Dies the Fire by S.M. Stirling is a really enjoyable Oregon-based post-apocalyptic read. It focuses on the luck, skills, and strategies of the survivors and the early shoots of a new civilization struggling forth from the ashes of the old. Does it require suspension of disbelief? Heck, yeah. Unless there are a lot more people around than I thought with archery and fencing skills, not to mention blacksmithing, engineering, homesteading, and fort-building.
But Stirling’s world, like the best science fiction, is a thought experiment. Given that gunpowder and electricity have been strong influences on the development of modern society, what happens if, in a flash, they suddenly cease to work?
Everyone in an airplane or in a submarine, dies. Many people in vehicles die. Anyone who’s injured and unable to get medical attention, dies. And as time moves forward, anyone who doesn’t maintain access to food and the ability to defend themselves, dies. Most of the benefits of modern day affluence disappear, and the only real wealth is food and safety. In a matter of months, with no trucks, no trains, no harvesters,—starvation. Disease. Horrors perpetrated by the desperate and the evil, unchecked by law or society.
Into this situation, Stirling drops two regular folks who just happen to have skills and beliefs that will serve them well in the new world, and we follow them through The Change, the moment when a blinding flash of life destroys the old world. Juniper is a musician and a single mother, playing a gig in Corvallis, Oregon, accompanied by her deaf fourteen-year-old daughter. Mike Havel is an ex-Marine bush pilot, flying a wealthy family across the mountains, able to crash land in deep forest several days hike from the closest ranger station. Juniper practices Wicca, and has a small farm in the Willamette Valley where all of her surviving coven members and friends gather together under her leadership. Havel and the family he’s with form the core of a traveling militia, trying to work their way across Oregon to the family’s ranch.
The adventure is a blast—lots of action combined with thought-provoking situations. Modern culture is relatively cushy for the majority, rife with complex social and professional challenges but not normally life-threatening. But snatch away the infrastructure of society and in a moment, you’re no longer worried about good daycare and who wins the election. All that falls away in the struggle to provide food, shelter, and safety for yourself and your loved ones. Everything above the most basic need becomes a luxury, and only the strongest, most necessary beliefs survive. You can certainly criticize this book for some of the crazy coincidences (oh, look, that guy we just rescued is an expert horse trainer! and this one knows how to manage food stores and meals for fifty people!) and for the author’s littering of the landscape with Wiccans and Society for Creative Anachronism members, but in my opinion, it works, it’s fun, and it makes you wonder—isn’t it time you started taking fencing lessons?
Dies the Fire is the first in a trilogy, followed by The Protector’s War and A Meeting at Corvallis. All three are also available on audio through Library2Go.