Tuesday, May 15, 2012

S.M. Stirling's Emberverse Series

Dies the Fire, The Protector's War, and A Meeting at Corvallis are S.M. Stirling's novels of the Change. He is following up with a series that focuses on the exploits of one of the children in the trilogy (also part of the Emberverse series) which I have not read. Essentially, all you need to know is that the world Changed; all electricity, gunpowder, steam power, and engines in general stopped working permanently. Cool. The novel centers around two groups of survivors that build a society, one off of modern Wicca and one off of warlord/woodsman values. Sweet. His villain is a medieval studies professor who tries to reinstate feudalism with an iron fist, styling himself shamelessly as Sauronic. This is starting to sound great.

Stirling plays down characters that are really interesting, and the shift in the personalities of Armiger, who he makes more sympathetic at some points but does not, in the end, succeed in making him more than two-dimensional, Lord Bear, who starts out as a gruff but lovable woodsman and ends up a scary war-king who curses a lot, and Signe, who turns from a sexy and capable lady to a royal bitch are jarring and unconvincing. Rudi is super-weird, Eilir is two-dimensional, and there are certain things that are repeated ad nauseam throughout the book. One of the things that bothered me the most: Stirling has romantic ideas about what Englishmen are like, and the result is a portrait of the English rather akin to the idea of a Spanish man with long hair and an undone poet's shirt riding a white horse on a beach. I'm sure they're out there, those dreamy Spanish guapos, but the reality of being a Spaniard is more mundane. The reality of being an Englishman is not summed up in polite conservatism, a proficiency with sword-fighting, a penchant for tea, and a charming accent with an accompanying battle-cry "St. George for England!" No, no. That's just silly, Mr. Stirling. His Texan character is similarly silly. And his white supremacists. They're not interesting, and don't represent their groups at all. I feel like Stirling was using them as pawns. Or diversity souvenirs. I don't know. But Stirling should have found out more about these groups before he wrote about them. The Wiccan religion is also presented in a light of perfection, without any self-reflection whatsoever. It's just unequivocally good and right. Bother.
S.M. Stirling is an oddball. The three novels of his that I read are original in plot, character, and setting, but they read like a cliché. This is unfortunate, but don't be deterred from reading. When you put the books down, you sit reeling in imaginative outpourings. It sets you thinking about what truly is the source of justification for our societies to exist—how is a society built? The Emberverse answers "myth." That's a damn good answer, and one with which I agree wholeheartedly. But somehow even this answer which is so distinctly anti-modern, so ridden with rectitude and dripping with sincerity, is couched and played with and almost trivialized by the dialogue of the characters. Stirling's shameless plug for Wicca (the Old Religion that is not really Old) and frequent dismissal of Christianity shows a desire to stand against the norms of society, but ends up perpetuating the very myths that uphold current prejudices. It shows a distinct lack of understanding of Christianity's strange history in America to believe that "Christians" as a whole, over all time and places, are responsible for the current state of post-industrial wastelands. But, as many Neo-Pagans are wont to do,  he dredges up the tiresome "Suffer not a witch to live" to characterize those meany Christians, to whom he refers later as "hard men" and "outdated." It's silly to write about the essentially deeply satisfying nature of life without electricity, gunpowder, and engines and still cling to the idea of progress past religion as a good thing to be sorely wanted. It's silly to write basically a polemic for neo-feudalism and yet have all characters except the villain be decidedly against any form of feudalism. Just admit it, Stirling. You are a neo-feudalist Luddite radical traditionalist. One without too much education concerning these positions, certainly, but one nonetheless.
Stirling, in other words, comes up short in ideological consistency, which is not redeemed by his relative originality. If this were a work of pure genre-clichéd imagination candy, then I wouldn't be too bothered by it, but the novels of the Change present themselves as more than that, so I'm a bit bothered that they don't have the metaphysical consistency of greater works.
That being said, I would recommend the novels for anyone who loves both post-apocalypse and fantasy. They hit all the good spots without becoming too trite, and the characters are arresting, compelling, and believable. But I would give the caveat that Stirling's works are filled with wishful thinking on his part and a lot of incorrect views on the nature of society and the history of religious thought. But this, for the normal reader, will not be a stumbling-block. Rather, the "campiness" of the novel is not prominent, and one comes away with a glowing feeling of satisfaction instead of the usual feeling of guilt and pleasure combined. I recommend it with reservations.


  1. Hi Ross,

    I just wanted to ask, slightly related to this, if you had seen any of the trailers for NBC's new show "Revolution" that will be premiering in the fall? (See:) How does the premise of Stirling's novels relate to the new show, do you think the show was somehow inspired by Stirling? Do you think that the series will stand alone from Stirling or will it rely on the premise of a loss of technology (and the means to recreate it) is so implausible?


  2. In Revolution, it is only electricity that stops working. Steam engines and diesel engines still work, as do firearms.

  3. Yeah, Kat, I think it was inspired by it. As Mr. Ejercito points out, however, it's not quite the same.
    Thing is, it might be someone else's fantasy as well. I think they wanted to make a post-apocalyptic series rather than a quasi-medieval one, as well.
    But I think the fact that people are seeing our civilization as being supported by electricity, and underneath that roils deeply uncivilized behavior... that it is electricity keeping us from being savage... that is an interesting idea and I'm glad that people are playing with it in pop culture.

    1. The next episode of Revolution features a working steam locomotive.