The ‘Emberverse’ or ‘Change World’ is the setting for a series of post-apocalyptic novels written by S M Stirling which depict the events following a worldwide cataclysm that causes electricity, guns, explosives, internal combustion engines and steam power to stop working. There are two sets of novels in S M Stirling’s fictional universe. The first, beginning with Island in the Sea of Time, tells of an electrical storm centred over the island of Nantucket which transports it back in time from the 1990s to 1250 BC. The stage is then set for a fascinating contrast (and conflict) between the people from the present and the past, their technology, culture and attitudes. This in itself is a brilliant concept and the Nantucket trilogy has all of the best features of the work of Stirling (who is an amateur military historian). For me, however, it is outshone by the second set of ‘Change’-related novels, which start with Dies the Fire. These tell the other side of the story i.e. what happens to the world that Nantucket island left behind when it is suddenly returned to a medieval level of civilization. The Nantucket trilogy’s central conceit of transporting people from our own world to another time and place is familiar from everything from The Chronicles of Narnia to Buck Rogers in the 25th century. However, I find the concept of people from our own world and time trying to deal with effectively being returned to the middle ages much more interesting and original – at least the way Stirling does it.
Stirling sets up the Emberverse expertly with the very first novel in the original Dies the Fire trilogy, which depicts the immediate effects of the Change rendering technology inoperable (as far as we know it) across the globe. Most of the action in the series takes place in the Willamette Valley of Oregon in the USA, where survivors of the Change band together in tribal communities in an effort to rebuild society. Stirling’s novels tend to be conflict-driven, which is hardly surprising given his interest in military history. Perhaps recognising that endless fighting scenes are not everyone’s cup of tea, however, he also takes care to ensure that they examine much broader themes as well. Among other things, in Dies the Fire and its sequels Stirling considers how heroes are created and how they influence their societies, as well as how values in primitive societies differ from modern western views. With this in mind, one of the main protagonists in the first novel is Mike Havel, a former US marine and pilot, who is brave, charismatic and a formidable fighter. He eventually turns into the fabled figure of ‘Lord Bear’, ruler of a post-Change tribe called the Bearkillers, who are warriors of renown. Stirling also tends to write strong female characters who have prominent roles within his books. In Dies the Fire, this is exemplified by Juniper Mackenzie, a folk singer and Wiccan priestess who, like Havel, becomes the figurehead for her own group of followers, the mystical Clan Mackenzie, who are modern Celts and neopagans.
Stirling’s creation of the Bearkillers and Mackenzies illustrates one of the most fascinating aspects of the Emberverse novels, which is to depict how modern people, cut adrift from mass media and popular culture, find an identity for themselves in an era where long-distance transport and communication do not exist. In the books, Stirling speculates that people will be unable to survive on their own in the way that they do in modern times and will instead have to band together for food, company and mutual protection. Each society Stirling describes tends to take its lead from both its leaders and its location. Hence, the third major group in Dies the Fire is the Portland Protective Association (or PPA), which is led by the medieval scholar Norman Arminger and models itself on a feudal dictatorship, complete with knights, castles and all the associated pageantry. Dies the Fire focuses on the conflict between the expansionist PPA on one hand and the Bearkillers and Mackenzies on the other, but in subsequent books the scope of the series expands considerably and several new groups, each as interesting and original in their own ways, are introduced. Probably my favourite of these are the self-styled ‘Dúnedain Rangers’ who are founded by Havel’s eventual sister-in-law. The Ranger lifestyle is based largely on J R R Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings — which they refer to as ‘the Histories’ — even to the point of requiring all members to learn the Elvish language! Other groups include a new Sioux nation which includes members who are not Native American, the Benedictine monks of Mount Angel Abbey and a sort of resurgent old-USA in the form of the United States of Boise.
The most sinister of all of Stirling’s creations is the Church Universal and Triumphant, which assumes a major role as the antagonist in the second series of novels, which are set a generation after the events of Dies the Fire in a post-Change world whose people are beginning to forget the old one. The novels, which begin with The Sunrise Lands, are written to appeal to more of a fantasy audience, given that they are set squarely in the post-Change world and feature many more ‘fantastical’ elements like prophecy, a quest and even magic (or perhaps post-hypnotic suggestion – Stirling leaves this intriguingly open). We do, however, learn much more about what is happening in the rest of the world in this series. For example, the British Empire has apparently been reborn and now rules much of Europe and North Africa. Most interestingly of all the second series, which is not yet finished, offers tantalising glimpses of an explanation for the Change, which is another question which Stirling has left open until now. For me though, such resolution, satisfying though it may eventually be, is almost secondary to the many other qualities of the Emberverse series, which can be enjoyed on multiple levels as alternate history, post-apocalyptic fiction, epic fantasy and modern myth. You always have the feeling that you are in the hands of a writer who really knows his stuff – whether it is the stirring battle scenes, loving references to paganism and world mythology or ornate descriptions of archery, handicraft, horsemanship and a hundred other neglected skills. Best of all, reading any of Stirling’s Change novels always leaves you with the nagging question in your mind – what would happen if the lights were to go out… for good?