In 1998, without warning, the laws of physics are altered such that electricity does not function and gunpowder just fizzles. Little effort is made to explain the how or why as planes fall from the sky and civilization comes crashing down. One of those planes is piloted by Mike Havel, a former marine now working as a charter pilot out of Boise, Idaho. On this particular evening, he’s tasked with bringing a wealthy family of five to their vacation home in the Willamette valley of Oregon. When the small plane’s engine cuts out, Havel makes an emergency water landing on a frigid river in Idaho’s remote Bitterroot wilderness. Cold and far from help, with night coming and one gravely injured passenger, Havel calls on his military training and wilderness survival skills to lead his charges to safety. Unbeknownst to him, the electrical glitch that brought down the plane was a global phenomenon, and things are about to get much, much worse.
Meanwhile, in the small city of Corvallis, Oregon, singer and Wiccan high priestess Juniper Mackenzie is performing in a tavern when the power goes out. Ready to make the best of it, the crowd lights candles and Juniper projects her unamplified voice. Just then word spreads that a commercial airliner has crashed to the ground in the middle of the city. The fire is spreading, but there are no sirens. On the streets outside, panic sets in as cars won’t start and it’s clear something is terribly wrong. Juniper, her daughter Eilir, and the tavern owner Denny leave to help where they can. With first responders overwhelmed by the scale of the disaster and their non-functioning equipment, opportunistic gang members begin looting. When she’s forced to defend herself, Juniper knows they need to leave Corvallis for the safety of her cabin in the mountains. The farther they get, the clearer the scale of the disaster becomes. Other planes have crashed, and in the back of her mind, Juniper fears for her husband Rudy, who was supposed to be boarding a flight around the time things… changed. Meanwhile, as fate would have it, the other members of Juniper’s Wiccan coven are also headed to her cabin. When they get there, they’ll need to pool their resources and take strength from their eclectic faith in order to survive.
I first read this book in 2007 or 2008. At that time, I was convinced the world had reached peak oil production, and the ensuing resource shortages would force our civilization to evolve into something lower-tech, more hands-on, and way less comfortable. I was also learning about neo-pagan religions like Wicca for the first time, and was honestly uncomfortable with just how drawn I felt to ideas like magic and occult phenomena. Ashamed, even. It was with that mindset that I first picked up Dies the Fire from the Burlington, Vermont public library. Since then I’ve read 10+ books in the series, though none are as good as this first installment, which I’ve read four or five times.
Listen, this isn’t great literature. It’s a well-paced SF novel showing the start of a global apocalypse as it affects one small part of the world. Stirling does a great job balancing action with character development and world-building. He takes us through the first dangerous year of the crash of one civilization and the founding of another. The new world is brutal and violent, but also filled with the hope and opportunity of a blank slate. With this in mind, Stirling uses the two groups of characters, as well as others they meet along the way, to explore what sorts of societies would evolve in the new, low-tech world. How would they be structured and governed? How would they grow and expand? How would they provide safety and security for their people? In Stirling’s world, there’s no right answer, but each of the groups does seem to coalesce around a charismatic leader who helped others survive, and that person has exceptional influence on what a society values and how it will evolve.
Like all speculative fiction, this book is a thought experiment of sorts. One of the questions it attempts to answer is “What would we do if electricity and gunpowder stopped working tomorrow?” And the answer is, primarily, we would die. Of starvation. Of plague. Of exposure. The vast majority of people on earth would die in the first year, and Stirling minces no words about that. The survivors would be those people who recognized how quickly things would devolve, and that no one would be able to save them. One of the chief criticisms of this book is just how lucky our heroes seem to be. Tragedy after tragedy befalls others, while Mike, Juniper, and their respective groups seem to dodge every bullet (er… arrow) while stumbling upon a truck full of seed potatoes. This can be distracting, but as one of the characters points out, anyone who survives a disaster of this scale would have to be incredibly lucky. I encourage you to suspend your disbelief and watch as our characters learn how to grow crops, keep livestock, hunt with bow and arrow, brew beer, build with wood and stone, make tools and equipment, and, inevitably, fight with sword and buckler.
But those practical skills are not the only ones they develop. Mike, Juniper, and the other characters are faced with a world that is unrecognizably different from the one they knew. From all indications, something, or someone, flipped a switch that changed the laws of physics. For unbelievers like Havel, the implications of The Change call into question everything they thought they knew. For Juniper and her Wiccan coven, the god and goddess they worship are imminent, and the power of the natural world they revere is more apparent than ever.
For someone exploring neo-paganism, it was helpful to see an example of what earnest pagan belief might look like in practice. In Dies the Fire, it looks like setting intentions under the full moon, celebrating the changing seasons, and using ritual to effect change. Ten-plus years later, I’ve learned what parts of paganism make sense for me, and I’m no longer ashamed. Dies the Fire helped me get here, and that’s one reason I continue to return to it.