Book Review: The Change
edited by S. M. Stirling
The “Change” referred to in the title of this hefty new anthology edited by S. M. Stirling refers to the signature McGuffin in his most popular science fiction series: on a certain day in 1998, without any warning, all the electronic technology on Earth suddenly stops working (readers born in 1998 will immediately ask: “They had electronic technology back in 1998?” – such readers are urged to shush) – lights go out, planes fall from the skies, but it’s worse even than that: some of the normal laws of physics seem to have stopped working as well. The basic chemical processes of heat transfer – i.e. what makes gunpowder explosives work – has been arrested as well. In other words, this was no solar flare or random EMP-wave: somebody intentionally did this to humanity, throwing advanced societies back to the technological tools of the pre-industrial age.
In the semi-rural parts of the Pacific Northwest, pockets of humanity manage to survive the nightmarish first few weeks of “the Change” (Stirling asserts from the get-go that the big industrial cities instantly became plague-ridden cannibal zones). Some of these groups are good guys – in particular one led by a feisty ex-Marine and one led by a surprisingly tough Wiccan lady – and some of them are bad guys – in particular, a religious cult called the Church Universal and Triumphant and a quasi-medieval barony run by a steroidal version of the Society for Creative Anachronism (since they already know their way around the only weapons and technology mankind now possesses). Over the course of a dozen or so novels, Stirling slowly, organically builds the society that these groups – and their children – go on to shape.
That building process has very much seemed like a reflection of the Change itself: a weird and very specific kind of order willfully imposed on a narrative. If someone other than Stirling had been doing the writing (as many someones have … in his Introduction to this volume, Stirling is much too courteous to mention all the dozens of works that have ripped off his McGuffin since Dies the Fire, the first book in the series, appeared in 2004), it’s likely that the geek wouldn’t have inherited the Earth, likely that people wouldn’t be reeling off extremely specific medieval terms in less than a generation (and with most of the reference books lost in the catastrophe) – these novels have more fletchers, harriers, chandlers, and panniers than you can shake a destrier at, and as as the volumes progress, it all becomes just a little bit ridiculous, the Revenge of the Nerds, played out in technicolor in the Willamette Valley.
And throughout the series, nagging questions persist. Even while the dreamboat son of the Wiccan and the ex-Marine (you were wondering if he was ugly? Silly thing) is growing to manhood and going on a mystic quest, many readers – this one included – kept wondering about all the millions of lives in the “Emberverse” that we never get to see or hear about. What about those poor people trapped in the cities when the Change happens? What about the others semi-rural survivors suddenly forced back onto their wits and raw horsepower? For that matter, what about the back stories and ancillary adventures of the characters Stirling does give us?
It’s more than any one writer could possibly deliver to his readers, of course, even a writer as prolific as Stirling (the “Emberverse” is just one of his ongoing series). Which makes this new volume, called simply The Change, such a welcome thing. In these pages, Stirling has assembled sixteen stories (plus one by himself) that do indeed flesh out little pockets and side-shows of the main novels. For fans of this very addictive series, this volume is a godsend.
Such anthologies are necessarily uneven affairs, and this one is no exception. Perhaps predictably, some of the stories hew a little too closely to some of the reflexive obsessions Stirling displays in the novels (including finicky place-details and absolutely exhaustive descriptions of food). And quite a few of the entries here rely more on the superstructure of the “Emberverse” novels than is healthy for their own internal dramatics (a besetting weakness of just about any pastiche fiction). But there are more than enough standout stories to make the volume a must for Change fiction fans. In Lauren Teffeau’s “Against the Wind,” for example, a single father named Mitch – with his young son and daughter as crew – has survived the early days of the Change by using his wind-powered yacht to scavenge dead vessels at sea off the west coast of Alaska. Teffeau does a very effective job of describing some of the horrors they encounter at sea, and she’s equally effective with the more complicated dangers Mitch faces when trying to barter his scavenged goods with a man named Dixon, head of a new and growing settlement that’s becoming more and more wary of his business:
Mitch forced back a frown. Most communities rolled out the red carpet when he came – desperate enough not to question the origin of the goods he brought with him. But the Homer Cooperative was doing better than most, and could afford to be … ethical? No. Careful, cautious.
Some of the folks here thought Dixon was a visionary. Mitch didn’t know about all that, but he did know the Cooperative was the first community to request glass, the real stuff, or if not that then Plexiglas, to build greenhouses. For a diet that went beyond fish and elk and wild berries. They were thinking of the future when so many other communities could afford only to take things one day at a time.
In M. T. Reiten’s “The Demons of Witmer Hall,” we see the first days of the Change as they hit the campus of the University of North Dakota. “Stay away from the supermarkets,” one character warns our young narrator. “Those will be getting ugly”:
So I hiked from the loading dock into the crazy changed world toward the graduate apartments. Hand-printed signs warned people to stay home and not enter the main campus grounds by order of the provost. The university cops were taking their duties to heart. So I skirted into the residential neighborhood to trek west. For all the strangeness, it was quiet as dusk settled. Most folks hunkered inside, staying warm. The lucky houses had wood smoke drifting from chimneys or old fuel oil furnaces that didn’t need electricity. The frats and sororities all had fireplaces. I crossed the English Coulee near the deserted dorms. Some pedestrians, wrapped more tightly than the previous days, waved at me in the anonymity provided by scarves and knit caps. I kept my hood low. Overall there was a stoic sense of wait and see. Hadn’t we just survived a major catastrophe? At least the water wasn’t rising and nothing had burned down. The government or someone else would be here soon to sort things out. Sure. You betcha.
The stories take place scattered all along the time-frame of Stirling’s books, from immediately after the Change to years and even decades after it. The offerings by Walter Jon Williams (“The Venetian Dialect”) and John Barnes (“The Soul Remembers Uncouth Noises”) are, predictably enough, two of the best stories in the book, but the most touching tale here is Emily Mah’s “The Missed Connection,” about the havoc wrought on a very small group of people during the first few days of the Change
These are the stories the broader narrative course of Stirling’s novels – in which his characters are concerned with Good versus Evil, not just gas versus electric – simply didn’t have the leisure or scope to tell, and they’re all the more satisfying for that. Another volume of such stories – or two, or three – would be eagerly gobbled up by “Emberverse” fans.