Books read: S.M. Stirling’s Changeverse trilogy

Books read: S.M. Stirling’s Changeverse trilogy

Melanie and I have just finished reading a trilogy by S.M. Stirling: “Dies the Fire”, “The Protector’s War”, and “A Meeting at Corvallis”.

You might call it science fiction or maybe alternate history, although I don’t know if it fits neatly in either genre. The premise is that global cataclysmic event occurred on March 17, 1998 during which the laws of physics were changed to render incapable all non-organic high-density energy technology: no gunpowder, no internal combustion engine, no steam engine. All that was left was mechanical power and hydraulics. The first result is massive death, which occupies a good chunk of the first book, “Dies the Fire.” Without communications or transportation, governments collapse, civilization itself collapses, and 98% of people in the world die of hunger, disease, and murder. It’s not pretty and the first half of the first book has a pretty bleak quality. Yet, the story focuses on three groups of folks in Oregon’s Willamette Valley who do survive and begin to rebuild the first bits of civilization: A former Force-Recon Marine who had been flying a wealthy family to their vacation home in Oregon who gathers like-minded folk about him as they travel back to Oregon; a Wiccan coven that moves into the hills and takes up a very Celtic clan-style of life; and a madman who welds together biker gangs and the Society for Creative Anachronism to form a medieval kingdom based on feudal system of knights and castles and fiefdoms. Other groups survive as well, including Corvallis, Oregon, centered on the folks of Oregon State University; and Mt. Angel, a Benedictine Abbey.

Would you survive?

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  • I bet you had a lot of sympathy for the girl in the story who is a Tolkien nut, I know I did.

    Have you also read the Nantucket series which is another part of his Changeverse?  I liked the Emberverse series better, but it is also worthwhile.

  • Sympathy in more than one sense. smile She’s a bit of a loon. Actually Melanie has just read Island in the Sea of Time and it’s on my list, although I’m digging into another book at the moment.

  • Who needs the scenarios presented by science fiction when we’ve got peak oil to think about…

  • I found the books (which I read because of Dale Price’s references to them) moderately interesting.  The details about Wicca got real boring real fast, though, and I was disappointed by the tendency to represent Christians as whackjobs (unless they were polite enough to keep their religious beliefs pretty much to themselves).  (Yeah, the Huttons are Catholics, but it would be very easy to overlook that fact.)  Toward the end of the series, the author portrays the monks of Mt. Angel, Oregon, as sympathetic characters, but we don’t see much about their Christianity as such.

    Another thing:  Stirling seems to think that post-60s sexual mores would survive a cataclysm such as The Change.  He doesn’t seem to realize how much of the sexual revolution was made possible only because of effective contraception, and by the fact that modern technology reduces the need for sex-based division of labor.

    Of course, he also seems not to recognize that the collapse of technology will make some sort of sex-based division of labor necessary, so perhaps   it’s not surprising that he doesn’t see how it will bring about some undoing of the sexual revolution.  (Not necessarily for the better; the post-apocalyptic world is as likely to adopt the sexual ethics of Mohammedanism as those of Christianity.)  And even while he pays lip service to the importance of physical strength in non-mechanized warfare, in his heart of heart he seems to think there will still be a major role for women in armies after The Change.

    (The bit about Cardinal Ratzinger having survived The Change and maybe being elected pope by whatever College of Cardinals was left struck me as just a little too cute.  I liked the hippos in the fens of Cambridgeshire, however.)

  • “He doesn’t seem to realize how much of the sexual revolution was made possible only because of effective contraception”

    —effective contraception =/= the pill.  The modern fertility decline in Western countries started far back in the 19th century—France had zero population growth by the 1880’s. 

    Barrier contraceptives remain avaiable after the Change; “Dutch caps”, condoms, and so forth, and for that matter vasectomy.  These aren’t as convenient, but they work reasonably well.

    Furthermore, sexual mores differed widely from place to place and period to period before the Industrial Revolution.  The Trobriand Islands (where they didn’t even have a _word_ for “virgin”) were, to put it very mildly, not much like, say, Tunisia in that respect. 

    Read the Táin Bó Cúailnge sometime for an eye-opening look at how the pre-Christian Irish handled such matters.

    “in his heart of heart he seems to think there will still be a major role for women in armies after The Change.”

    —that would depend.  The main reason warfare has been a predominantly—not exclusively—male business in most times and places is not so much physical strength (which is of course a factor) as the interaction of disease and reproduction.

    Given a fairly high infant mortality rate, which nearly everyone had until recently, most adult women have to spend most of their time pregnant, nursing, or looking after toddlers, just to keep the population from shrinking. 

    This restricts their mobility and hence their range of occupations.

    As noted above, the post-Change world is _not_ just like the pre-industrial era. High-energy technologies are gone, but not the accumulated knowledge of the past 200 years.

    After the Change, people still know the causes of disease, and you don’t need antibiotics to prevent Puerperal fever or infant dysentry. You just need to know about basic antisepsis. 

    Hence infant and maternal mortality rates will be only slightly higher than ours in areas where there’s any cultural continuity.

    Women won’t have to be pregnant or nursing all the time.

    After that, the most important factor in what’s considered appropriate work for the sexes is “nomos”, local custom, which has always varied widely and would post-Change, too.

    As to physical strength, you do need a certain minimum amount to fight effectively—the amount varies with the methods and technology, and more is always better, other things being equal.

    On the other hand, after a certain point agility, reflexes and skill matter more than an additional layer of bicep—and when it comes to numbers of fighters, quantity has a quality all its own. 

    As a martial artist, I had an excruciatingly painful lesson in the limits of strength and weight once when a five-foot-two woman I outweighed by 50% kicked in three of my ribs.  She did visit me in hospital, though… 8-).

    Historically, there were always some women in European armies, disguised or “disguised” as men; I can give you chapter and verse on those.  And in other times and cultures, there were occasions when female soldiers were fairly common. 

    Ancient Sarmatia, for example (Herodotus has been confirmed by recent archaeology on this) and 19th century Dahomey, for another.

    Since it was possible there, I really can’t see why it’s implausible in post-Change Oregon.  These are modern Western people, after all, at least to start with.