeveloped world, because in the latter sphere people are too debased by reliance on First World castoffs and too desperately busy on a day-to-day basis to keep up the old ways; whereas in the United States, for instance, people had the leisure to become, say, expert horse riders.

Post-apocalypse novels often veer either too heavily into romantic Robinsonades or nihilistic dead ends. But Stirling has struck the perfect balance between grit and glory.

I'm a little baffled as to why Stirling set this book in 1998. It seems to me that it requires more suspension of disbelief to pretend the world ended in the past when we know it didn't. But if you shift to thinking of this as the day after tomorrow, it's a helluva ride. — Paul