Dies the Fire, by S.M. Stirling

S.M. Stirling’s Dies the Fire begins with the end of the world as we know it. One morning, for reasons unknown, all higher technology ceases to work. All electrical gadgets are nonfunctional. Guns will not fire. Steam pressure will no longer drive an engine. Cars run off the road; food spoils in refrigerators; jumbo jets fall out of the sky. The cause is and remains unclear; one character opines that “Alien Space Bats” have chosen to drive mankind back to the pre-industrial age.

As with Eric Flint’s 1632 series, the cause is almost immaterial; the interest is in how our heroes adapt to the change in circumstances. Stirling gives us two primary viewpoint characters; the first is Mike Havel, ex-Marine and bush pilot. He’s flying the wealthy Larsson family from Oregon to their ranch in Montana when the Change occurs. His story begins as he draws on his strength and his backwoods experience to get the Larssons to safety–and on his memories of his Marine gunnery sergeant to get the best effort from each of the people in his charge–a group that continues to grow throughout the book.

The second viewpoint character is Juniper Mackenzie, folk musician and Wiccan “High Priestess”. Quicker to see the implications of the Change than most, she immediately leaves the city of Corvallis with her daughter and a close friend for her cabin out in the woods. She’s hoping that other members of her coven will join her there; in the mean time, the goal is to survive through the Dying Time that she can clearly see approaching. Others begin to cluster around her, just as they do around Havel.

Both of these groups realize that the world has become a very dangerous place; there is not enough to go around, and if they do not defend themselves they’ll be destroyed. Both, in addition, are more or less on the side of the angels–they’ll play fair with anyone who’ll play fair with them. Their styles, however, quite different. Mackenzie and her friends, and those who join them, immediately settle down to practical matters: getting the crops planted, so they’ll survive the winter–and learning how to fight, so they can survive those who would take their harvest from them. Over time they begin to build a society based on consensus, decency, and honesty–but it’s very clear (much to her chagrin) that all involved look to “Lady Juniper” as their leader.

Havel’s first goal is to get the Larssons from Idaho (where they crash) to their country estate in Oregon. Like Clan Mackenzie, Havel’s group emphasizes both the crafts and skills needed in the post-Change world, but also swordplay, archery, and horsemanship. Where Clan Mackenzie is settled in one place, Havel’s group is mobile, trading skills and the things they make with the settled groups they pass. Being decent people, they rescue a number of folks from fates worse than death, first as they see need, and eventually as a matter of business. By the time they reach central Oregon Havel is leading what’s essentially a band of knights (though he doesn’t think of it in those terms) called the Bearkillers.

Mike and Juniper aren’t the only ones to see the possibilities of the post-Change world, of course; and their chief antagonist is the Protector, a former professor of Medieval History who’s trying to rebuild the feudal system (with himself as King, naturally) with fear and blood as the mortar. In his view, you can be a farmer or you can live off of the farmers as a rancher lives off of his sheep. Clan Mackenzie and the Bearkillers are natural allies, and naturally they band together against the Protector.

Dies the Fire is an interesting and well-written book, if not strictly original. Portions of it remind me of Lucifer’s Hammer; and the premise is strongly reminiscent of John Ringo’s There Will Be Dragons. In fact, there’s something of a flood of apocalypse novels of late, especially if you count Eric Flint’s 1632 series. I was also interested in Stirling’s choice of Wiccans as his protagonists. Juniper Mackenzie is kind, intelligent, and clearly sincere about her Wiccan religion; and the fact that she practices what she preaches leads many other characters to adopt Wicca as the book progresses. I find that troubling.

If you think of religion as primarily an internal thing, as a way of viewing the world that helps you cope, then it may well be true that there are many paths that lead to God, as Juniper says at one point. By that view, Wicca makes as much sense as any other religion. But if you think of religion as being based in truth, as being our confrontation with ultimate reality, then obviously some views of the Godhead are truer than others. As a Christian, I believe that Jesus Christ is God and the Son of God: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Wiccans are not satanists, as such, and I do not hate them or wish to persecute them; I’m sure the proportion of good and bad people is much the same within Wicca as without. But they are, at best, misled–and as teachers, at best misleading. It troubles me to see them lauded in what is arguably a mainstream novel. That said, one of the basic messages of the book is that courage, fortitude, decency, charity, and other virtues are survival traits, and that’s a message worth spreading.

There’s a sequel out in hardcover; I’ll undoubtedly buy it when it comes out in paperback.

  • By Dan, November 16, 2006 @ 8:21 pm

    Keep the religious sales talk out of your blogs mate.

    You said “But they are, at best, misled–and as teachers, at best misleading.”

    Oh please, I wouldnt go commenting about the word of God given that his words have been so heavily distorted by men for so long that we have lost the truth part of it a long time ago. Your insulting defintion of what is maintream tells me even without checking that you are American. Very few other peoples would have the ignorence to believe that their way is the only right way. There are 1.2 billion people who follow Islam and 837 million Hindus on this planet (thats the bits on the map outside the USA). Ask them what is mainstream.

    A large premise to this book is how the tables turn in so many ways. Those skills which were considered less meaningful have become essential. The farmer is now top of the rung again. And the same goes for religion. Wiccan religion from what he is explaining, without a doubt would have more appeal and appropriateness than anything concocted by the men who shaped Christianity. Face facts buddy. He is spot on.

  • By Will Duquette, November 17, 2006 @ 4:20 pm

    It’s my blog, mate. If you don’t like “religious sales talks”, you needn’t read it.

    As for my definition of “mainstream”, yes, I’m American, and geographically my primary concern here is American society and culture and the changes I see in it. Frankly, it would be “insulting” for me to pretend to write authoritatively about social change anywhere else in the world. If you find that insulting, I’m afraid you need some insensitivity training.

    As for your comments about the word of God being distorted by men simply shows your lack of faith in God’s omnipotence. If He’s God, and He wants his will to be known to us, don’t you think He’s capable of keeping it free of distortion?

    Anyway, you’re rather late to this particular party; this has all been hashed out in later posts. (Click the trackback, if you care.)

  • By Cathy, December 13, 2006 @ 4:00 pm

    I’ve read Dies The Fire and I’m now in the middle of reading The Protector’s War. I was sufficiantly disturbed by the idea of the world ending not by nuclear war(which for years everyone has believed would happen) but by the disruption of modern technology, that I had nightmares after considering how much the loss of 200 year old technology would impact my life.
    What would I do without my tv to entertain me in the evenings? The running water that comes with my nightly bubble bath not to mention the microwave that heats/cooks my convient ready to eat meals. What about the convient refridgerator that hold all that extra food that I’ve bought in the anticipation that I might want to eat later?
    As to growing my own food, I can’t stand to be near anything with more than four legs so a garden with the myriad of insects both beneficial and not is out of the question.
    All of that convience would disappear with the disappearance of technology and I’m sure that I would not be the only one who had no idea how to produce enough garden food to sustain me through one season let alone a whole year.
    I never thought about how the pioneers survived and thrived on homesteads and had to produce everything themselves from food and water, to butchering livestock to making their own tools and clothing.
    Then there is the fact that after the Change, you can’t call 911 if your home is attacked by the bandits and Eaters roaming the countryside.
    I took martial arts classes years ago, but I wouldn’t know the first thing about making a plan to defend my little piece of land.
    And last, even though I can’t cook worth a darn, I want to know the recipe for Everlasting Stew. I can’t imagine what would go in it and how it could last for any length of time.
    Seriously, I wonder about how so many people who were people would drop Christianity and adopt a religion so different in such a short amount of time.
    I’m going to finish The Protector’s War and wait until Meeting In Corvalis comes out in paperback. I can’t wait to see what happens next.

  • By Jim Young, August 22, 2007 @ 11:26 pm

    I have to agree with you that the presentation of Wicca as the alternate religion bothered me. Not because I don’t think that people would abandon whatever faith they felt failed them with the Change, because one can make a pretty good case that the Black Death led to the Reformation because the religion of the time failed to offer explanation and comfort to those afflicted with great suffering. The idea that a leader of an “alternate” religion causing people to convert, even convert fairly rapidly, because of their military economic or in this case survival success is not to hard to swallow. The part that is difficult is that Christians who make up a great majority of the country and even assuming that only maybe a quarter or a third of them are “true-believers” then they would still outnumber Wiccans about 1000 to 1. These Christians are portrayed with one character who of course sounds a lot like the preacher from Footloose. The other issue that seems to always crop in books and films is that Christianity is always a faith in things unseen. (which of course is true in a certain fashion) And that the alternate religion actually can perform miracles such as Lady Juniper in the battle that finishes off our nasty preacher at the same time. That’s just my quick thoughts late at night. I know it’s not very timely but what the heck.

  • By Will Duquette, August 23, 2007 @ 6:19 am

    I agree about the nasty preacher; but Stirling has a way of not conforming to stereotypes. The later books feature a number (in England, a large number of devout Catholics, for example. And aren’t some of Lord Bear’s people Catholic as well?

  • By Jim Young, August 24, 2007 @ 10:00 pm

    Actually it has been a while since I read them. Trying to get a copy of the Meeting at Corvallis. When I get that I will reread the whole trilogy. If I remember correctly the people in Lord Bear’s group (while incredibly cool in a knight errant sort of way) would be hard to categorize as “devout.” Nominal would probaby be a better category. I am trying to remember the people in England it does strike a chord but memory fades. My main point is that if you remove the battle miracle in the first book you still have a solid sociological understanding for the growth of Wiccan religion (?) in Lady Juniper’s territory and surrounding sympathetic territories. By adding the “my religion has real miracles thereby is credible” seems to be gilding the lily at best and seems to become “religious sales talk”
    Now having said that I firmly believe the miracles recorded in Scripture but if I were writing a book with a Christian main character and I included a divine miracle/intervention in a battle or any other situation it would be considered bad form, but its “cool” when another religion is given “powers” (e.g. Mulan, Pocahantas (of course that is Disney but this is shown in school bah)).

  • By Will Duquette, August 25, 2007 @ 7:14 am

    I’m not sure the comparison with Mulan is fair; it’s effectively presented as a fairy tale, and the Ancestors and Moo-Shu are played for comic effect anyway. And Pocahontas I’ve made it a point not to watch, as it would only have annoyed me.

    I’m not sure I’d agree about it being bad form to include a Christian miracle in a book, either. It’s just that historically, out-and-out incredibly obvious to the meanest observer Christian miracles have been scarce on the ground over the last few centuries. I’m not saying there have been no miracles, far from it. But though they may be obvious to the few who’ve seen them, they often don’t travel well. That makes it harder to include one believably; and in any event, deus ex machina is to be avoided regardless of the deus involved.

    Finally, I’m not sure that you can make the case that a “real miracle” occurs among the Wiccans. Certainly Lady Juniper senses something unusual and seems transformed–ridden is perhaps the right word–on occasion, but the cause is unclear. I seem to recall Stirling dropping some hints about that; all may not be as it seems.

  • By Jim Young, August 25, 2007 @ 9:01 pm

    I think that you would have to agree that if a book was written from that perspective (ie. Christian), assuming it could get published, it would not be sold as SciFi/Fantasy but as a Christian novel which is in another section of the book store.
    I think that miracles by anybody’s definition are pretty thin on the ground. (A good source for some more modern day miracles is “A Table in the Presence” by Carey H. Cash.) I also agree that “But though they may be obvious to the few who’ve seen them, they often don’t travel well.” This is true even in church circles.
    Stirling’s comments outside of the literary work itself don’t really matter to the situation. The event was of some “supernatural power” that favored Lady Juniper and in the same battle the Christian “not-so-good guy” (I can’t really say that Stirling set him up as a true bad guy because he was on the side of right in this situation) buys the farm. You are left with a definite compare and contrast situation. This would be more easily accepted as legend from the scene if the situation were told in the third person from another observer’s viewpoint.
    All this is really not to say that Stirling doesn’t have the right to do whatever in his stories. Most other authors do. Just given how the history plays out with the development of the communities it didn’t seem necessary. The mantle of victory can be very convincing to people, especially to people in a crisis situation, which is pretty much everybody in the “Dies the Fire” scenario. I really did like the story. It reminds me of a short story that I read year’s ago where aliens did the Change thing and then revisited many years later and humans had developed muscle powered weapons and tactics to unheard of levels. I don’t know who wrote and haven’t had the time to find it in my many anthologies. It could be the one referred to in a couple of reviews of the book.

  • By xfyr, February 14, 2010 @ 8:48 am

    I liked the audio book. Personally the footloose preacher would have a fanatical following for sure, they’d be grasping at straws. I am native american can and have done with out bubble baths and fine wines. I can ride horses eat horses and very likely defend myself against most anything that means me harm. My priorities are much different than the world at large. However there are institutions that would invariably thrive in this environment either by force or deception. The movie The Book of Eli presents the scenario of religions destroyed the world so all religions were outlawed. Nice premise. I know Catholicism would thrive in a dark ages Inquisitor scenario, they love torturing in the name of God anyway.

  • By Will Duquette, February 14, 2010 @ 3:26 pm

    xfyr, you’re obviously familiar with a different Catholic Church than I am.

  • By Jason, December 6, 2010 @ 9:19 am

    I enjoyed the idea in this book that primitive hard-skills are valuable and can mean the difference between life and death. Be it archery, bow-drill fires or horsemanship these are crucial talents. Microwaves and TV dinners just wouldn’t cut it! I like seeing people having to rely on themselves and one another in this way. However, it did feel a bit contrived that everyone the protagonists meet happen to be good at archery or swordsmanship. I know Renaissance Fairs are popular but come on!

    As for the discussion about religion I agree that the rapid conversion of characters from Christianity to Wicca was a bit surprising and unsettling. Not that I have anything against Wicca. I just didn’t feel that these converts were staying true to themselves or their value orientation if they could drop their prior belief system so casually.

    A quote from Stirling that I enjoy:

    “Because those events are so real that they cast their shadow forward and backwards through all time, whenever men think of these matters at all. Even if they are mired in ignorance, they will see…fragments of the Truth, as men imprisoned in a cave see shadows cast by the sun. Likewise, all men derive their moral intuitions from God; how not? There is no other source, just as there is no other way to make a wheel than to make it round.”
    — S.M. Stirling

  • By Sky, October 18, 2011 @ 7:36 pm

    Sounds like a good book. Reading the Nantucket series right now, I’m looking forward to starting this one.

    As for the Wiccan aspect, well, consider that we have to read MANY books with a Christianity as the main religion, (have you any idea how hard it is to find childrens’ stories that don’t have a ‘wicked witch’ as the villain?) so just think of it as the shoe being on the other foot for once. I understand your position, I was a little disturbed when the Christian clergy wanted to send missionaries to Europe in ‘Island on the Sea of Time’, proselytizing for Christianity even before Christianity could properly exist. But in the end, its just a story, and a really good story, so don’t sweat the small stuff or make a mountain out of a mole hill, and just enjoy the book! =)

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