Hippo Manchester
October 13, 2005

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Yarn shaping up into epic

By Robert Greene  rgreene@hippopress.com

The Protector’s War by S.M. Stirling, Roc 2005, 496 pages

Back in December 1999, I was hoping Y2K would knock out the power for a while and take some of the wind out of our First World hubris. The clock turned, the ball dropped, the world went on as usual and I shrugged at the loss of a teachable moment.

I can’t help but think author S.M. Stirling might have been a little more bitter about it than me. In 2004, Roc published Stirling’s Dies the Fire, a 493-page yarn about what might happen if technology just stopped working one day. Instead of chalking it up to a computer bug, Stirling placed the blame on a freak electrical storm that started over Nantucket. The storm (some folks in the story say it was natural, God’s will or extraterrestrial in origin) knocked out everything — cars, cell phones, computers, fission reactions, steam power, dynamite’s ability to explode, guns — the world over and resulted in a lifestyle unheard of since the start of the Industrial Revolution.

Planes fell from the sky and millions died of starvation. Some turned to cannibalism. Only a few could adapt to the new world lack of order, mostly Ren Fair types with some familiarity with medieval weaponry, back-to-nature cowboys and retired special-forces operatives. These few banded together for survival and started putting society back together. On one side you have the Bear Killers, a nomadic group of warriors led by a young Marine vet turned warlord who learned woodcraft from his American Indian grandmother, and the McKenzie Clan, led by a Wiccan musician. On the other you have the Protector, a history professor and ardent member of the Society of Creative Anachronism who creates a despotic state based loosely on The Lord of the Rings. War ensues among the ruins of the 20th century, and a child is born who may or may not the reincarnation of King Arthur. End of book one.

The second book in the series, The Protector’s War, came out a couple of weeks ago and I snapped it up. It’s nearly a decade later and the warriors are better with their weapons, the farmers are able to feed everyone and children are being born. The survivors still benefit from 20th-century knowledge (medicine, etc.) so they are not faring too badly. We learn that England also made out all right, the Irish are fighting each other, France is a wasteland, etc. The survivors are getting used to the idea of life without the World Wide Web and those who can’t are crazy or dead. The war continues and the Protector has found a stash of nerve gas, which still works.

Dies the Fire (available in paperback) and The Protector’s War are tightly plotted and highly readable. In some ways they are a cautionary tale, showing the reader that we are totally dependent on modern technology and only those with some familiarity with the old ways will survive a disaster. Stirling has a point there. However, he also seems to be trying to prove that all the strange hobbies your Ren Fair obsessed sister has may come in handy some day, so you should quit teasing her. Maybe he has a point there, too.

Stirling has made a name for himself writing “alternative history” novels — what if Europeans never made it to the New World? What if a modern-day Nantucket was transported to Stone Age America? What if modern man lost his technology?

It’s geek fiction, no doubt, but very readable.