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.