Post-Apocalyptic Novel – Dies the Fire

Sharon September 8th, 2008

Welcome to “Energy Apocalypse” Month, always a subject near and dear to my heart, of course.  And SM Stirling’s _Dies the Fire_ to me always seems like a cookie of a book – flat, sweet, the occasional delicious chocolate chip, the occasional weird, slightly off-raisin ;-) .  It suffers from “apocalyptic novel disease” in which the apocalypse itself, dramatic as it is, is insufficient to keep the story going, so we have to have a cartoon bad guy too.  You’d think that the survival of our two small plucky bands, and the taking over of the world by the SCA would be sufficient for a novel, but no, Stirling gets bored with that right out, and we move on to the evil dude and the evil dude’s machinations.  Stirling even makes fun of his own evil dude, saying that no one is really that evil, but goes on to write three books about him and his doings, and of course, his defeat by our plucky bands of allies.

 Of course, I’m mostly interested in the “how do we adapt to the fact that all gizmos plus guns don’t work” goes.  While I think few of us have to worry much about “Alien Space Bats” changing the laws of physics, it does offer a fun bit of fantasy about a low (or rather, no) power world. 

Some things I think are probably right were the (unlikely) transition from a high tech to a low tech society to happen quite quickly:

1. The the nuclear family is simply too small – organizations are at the tribe/clan/community institution/warlord level. If you want to expand, you need to figure out how to have an autonomous subgroup with formal alliances.  But fundamentally, in a very low energy world, small groups of a few dozen to a few hundred make a lot more sense that large state-sized organizations or small nuclear families. 

2. Organizational motifs vary quite a lot, but they tend to have strong narrative/story/religious components – that is, people will need to create a history and a story about who they are and why.  Thus, the book of the bear clan, the religious culture of Juniper’s group, etc…

Things I think would be damned unlikely, even if thing otherwise occurred as Stirling projects.

 1. That the SCA would take over the earth.  No offense to the SCA, but while some people join just because they want to do medieval style stuff, most participants I’ve met (and I’ve met quite a few) find the SCA to be a geek subculture.  This is not bad – I participate in several geek subcultures myself, although not that one.  But generally the sorting process that gets people engaged into geek subcultures and out of mainstream ones is partly preferential, but also includes a hefty dose of well, geekiness.  It isn’t terribly unlikely that the SCA could produce a few mainstream leaders, but “few” would be the operative term.  I’ve heard someone refer to this book as “self-indulgent” and I think that pretty much covers it in a host of ways.

 2. That self-organization would in fact, occur quite so quickly – warlords get the idea right off, the bearkillers start recruiting and their long march (and no one dies, except the inconvenient mother figure, who was toasted anyway).  Everyone figures everything out right away, everyone has immediate occasion to try and fire their guns (because of course, there are so many bad guys roaming around Oregon) – this seems very unrealistic to me.  Much more likely is that the pace of understanding, and unfolding occurs much more slowly. 

The books are fun, but I admit, I get bored by the bad guys, and bored by the wargames bits.  What did the rest of you think?

 Sharon

64 Responses to “Post-Apocalyptic Novel – Dies the Fire”

  1. Adam says:

    I’ve read Dies the Fire along with half of the second book in the trilogy and have to say I really enjoyed them. I live in Western Washington and have family that grew up in Western Oregon, so I found it quite compelling to read about a societal collapse occurring in areas I recognized. The story was also very interesting and often couldn’t peel myself away from reading them. A few things may seem a bit unrealistic to us, but considering how we’ve never had electricity quit working on us or have had a mass collapse, can we really say for sure what would happen?

    -Adam

  2. Susan in NJ says:

    Adam, I’ve been reading The Dead and The Gone, the Susan Beth Pfeffer sequel, and I was struck by how much personally knowing the terrain of the story made a difference in my reading.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Here’s a book with good female characters and no cardboard bad-guy.

    Children of the Dust by Louise Lawrence. She also writer real children, IMO.

  4. (as seems implicitly defined by the book, say over 45 or perhaps less). I wanted to know why —

    – complex of reasons, which could be summed up by saying that people wear out. The harsher the environment, the faster it happens.
    When the retirement age was set at 65 in the 1930′s, Social Security was actuarily sound because that was the median age of death for people who’d already lived to reach 21.

    Half of adults died before they reached 65; not many lived as much as a decade after that.

    Your immune system starts displaying reduced efficiency (which is why they used to call pneumonia the “old man’s friend), your muscle mass goes down, your reflexes decay, your eyesight declines, etc. All of these make the whole system less resistant to stress and ‘insults’ like bad/inadequate nutrition, infections, very hard work, and so forth.

    People also (usually) get less psychologically flexible as they age.

    The survival rate is highest for teenagers and young adults, next highest for people in early middle age, next highest after that for children, and then decreases steeply with age.

    That’s “other things being equal” of course, which is not always so.

  5. Sharon says:

    Thank you again for your contributions, and for kindly answering our questions.

    The question of the survival of the aged seems like it also would have a considerable amount of sexual dimorphism – despite the median death rate, women disproportionately did live past 65. In Russia, in Africa, in other post-collapse societies, we see a dramatic difference in male and female older survival rates – in Russia, the median lifespan for men dropped down by a decade and more below women’s.

    I haven’t read all the books in your series, but in the first few, it seems that the couple of survivors were older men – Ken Larson and Luther (Sorry, I’ve forgotten the character’s last name and am away from home and my copy of the book – the older gentleman who helps organize Corvallis and to whom Juniper and Dennis go before retreating to her home.)

    While the account you give is accurate, it is also interesting to me that in actual collapse situations, older women often survive much longer and better than older men. In the great Depression, an enormous number of men simply left, because they couldn’t fit into prior roles – although I suppose in your society, most people who couldn’t fit into those roles died quickly. But perhaps because they have no choice if they are to ensure the survival of their children and grandchildren, women generally go on, to the extent that they can. Dmitry Orlov, who writes about the Soviet collapse notes that Russia would not have survived without its “Iron Grannies” – perhaps not in your society, but in any actual collapse, I’d expect older women to have their share of internal (and perhaps literal in a sword society) steel ;-) .

    Sharon

  6. I think the trick with older women surviving is that women tend to lead a safer (at least in terms of risk of death) life than men do. Of course, the risk of death during childbirth is a very real one in primitive societies, but that risk fades off with old age, meaning that a woman who has lived to menopause probably has a much higher chance of survival than a man who has lived to the same age (with an attendant reduction in capability and no attendant reduction in the risks associated with his lifestyle). Just my personal theory.

  7. Women survive better than men in some high-stress situations.

    In particular, they weather food shortages better because their metabolisms are somewhat more efficient at converting calories to effort and have a lower ‘static burn’.

    They’re also a bit more resistant to infectious disease, and somewhat less likely to go nuts under pressure and commit the local equivalent of “suicide by cop”.

    It’s the price men pay for their secondary sexual characteristics — things like the greater bulk of muscle on the upper bodies and the different hormonal balance.

    For an example, on Carribean sugar plantations in the slave era (which were horrendous demographic sinkholes kept going only by continuous imports), the planters bought more men than women but the workforce was always predominantly female. The men died faster, even with the risks of childbirth added in.

    In most preindustrial settings, women nonetheless have a higher mortality rate during much of their lives; childbirth, and a tendency for men to monopolize scarce resources account for it.

    Down to within living memory in England the ‘breadwinner’ got the best of the food; often the husband would be eating meat while the wife tried to live on bread and tea.

    Female infanticide of various sorts (from neglect and underfeeding to outright murder) are also historically common.

    OTOH, men are always more likely to die by violence.

    The latest forensic archaeology indicates that in most pre-State level societies, hunter-gatherer or neolithic, at least a third of males are killed by other humans. (The corresponding figure for women is usually around ten percent).

    It’s hard to be precise because skeletons don’t show soft-tissue damage, so the real percentage is probably rather higher.

    This is consistent with the ethnology, studies of chimps and wolves and other social carnivores, and so forth.

    There’s a lot of variation from time to time and place to place, but studying the details does seem to indicate that our society in modern times has an unusually low rate of day-to-day violence. We have big wars at long intervals; most of the hunter-gatherer or village-farmer cultures had a constant round of low-level but cumulatively very deadly affrays — stabbings, beatings, ambushes, ongoing feuds.

    “Ozi the Iceman” is a typical example; it turns out he was shot in the back with an arrow while running away from a fight of some sort. We wouldn’t know except that the circumstances of his death preserved the body.

  8. Ken Larsson and Luther Finney are somewhat exceptional; they’re both in leadership positions because of their unique skill-sets. Other people help to keep them alive as communal assets.

  9. Wow. I’m like–whoa. It’s way cool that you are participating in this discussion, Mr. Stirling. And I feel kind of proud to have said what I said and prompted Sharon’s response which in turn prompted your response.

    (Btw, I just received your book in the mail, Sharon. I started reading it over the weekend on a trip that Mama Gaia compelled me to take up to Yestermorrow on Saturday.)

    These books make me think about the nature of evil, and I contemplate Ran Prieur’s and M. Scott Peck’s understandings thereof. Also the Native American concept of “windigo”, and it seems to me that Walker from the Island in the Stream of Time series would qualify there. In this new series with the CUT, I see a similar situation, though this time on a collective level. Sort of reminds me in some ways not only of Tolkien but also Stephen King’s “The Stand”. I’m not sure how much I agree with David Icke that there are shapeshifting aliens among us, but I also have to say I wouldn’t be surprised. There are weird things out there in the multiverse, and some of them do mean to do others harm.

    Ivo Dominguez, who is affiliated with a pagan group in Delaware, said at a talk given a few years ago at Auburn Seminary in NYC, that while his group doesn’t believe in evil, they do believe in pathology. I find that rather useful in the talk of “cartoon villains” that Sharon refers to in her latest post. We are witnessing so much pathology, it’s hard to catch our breath.

    Anyway, I do have an odd question for you Mr. Stirling, which you don’t have to answer. In the latest series, I haven’t noticed too many gay/lesbian characters–other than of course Tiphaine and Delia. Can we expect any others to appear in this journey? Also, as a resident of Troy, NY, and a former resident of the E.Village in NYC, I’m curious to see how the 9 fare on their journey east and if they will in any way cross the Hudson River.

  10. >In the latest series, I haven’t noticed too many gay/lesbian characters–other than of course Tiphaine and Delia. Can we expect any others to appear in this journey?

    – probably. They’re there; it just hasn’t come up.

    >and if they will in any way cross the Hudson River.

    – yup!

  11. Sharon says:

    I appreciate your answer re:older characters. I do think that to the extent that any model is relevant, post-collapse present day societies might be a better model for what is likely than older societies, for reasons you articulate yourself – that is, just because people are living in a society modelled on medieval structures doesn’t make them medieval people. Thus, the factors that contribute to shortened female lifespans (death in childbirth, female infanticide, getting less food) might eventually (or even fairly quickly) recur, but it is unlikely that they would reduce the population of older females early on, or even the male-female ratios for some time after in societies like Juniper’s or the Bearkillers – ones with any medical practitioner available. Death in childbirth isn’t totally unavoidable in a low tech society, but it is unlikely to rocket back to 18th century levels rapidly, because people haven’t lost knowledge of basic hygeine and safe practice. Female infanticide would require a psychological shift that would, IMHO, take time, etc…

    As for being kept alive because of special skills, that strikes me as an interesting question – would it really be that uncommon to keep older people alive precisely because they had special skills? The Depression and War-era generations are probably too elderly to handle a transition, but the baby boomers, at least those who went back to the land in the 1970s, or who grew up in a more agrarian society than we have now might well have their share of people worth keeping. Although I know some Gen X people of my age who thought that the “rapid end of the baby boom” bit was pretty funny ;-) .

    Sharon

  12. Rebecca says:

    Sharon -not just gen X; I’m gen Y (though just barely) and most of my generation I know who’ve read the book think it was pretty funny too -not to mention a bit of poetic justice since the Boomers have (collectively) done more to wreck the world than any other generation.

  13. Andrew says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed the first three books, even the exaggerated evil drama of the protector. Fourth book started to wane, haven’t read the fifth yet. The fact is, there are plenty of very unkind people who have ascended to power in this world, and someone who was versed in swordsmanship and archery would have a great advantage at the outset of the change.
    The most important thing for me, as a recently new resident to the Willamette Valley who does see upcoming upheaval, is the strategic view of the terrain in a carless society. I learned a ton about the local geography, and how the initial detestation was concentrated in the center of the valley along I-5, with survival most successful at the base of the foothills. I can’t go anywhere around here without imagining Larsdalen up in the hills, or where the walls around Corvallis would be. The spacial dimension without the auto puts things so much farther apart than they are now.
    And his apocalypse is such a worst case scenario, I figure it couldn’t get that bad that quick, unless we got nuked, but even then, engines would still work.

    Very happy to be discussing these books. Thanks!

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