Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Book 16: Dies the Fire

When I read some comments on Pajiba stating that NBC's Revolution had basically ripped off the premise of S.M. Stirling's Dies the Fire, I figured it was a book I would be interested in reading after I finally downsized some of the rest of my to-read pile.  Well, then a friend of mine and I were discussing something, which somehow reminded him of the character Juniper Mackenzie, leading to further discussion and recommendation of the trilogy.  Since I had a Pajiba recommendation and one from a good friend, I ended up picking it up during a recent Barnes and Noble visit (which was actually my first in almost two months - I've been trying to behave).
The idea behind the novel is that in March 1998, all power/energy inexplicably stops working after a painful white flash.  Additionally, guns and gun powder don't work, and other certain chemical reactions don't work quite right anymore.  Stirling chooses two particular witnesses and groups to follow as they deal with the aftermath of this event.  Mike Havel, a pilot, was flying the five members of the Larsson family and their cat from Idaho to Montana when this occured, leading to a crash landing in a stream in Idaho.  While at first the six of them believe that this was bad luck, they soon realize that being caught in the middle of nowhere in the wilderness was actually a stroke of good luck as it allows them to avoid the mass panics that take over the cities which are soon facing a shortage of food.  After facing some initial hardships, Mike and the Larssons become the leaders of a group of survivors, aiming to settle in the Willamette Valley in Oregon where Ken Larsson has a family farm. 
Juniper Mackenzie, a Wiccan and folk singer, is in Corvallis, Oregon when the event occurs, and her first reaction is to act as if this is a permanent change once she gets her bearings, heading for her country house with her deaf daughter Eilir and pub owner Dennis Martin.  Some of her friends and fellow Wiccans have a similar, pragmatic reaction, and also head for the hills, bringing along tools from a museum exhibit on farm life in early Oregon which are of course crucial in the first few months.  Juney, too, becomes a leader as she and her friends take in refugees, leading to a growing community.  Her group has the added advantage that some members participated in rennaissance fairs, and as a result, actually know how to use bows, axes and swords, which become crucial when guns don't work, and the country is overrun with bandits, refugees and groups of people that revert to cannibalism as the food supply dwindles.
Meanwhile, there is a third man that quickly gains power, though in Norman Arminger's case, it is completely by force and plan, rather than due to having skills and knowledge that people flock to, as in the case of Mike and Juniper.  A medieval history professor who also participated in Rennaissance fairs himself, he quickly takes over certain important resources, and starts building his fiefdom based on medieval principles, basically trying to go back to a system of serfdom.  As the novel progresses, Arminger already tries to extend his power, and this novel sets up the alliances that will develop later in the trilogy.
One thing I really liked about this novel is that no one really spends too much time trying to explain what happened or how or why.  Basically, most of the survivors are people that quickly recognized what happened, and decided to act as if it was permanent, and all around the world, and go from there.  The focus is on survival and rebuilding, not reversing the event.  I would definitely recommend the novel, though I haven't completed the trilogy so hopefully I don't change my mind later.  Stirling appears to have done quite a lot of research on economics, agriculture and history to predict how this loss of technology would affect humans in both the short and the long term.  There is also quite a bit of action, and while I may have only glanced through the song lyrics that Juniper sings throughout the novel (I always get bored with that kind of stuff in fantasy novels, and was just glad there wasn't as much as in The Wheel of Time), it was good overall.  The main characters seem incredibly lucky to an extent  but Stirling mostly explains rather well why certain characters survive and why they would even have certain, formerly useless skills that would be crucial for survival, including the Wiccans, the medieval reenactors or the Lord of the Rings fanatic that took an interest in bow shooting as a result.

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