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S. M. Stirling – Dies The Fire

September 2, 2008

98. Dies the Fire by S. M. Stirling (1998)
Emberverse, Book 1

Read By: Todd McLaren
Length: 21h 58m (496 pages)

Genre: Sci-fi; speculative fiction.

Started: 17 July 2008
Finished: 13 August 2008 (almost a month. Oof.)

Summary: What would you do if tomorrow morning your cell phone stopped working? What if it weren’t just your phone, but also your computer, car, and refrigerator? And what if it weren’t just your electronics, but everyone’s? What would you do? Could you find enough food to survive? Could you defend it against other people who want to take it from you?

That’s the world S. M. Stirling asks us to contemplate in his novel Dies the Fire. At 6:15 on a March evening, The Change occurs – a blinding white flash, followed by the laws of physics going haywire… no more electricity, combustion engines, or gunpowder. The novel follows the stories of two survivors following The Change. Juniper Mackenzie, a Gaelic folk singer and the head of a Wiccan coven, is mid-set in a Corvallis bar when The Change strikes. When she realizes that it’s not just a momentary blip, she heads for her family’s cabin in the rural Willamette Valley, accompanied by her daughter, the owner of the bar, and some farming equipment they “liberate” from a local museum.

The Change is a little more drastic for pilot and ex-marine Mike Havel. He’s high in the air over the Idaho wilderness, ferrying the wealthy Larsen family to their remote second home when the engine and electronics on his small plane simultaneously die. They survive the crash, but are left stranded in the middle of the late-winter woods with minimal food and gear, and no chance of a rescue helicopter to help.

As Juniper and Mike begin to gather friends, refugees, and other survivors around them, they each unwillingly become the de facto leader of a small community – Juniper as leader and high priestess of a makeshift coven and clan, and Mike as the commander of a band of mercenary fighters. While both groups have to struggle for short-term survival and long-term security, they also have to deal with bandits, raiders, and cannibals, as well as the fighting bands of the Protector, a crazed but powerful man who has decided that The Change means the time for feudalism has come again… with him as the reigning warlord.

Review: Although this book, like most post-apocalyptic literature, gets lumped in as science fiction, there’s very little about it that actually qualifies it for the term. It’s more properly labeled as speculative fiction – both in the sense of its premise (“What would happen if all of our technology stopped working?”), and in the sense that both characters and readers are left to speculate on the nature of The Change. Stirling’s story has a strong bias towards practicality – whatever the cause of The Change, the characters are too busy dealing with its effects to spend much time pondering the deeper metaphysical questions. This favoring of practicality over metaphysics means this novel has more thematically in common with survivalist novels and some historical fiction than with more typical sci-fi.

Dies the Fire works very well as a thought experiment – I spent the entire novel asking myself “What would I do in that situation? Could I survive?” (The answer, I suspect, is “no”, although I now have a strong desire to take up archery.) It’s clear that Stirling has thought through his world very thoroughly, catching details that most people wouldn’t even consider. Giving your brain the chance to play with hypotheticals of the post-Change world is the best part of the novel, and I applaud Stirling for creating a world so rich with potential.

Unfortunately, while I thought the post-Change world was fascinating, I was less enthused by the stories within that world that Stirling chose to tell. Part of this stems from the fact that I didn’t emotionally connect to any of his characters… and the fact that they didn’t seem to emotionally connect to each other. It felt as if this novel was so intent on describing what the characters were doing that it ignored what they were feeling, and thus lacked an emotional core. Preexisting relationships that one would expect to be affected by The Change are discussed glancingly at best (for much of the novel, it seemed as though Juniper forgot she had a daughter), while newly established relationships felt largely hollow and ultimately false.

The other main factor that kept me from really getting involved in this novel was the high level of seemingly extraneous scenes, characters, themes, and details. The most obvious example is the religion; Juniper and her coven are “conspicuously” Wiccan, which is not a problem in and of itself. However, when a novel focuses so heavily on a character’s religion, I expect that religion to have some major bearing on the plot, and when it doesn’t, it winds up feeling like proselytizing. Similarly, short “interludes” from the perspectives of the bad guys did very little for me. They didn’t provide additional depth of character, they simply seemed to be an opportunity for the author to describe some truly despicable people and their horrific actions in overly gruesome detail. In general, there were large swaths of this novel whose inclusion I didn’t fully understand, and which could have been cut without sacrificing much of the story.

For the most part, I though Todd McLaren did a good job narrating the story. Initially, I was very put off by how every character seemed to have an accent. As I listened, however, I realized that all of the accents had a textual basis; Stirling is strangely fixated on linguistic variations, and very few people in his post-Change world speak bland, unaccented American English. But by far largest fault of the audiobook production was that mid-chapter scene shifts were not demarcated by even a long-ish pause, instead plunging from paragraph to paragraph in a manner that frequently left me checking if I’d accidentally skipped a track.

Recommendation: Overall, I found Dies the Fire to be a passably enjoyable but over-long and oddly focused story, set in a fascinating speculative world. Fans of novels focused on action, wilderness survival, fighting, and warfare, would be the most likely to enjoy this book, but anyone looking for something deeper is likely to come away disappointed. 3 out of 5 stars.

This audiobook review was originally published on The S.F. Site.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Other Reviews: Death Before Cannibalism!, Awaiting Inspiration, Subversive Puppet Show, 1 to 10 Reviews, Pagan Bookworm, Amy’s Blog

First Line: Michael Havel pulled his battered 4×4 into the employees’ parking lot, locked up and swung his just-in-case gear out of the back, the strap of the pack over one shoulder and the gun case on the other.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. September 3, 2008 8:17 am

    If you liked this then, I’m reasonably sure you will enjoy World War Z. It has much the same survivoristic (is that a word?) tone, but y’know, with zombies ;-D

  2. September 3, 2008 3:04 pm

    Does it follow that if I was mostly ambivalent about this book, I’m going to be mostly ambivalent about World War Z?

  3. September 5, 2008 2:47 pm

    Okay, so, what I MEANT to say was that if you enjoyed the survivoristic (if I use this word one more time then I guess its REAL) aspect then you will enjoy that same quality in WWZ. ALSO, it has a better story that what you’ve described here, with very good characterizations (particularly the military characters–a friend who is a Marine Corps officer read it and liked it; he is not a fan of sci-fi as a rule).

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