In Stirling’s Nantucket trilogy (see Fantasy Literature: 9:15 pm EST, March 17, 1998 — Farewell Nantucket), the officers and crew of the Coast Guard tall ship Eagle and the people of Nantucket are transported to 1250 BC. During their epic struggles to survive and put down one of their own who goes rebel, they often wonder what the people of their time think about the appearance, they presume, of 1250 BC era Nantucket. Are the millionaires with missing houses wandering the woods, cursing their ill luck?
Dies the Fire is Stirling’s 2004 answer to the question “So what happened when contemporary Nantucket vanished, replaced by one full of trees?” In this grimmer, darker work (things changed a bit post 9/11, but that’s another topic) the imagined millionaires looking for their vanished summer homes are no more than stacked bones by a cannibal’s cookfire.
The “Change” occurs at 6:15 pm on the west coast of the United States. Minutes after news reports of some weird electrical disturbance around Nantucket off the east coast of the US, everyone experiences a flash of pain. The lights go out. Cars stop working.
If this sounds like the premise of the show Revolution, don’t forget that Stirling’s work came first. But where the creators of Revolution were apparently unwilling to take the wonders of firearms out of the equation, Stirling goes further. High-energy technologies no longer work. Gunpowder burns — but lazily. Bullets plop out the ends of gun muzzles. Even steam engines fail to produce useful work.
Yes, fans of the SCA and muscle-powered weapons, Dies the Fire thrusts humanity back to medieval technology. Stirling, savvy at the “keeping it real” part of writing speculative fiction, acknowledges and describes the mega-death that must, invariably, follow. Nine-tenths of humans perish, some proportion of the remainder are no more than mindless, bestial cannibals, and civilization is now in the hands of those who rise to the occasion and lead groups of people into the new reality.
The novel’s chief protagonist is a witch, a musician with a deaf teenage daughter. Juniper Mackenzie witnesses the beginning of the end of civilization as we know it — TEOTWAWKI — and with her useful friend, leatherworker and woodworker Dennis Martin (his brother is off visiting Nantuck — oh, Stirling, you clever fellow!) immediately head for the hills, where she has a very useful cabin. Her coven, stranded in a different city, also decides to flee the densely populated zone. They steal a conestoga wagon from a museum exhibit, load it up with supplies, and likewise head for safety.
Characters in fiction are frequently freakishly lucky. Or unlucky. Or both. After all, drama requires tension, and tension flows from situations authors invent. Mysterious strangers appear. Old friends turn out to be siblings separated at birth. That useful gizmo your uncle picked up when he went traveling turns out to be the Gizmo of Doom. Managing this balancing act between believable circumstance and “you’re kidding, right?” happenstance is no different in Fantasy Literature. A useful idea comes to us from M. H. Abrams’ “The Mirror and the Lamp.” (This is from his work The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition and so long as you don’t cite it in any paper you write, ever, just look it up on Wikipedia.)
The mirror, Abrams argues, is a metaphor for how art was seen in the classical world going forward quite awhile in the western world. Good art reflected the real world effectively. Then the romantics came along (hey, Wikipedia, then come back) and for them good art meant illuminating the world, changing how the world is perceived through art (their inner fire, you might say).
This is an extremely useful metaphor when it comes to discussing fantastic literature. For the Fantasy author clearly illuminates some new realities for the reader, with settings and characters deliberately _not_ reflecting reality. Yet some Fantasy work does reflect the world accurately. And Stirling’s Emberverse novels are praised for what might be called a science-fictional attention to real-world detail.
But Dies the Fire is not a slavish representation of what would happen if, suddenly, all high energy technology suddenly stopped working. Stirling illuminates his Emberverse novels with that special stuff we readers of Fantasy enjoy. Juniper Mackenzie rescues an ex-SAS bowmaker and archery expert in the woods near her cabin: a huge stroke of luck. In turn, her group is ready to confront a medieval-style armored force equipped with spear and crossbow.
This occurs six months after the Change, and it strains credulity that this could be so (amidst the frantic escaping, planting food to eat, harvesting food to eat, and so on), and yet this is the suspension of disbelief we Fantasy readers agree to. It is this inner light of Stirling’s that he wishes us to observe in his work: the forced-under-greenhouse-glass retro-acculturation (No Wikipedia on that yet, but Google knows) of different groups in the Oregon area results in medieval French-style troops (lead by Norman Arminger, SCA swordsman and general bad guy — get it? Norman? Get it?) vs. Clan Mackenzie faux-Irish/Scots longbow archers with help from mounted and armored archers (just google Kassai Lajos) and blocks of pike from Corvalis (city-state centered around the University there — go Beavers). Yes, Stirling likes his little jokes.
So we have grim reality (billions dead from starvation, violent death, and disease) coupled with reality-straining fantasy in Dies the Fire. But as Farah Mendelsohn might ask, is it really Fantasy if there’s no magic?
If you check out the Dies the Fire Wikipedia entry, you’ll see reference to some reviews that label the book too unrealistic. The characters are too lucky. Yet the characters themselves are not unaware of their luck. “Lady Juniper’s Luck,” the Mackenzies call it, referring to the endless good turns her group enjoyed. “Holly and ivy festooned the walls, to invite the Good Folk in and bring luck…” represents one of many cases of the Mackenzies’ Wiccan practice. Another has to do with being conscious of luck in the world: “We have to pay back, if we don’t want the luck to leave us — threefold return, for good or ill.”
So is this the magic of the novel? The too-numerous to list turns of good fortune, not only for the Mackenzies but for the chance-met father, Lord of the Bearkillers, of her son? Or consider this, Fantasy fans. A body of armed men has come to impose Norman Arminger’s idea of feudalism over the Mackenzies and her local allies:
Six months ago, what had these men before her been? Criminals? Perhaps; or perhaps auto mechanics and computer salesmen and clerks.
But now they come to kill, to rape and steal and destroy, to starve our children and take the works of our hands and the Goddess’ blessings and drive us out on the road to die or turn cannibal.
Her voice was a whisper; cold and small in her own ears:
“In the name of the babe beneath my heart, I curse you. And Your curse upon them: you Dread Lord, wild huntsman; you Dark Goddess, raven-winged and strong! Come to me, in power and in wrath! May Anwyn take them, and ill may be the house to which You lead them!”
The rage was enormous, beyond all bearing; her hand scrabbled at the catch of her cloak as if it choked her. She cast it off and rose, ignoring Sam Aylward’s cry — this wasn’t in the plan.
She ignored his second cry, as well, of stark terror when he saw her face: turned bone-white, white as the rim all about her staring eyes. The pupils expanded to swallow all else, depthless pools of night. Teeth showed bright beneath lips drawn back in a she-wolf’s killing grin.
When she shouted the sound was huge, loud enough to strain even her trained singer’s throat, loud enough to shock the drummer and piper into silence for a moment: “Scathach!”
Even her coveners recoiled in horror, as she invoked the Dark Goddess in Her most terrible form.
Scathach, the Devouring Shadow.
She Who Brings Fear.
Shrieking it, standing with feet planted wide apart, her red hair bristling like the crest of a fox at bay, bow in one hand and arrow in the other as her spread arms reached skyward and completed the double V.
Eyes turned in her direction from all across the battlefield-in-the-making.
“Scathach! As they have wrought, so it shall be returned to them, threefold!”
She put the arrow through the ledge of her bow’s riser and drew, drew until the stave creaked and the kiss-ring on the string touched her lips. When she released it was into the air without aiming, but she knew where the shaft would fall.
It came whistling down out of the sun, and the banner-bearer of the enemy had barely time to look up before the chisel-headed bodkin point sank into his face and he fell, the black flag toppling to cover him as he struck the pavement.
“SCATHACH! They are Yours!”
It becomes less so, as the series goes on, but it is never “wiggle fingers, say magic word, fling magic missile” easy. And this case of berserk fighting madness may be nothing inexplicable at all. The reading magic lies between the gritty, realistic swordplay and the hardly realistic “just add water: instant warring factions.” This thing draws us in to Stirling’s post-apocalyptic vision, makes readers care about these people and the ultimate outcome of their struggles.
Between the mirror and the lamp we Fantasists find our sustenance: neither all man in the gray flannel suit, nor all fluffy bunnies and unicorns.
So far we’ve covered the following S. M. Stirling novels in this series:
Island in the Sea of Time, Against the Tide of Years, and On the Oceans of Eternity
Dies the Fire
The Protector’s War
A Meeting at Corvallis, Part 1
A Meeting at Corvallis, Part 2
The Peshawar Lancers and Conquistador
The Sunrise Lands
The Scourge of God
The Sword of the Lady, Part 1
The Sword of the Lady, Part 2
The High King of Montival
The Tears of the Sun
Lord of Mountains
The Given Sacrifice and The Golden Princess
See you next time for The Protector’s War.
Edward Carmien is a writer and scholar firmly in the orbit of the fantastic. He’s spent some of his recreational time learning skills useful in the fantasy milieu: he can ride a horse (poorly), shoot a bow (badly), hike long distances in the wilderness (pretty well), do others injury with the art of the empty hand (nowadays, who knows, he’s got five decades now…), operate small watercraft, and so on. Tabletop wargaming, gaming, computer gaming, CCG gaming, and cooking are some of his other pursuits.
A member of the SFWA and the SFRA, he writes (not enough), teaches (full time), parents, and husbands in and about Princeton, NJ. Check out his many crimes and misdemeanors in the fantasy field at edwardcarmien.com.