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Dies The Fire by S.M. Sterling
01/01/2005 Source: Paul Skevington 

pub: ROC. 483 page hardback. Price: $23.95 (US), $36.00 (CAN). ISBN: 0-451-45979-2.

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nb: US titles may only be available from Amazon US, and UK titles from Amazon UK.

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Let's get a bit topical. I've been reading newspaper articles recently that have started to suggest that our oil reserves may run out within the next forty years or so. Usually this wouldn't induce a loose bowel moment in me as we all know these figures are plucked out of the air by commie leftie tree-hugging freaks.

Except these figures weren't. The people quoting the figures were members of the oil industry and it was their most optimistic estimate. Pass the toilet paper, mother.

This book won't do anything to quell your fear of the impending catastrophe. In 'Dies The Fire', a mysterious event causes the instantaneous failure of the world's electricity supply. To top this, machines also cease to work and firearms become useless lumps of metal. Poor old Chuck Heston.

Curiously, Stirling has set this novel in 1998 placing us firmly within the realms of alternative history. The reason for the use of this device is not clear, as it doesn't really impact upon the progress of the narrative. Perhaps the author sought after a sense of immediacy garnered by making the events take place in our past rather than our future. Perhaps he sought to avoid the work being viewed as a prediction of things to come - an obvious trap for many speculative works.

His story concentrates around two characters: Michael Havel, a rough and ready pilot type in his mid-twenties and Juniper Mackenzie, a guitar wielding pagan priestess. The novel chronicles their actions as they struggle to adjust to the demands of this new world.

The immediate needs of survival create an exciting introduction to the book as the protagonists fight off opportunistic thugs, hunger and thirst. We are also introduced to a third character who will be the main villain of the piece, a man who seeks to establish a semi-feudal society of hierarchical bloodshed. As the novel progresses, Havel and his companions move towards a nomadic lifestyle, earning their keep as mercenaries whilst Juniper begins to establish a more settled community. We are invited to compare the consequences of these two decisions and the author uses this device admirably to demonstrate the differing possibilities of survival in a world turned on its head.

Stirling does a great job in showing that this world is not simply the twelfth century come again. Although all powered technology has become useless, the culture and degree of knowledge this society possesses is vastly different to that of our ancestors. It is clear that whatever results from this horrific transformation will be something new and as yet unseen.

The re-emergence of religion proves to be key to the survival of many, although Stirling seems to believe that Pagans will fair best in the new environment. This would seem appropriate given the theological composition of ancient societies that also had little time for worship without practical application. The Christians don't seem to do too badly either, despite their most prominent leader being a bit of a stereotypical firebrand.

I found my personal sympathies drawn towards Havel's mixed company of skilled warriors and artisans, although considering their entry requirements I would be so dead, unless they desperately needed an official beer drinker/toast maker.

Once the initial turmoil is over, the book does become a bit plodding in places. There are many detailed descriptions of agricultural processes and of blacksmithing. At points I was tempted to start tearing out and eating any page with the word 'tang' on it. As it nears its conclusion, there are also a series of distinctly supernatural events, that whilst being wonderfully depicted do not sit altogether comfortably with the attempts at realism prevalent elsewhere.

Due to these flaws 'Dies The Fire' is not one of the best books of the year, although it is definitely worth a read. Also, it appears to be the first book of a trilogy giving Stirling the chance to shake his characters up a bit and I will be very interested to see the development of this series over the course of the next two books.

Paul Skevington

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