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       Prior to writing Dies the Fire, S. M. Stirling, had written a trilogy beginning with the novel Island in the Sea of Time in which, following the appearance of mysterious lights in the night sky, the island of Nantucket and its population is mysteriously transported three thousand years into the past. With their knowledge and technology the residents of Nantucket forge a new society that will clearly change the face of history. I haven't read those books but now that I have sampled Stirling's writing style I may.

      In Dies the Fire  - which also introduced a series - Stirling tells what happened back in the world Nantucket was lifted out of following that amazing event. Following that night with its strange, lightning-like lights, people discover that none of their technology works. Cars coast to a halt in the roadways and airplanes fall from the sky. From then on electricity no longer flows; internal combustion engines don't work; and guns won't fire bullets. This event comes to be known as "The Change".

      Dies the Fire is set on the opposite side of North America, in Oregon, and follows the adjustment to "The Change" of two people -- Mike Havel and Juniper Mackenzie -- who become instrumental in establishing a new society. Mike is a pilot flying a family of five up to their wilderness cabin in Idaho when "The Change" occurs. He manages to land his plane after its engine suddenly ceases to work and soon that they are not alone in their predicament. Mike uses his military training to survive and soon gathers a group of followers. After a hand to hand fight with an angry bear he becomes known as "Lord Bear" and his followers as "the Bearkillers".

      Meanwhile, Juniper is a Wiccan who plays music at a local bar in Oregon when "The Change" happens. As society degenerates to savagery she flees to the relative safety of her family's cabin with her daughter and a group of friends. She and her friends join forces with the locals and others refugees from the burning cities in creating a farming community.

      Mike and Juniper's groups eventually meet and agree to be allies against a common enemy -- "the"Lord Protector". The Lord Protector is a former professor of medieval history who, finding himself quite at home in a world virtually returned to the Dark Ages, has set himself up as a king. Not only must they ultimately have a battle with his forces, but they also have to contend with bandits, White supremacists, and "eaters"-- people who have resorted to cannibalism.

      Stirling is an intense and exciting writer who is particularly good at describing military operations and battle scenes. He creates characters who are memorable and believable. His premise may be utterly absurd, and presented without the slightest effort at a plausible explanation for this deus ex machina, but if you will practice a little suspension of disbelief you will soon find your self too caught up in the tale to think about its implausibility. Once you have, this is a book you won't find easy to put down.

       I don't know to what extent the previous trilogy may have presented a contrary perspective, but I get the impression from this novel that Stirling finds the idea of a return to the Middle Ages very appealing. I know that a lot of people long for the simpler life of the past. But my observation is that their attraction to that simpler life is firmly rooted in ignorance of what life in the past was really like. Personally, I much prefer life with potable water, flush toilets, and antibiotics. Neither America nor the world in general was ever safer, happier, or more moral than it is today, and most often was more dangerous, unhappier, and more immoral on balance than it is today.

      In 2006, he launched a new series with the novel The Sky People. The setting of this novel is the planet Mars in an alternate reality in which not only human history but also planetary evolution has followed a different course. This Mars still has an atmosphere and it has a thriving biosphere, resembling Earth in the age of dinosaurs plus Neanderthal-like humans. In fact, the Martian ecology parallels Earthly evolution to a highly improbable extent. Typical of Stirling's writing this doesn't detract from the novel but instead becomes one of the mysterious elements of the story -- a mystery that he, also typically, does not resolve.

      Earth, meanwhile has also had a very different history post World War Two. It is now divided into three power blocs: 1) an alliance of the U.S. and the British Commonwealth, 2) EastBloc, a union of Russia and China, and 3) the European Union led by France. Both the US-Commonwealth and the EastBloc have established permanent bases on Mars -- named Jamestown and Cosmograd respectively -- and maintain an unfriendly and mutually suspicious coexistence.

     

When an EastBloc shuttle crash lands beyond the reach of rescue, the military command at Jamestown agrees to send out one of their dirigibles on a rescue mission. They face numerous challenges, including a saboteur among their own number, in the course of a SF adventure that is reminiscent of the pulp fiction tales of the 1930s and 1940s. I must agree with comparisons some critics have made to Edgar Rice Burroughs tales of Mars and Venus. While Stirling's Mars is a good deal less fantastic and more biologically plausible than Burroughs' Barsoom, the fast action, adventure, and bigger than life characters is very much like ERB's pulp classics.