Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Dies the Fire, by S.M. Stirling

This week I'm looking at a book that was suggested to me by someone, Dies the Fire by S.M. Stirling. This is actually the first book in a trilogy and part of a larger universe where technology largely ceases to function across the world. Dies the Fire starts with The Change, a mysterious event on March 17, 1998 when a massive storm makes electrical equipment cease to work, as well as gunpowder and high-pressure steam engines. Why is never really discovered but that's largely irrelevant as modern civilization is unable to continue existing and humanity is thrown back to before the Industrial Revolution.

So how does humanity survive? Well most of the main characters are either survivalists, Ren folk, or other forms of historical enthusiasts who have at least some of the skills such as hunting, farming, carpentry, blacksmithing, brewing, or any of the other thousand skills humans needed to survive without the help of machinery. The story focuses largely on the Clan Mackenzie, originally a Wiccan coven who takes in survivors and eventually grows to be a force in their own right, and the Bearkillers, originally the Larsen family and their bush pilot who are stranded in Idaho and start trekking back to Oregon.

One of the things that bothered me early on with the book was how convenient things seemed to work out for the characters in the book. This feels especially true for the Larsen/Bearkiller group. They crash-land in the middle of nowhere, Idaho, and manage to make it back to the highway. Once there, they conveniently meet up with a ranching family that has a train of horses with them and wants to travel as a group. And the father of the group just conveniently happens to be an amateur blacksmith. Later on they come to another patch of nowhere, Idaho and conveniently find a veterinarian who also knows how to fight with sabre and targe, someone who knows how to make bows, and a former combat engineer. The book even makes light of this, with the main characters commenting how lucky they are, which only drew my attention more to it.

The Mackenzies I was slightly less bothered by, since they started out as a pagan coven and you can't really go to a Renaissance festival without tripping over half a dozen pagans so it makes at least some sort of sense for them to have skills and resources. But things also work out especially convenient for them later on too. They just conveniently manage to find a retired SAS trooper who's also an amateur boyer, who uses a convenient stock of yew to make a bunch of longbows. I mean, obviously, if things didn't go the characters way and they died it would be a pretty uninteresting book, but it seems to go too well for them at times and the book drawing attention to the fact only seems to make it worse.

In addition to the main characters, the book sets up the antagonist for what I presume will be the rest of the series, the Lord Protector of Portland, a former medieval history professor who uses his knowledge of the era to start building up a kingdom and has eyes on good chunks of Oregon. What bothered me the most was that the Mackenzies and the Bearkillers opposed him on the grounds he's trying to reestablish feudalism, and that's not right! He wants to take a third of everyone's crops and make them work his lands one day in three! That's not fair at all! And they're right.

Except the Bearkillers then turn around and establish their own feudal state in Oregon, with knights being granted fiefs to administer and support them and additional bands of fighters to help protect against incursions from the Protector. (The Mackenzies meanwhile adopt the styles of a highlander clan as their own solution.) Now, on some level I have to agree that yes, you're going to have a great deal of localization necessary if the fastest means of communication is back down to horses and feudalism was one approach to solving that problem. Plus, if you want to create an army of lancers or even really good soldiers you need to have people who can focus on being soldiers full time rather than spending part of their time doing stuff like farming. But I feel like your heroes can't go fighting someone on the grounds he doesn't respect human beings and wants to establish feudalism, only for them to turn around and create their own feudal state.

I also feel like the book tries a little too hard to make the argument of Ren folk saving the day, and that's really down to making gunpowder mysteriously not work anymore. I do have to give Stirling some credit for taking away steam power in addition to electricity because if you just take away electricity it really only knocks us back to about 1880, so steampunk future! But if you take away steam power that eliminates most of the benefits of the Industrial Revolution and takes us further back to about 1750 in terms of what's possible technology-wise. Removing gunpowder is what really pushes this back into knights and castles, but that's just military technology. So I feel like Stirling was kind of going out of his way to make it specifically Ren folk rather than other historical enthusiasts.

Overall, I'm kind of mixed on my opinion of the book. While it's interesting to explore what sort of cultures and systems of government might pop up after the technological gains of the past 250 years are gone overnight, I didn't connect with most of the main characters. The Bearkillers seem to appeal to force too much and don't seem much terribly different from the Protector. I honestly would expect them to become the bullies if they weren't designated heroes. The Mackinzies are better, but I have some reservations about them as well. I probably won't be following this series any further.

- Kalpar

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