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Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Dies The Fire.

In August 2003, a transformer blew in Ohio, causing a cascade effect that blacked out 50 million people in the U.S. and Canada. We were among them, and except for the uncomfortable heat, it was almost charming (here's Part III: we went north, stayed at the parents' cottage, and came back to find the power on. The end.)

Sci-fi author S.M. Stirling has imagined a world where the power never comes back on. In fact, because of the changes in fundamental physical laws, it never can. That includes all electronics--even gunpowder and internal combustion/steam-powered engines. Something--someone--has knackered the entire planet, and quite thoroughly. The survivors call it "the Change."

Pause for a moment to consider how much food it takes to feed a major American metropolitan area on a daily basis. Then consider how that food is delivered. Then consider how water is supplied and purified for the same region. Then consider the hospitals...

Now contemplate how much nonperishable food, water and medicine you currently have in your household. Now take stock of all of the useful skills you have that translate into an environment that is the functional equivalent of the Eleventh Century, A.D.

That's the stark horror at the core of DTF. Essentially, if you live in a large city or suburb and haven't skedaddled as best you can within 24 hours, you. are. dead. Either quickly, or more horribly, through cannibalism (eater or eatee). One of the characters estimates that there may be only 10-20 million people left alive between the Hudson Bay and Guatemala after the first year, post-Change.

To his credit, Stirling doesn't dwell much on urban horrors, giving only brief snapshots of such medium sized cities as Portland, Salem and Eugene, Oregon. The deaths of the metropoli are only hinted at, and touched upon in rumors, but that's it. The only survivors of such places are endurance bicyclists.

With that hideous premise, Stirling has managed to craft a fascinating yarn, focusing on two bands of Oregon survivors: one led by a Wiccan high priestess and singer named Juniper MacKenzie, and the second led by a Michigan Marine Recon veteran-turned-bush-pilot named Mike Havel (Havel manages to pull off a more or less successful crash landing after the Change--jumbo jets are unable to do the same, with tragic results). And, of course, there's a powermongering villain--Norman Arminger, an ex-Jesuit (I swear I'm not making this up), swordsman and professor of medieval history, who calls himself the Lord Protector of Portland.

Stirling has taken a lot of flak for what some call an inordinate amount of detail about the Wiccan religion and its adherents. The critics are missing the point. I've read virtually everything Stirling has written. He's a research hound. He's going to hit you with it (even if his historical research is open to debate on occasion). He's providing detail on a still-little-known religion, and he's going to get it right. But more to the point, the Wiccan-ness of the MacKenzie survivors helps them to survive and adapt in the aftermath of the Change. The Havel band gloms onto a victory over a marauding grizzly, and the Tolkien-worship of one of its younger members.

A related note to Christian readers: Stirling is not religious, of any stripe. What he does have is a healthy respect for religion, and its enduring value and impact on human behavior. Think J. Michael Straczynski, and you're on the right path. The heroine of Under The Yoke (the second book in the not-for-the-squeamish Draka trilogy) was Sr. Marya Sokolowska, a devout and fearless Polish nun.

I'll go so far as to say this--what Stirling is trying to say is that only an older-style "hearth" religiosity can survive such profound, dislocating shocks. Wicca is that. Adapted-to-modernity religions--ones wholly dependent on the current social order--cannot. Oprahism--in all of its religious flavors--is done for. Even the tougher, more serious forms of modern Protestantism--dependent as they are on universal literacy and the printing press--have a hard time adapting to the Change. If Stirling can be accused of a consistent, active dislike, it would be for 20th Century Protestantism. He doesn't seem to think there's an essential there there, so to speak. It's a little unfair, even from my perspective, but I see what he's getting at. There's also the slight botch on a translation of a passage from Galatians that actually has to do with abortion, not sorcery, but that's just the incorrigible papist speaking. For the most part, he gets it right--even the hardline Protestant minister leading a surviving town near the MacKenzies is portrayed as honorable, courageous and honest.

Frankly, Stirling could have just as easily based his story on a band of rural Tridentine Catholics, another group a half-turn away from the modern, and less dependent upon it, and achieved a lot of the same result.

Hmm--that's what fan fiction is for...

Another clueless critique is about the luck that both bands encounter. Well, duh--survivors tend to be more fortunate than victims. That's part of what makes them "survivors." They're smart and capable, too, but that's not always enough.

Then there's the Adventure! angle. That's a welcome development in Stirling's recent fiction--from the Island series (it's the flip side of DTF--it's a long story) to the standalones Conquistador (I. Want. To. Go. There. Now.) and The Peshawar Lancers. The last is probably the friendliest way to get acquainted with Stirling's work--it's a swashbuckler (Exotic Lands! Heroic Heroes! Villainous Villains! Distressed Damsels!) through and through. But DTF has it, too, from the punishment of marauding cannibals ("There are some things no one is entitled to do to survive"), to the dethroning of petty tyrants, betrayals, the lot--all with a healthy dollop of a legend in the making. A tragic legend, too, if I'm reading the signs right, hinging on a seemingly harmless and understandable decision two of the characters make. (Stirling is not afraid of unhappy endings and likeable characters dying--it made one of his series a particularly daunting--if compulsive--read.)

Go--read.

Then take up sword training or archery.

Just in case.

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