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Dies The Fire

Book Review

Review: Dies The Fire - By Steve Stirling

Review By: Dale R. Cozort


What if France Had Fought On From North Africa? Part IV

Scenario Seeds

Dies The Fire (Review)

Early End To The Ice Age

Best of the Comment Section

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I have mixed emotions about Dies the Fire.  It has multiple levels of implausibility that are going to make it difficult for a lot of people to take it seriously.  On the other hand, if you can get past the initial suspensions of disbelief that the story forces on you this isn’t a bad book.  It has several strong and interesting characters and moves well.  It gets stronger as it goes along.

First let’s look at the implausibility problems.  Dies the Fire is in the same fictional universe as Stirling’s Island in the Sea of Time series.  It looks at what happened to the timeline we’re in when the island of Nantucket went back in time.  It’s set in 1998, and as Nantucket goes back in time, most of the advanced tools of civilization in our world stop working.  Nothing electrical works.  Cars and planes stop working.  Firearms don’t work.  Gunpowder burns too slowly to fire a projectile.  Steam engines can no longer build up enough pressure to be of much use. 

The first plausibility problem is that an awful lot of physical laws change without apparently having much impact on anything other than human technology.  Anything electrical is dead, but there is no apparent impact on animal nervous systems that depend on electrical impulses.  Presumably lightning still strikes (otherwise the climate would change in unpredictable ways).  Presumably the earth still generates a magnetic field.  Otherwise solar radiation becomes a major problem because the fields that steer a lot of those particles around the earth collapse.  Presumably photovoltaics (solar cells) don’t work, but the closely related processes involved in photosynthesis do.  Hot air still expands and rises, but if you try to confine it in a steam engine that hot air will only expand to a certain point.  If you add more heat, either air or energy just disappears.

If you have much knowledge of chemistry, physics, and/or electronics you will reach a point where suspension of disbelief is close to impossible.  The world works the way it does because of a set of physical principles.  Those principles are inter-related enough that changing them enough to effectively deny us electricity, internal combustion engines, and all effective explosives would also change the way the world worked in huge and unpredictable ways.  If you have a hard science background and you want to read this book, you’ll need to treat the changes as magic.  Just say to yourself, “The elder gods or alien space bats took our toys away and that’s all there is to it.”

The second plausibility problem is that too many characters in the story have just the right skill set or tools for the situation.  I almost gave up on the story at least three times because the combination of tools or skills just seemed too improbable.  The world of Dies the Fire is inhabited by an improbably large number of expert archers, people that know how to handle horses, and people who (I kid you not) go to their closets to get out their Roman short swords or to the warehouse to get out their horses and wagons.  It’s true that such people exist and might thrive in this new situation, but the introduction of so many odd-ball skills strains an already tenuous suspension of disbelief.

The third plausibility problem is that most of the characters in the story just tamely accept the new limitations.  Maybe I hang around a higher than normal number of techno-geeks, but I know a lot of people who would be trying frantically to find ways around the new limitations.  They would be trying to find out exactly what the limitations are.  They would be asking a lot of questions.  Do permanent magnets still work?  What happens if you rig one up with some copper wire and try to make a primitive generator?  Can you still generate static electricity by scruffing your foot on a carpet or rubbing a balloon on a cat?  Do electronic devices work inside a Farraday cage?  Does gunpowder work if you filter the air to make sure nothing out of the ordinary is in it?  If you put dissimilar metals together in a medium that normal allows electron flow, does that flow still happen?  Do flywheels still work to store energy?  Do capacitors still hold a charge?  Can you still store energy in springs?  Do windmills still generate power?  (They could be very useful even if you can’t store the power as electricity).  Do solar cells still work?  What about a solar powered Stirling cycle engine?  Does gasoline still burn at the same rate it did?  Does it still have the same properties when you mix it with other chemicals?  If you can’t build up pressure in a steam engine beyond a certain point, what happens if you build it up to that point and then pump air out of the room the steam engine is in?  That increases the pressure difference between inside and outside the engine, which is effectively the same thing as generating higher pressure inside the engine.  Can you use a series of thin-walled steam engine cells ganged together to produce a useable steam engine?

Trying to find ways around the “speed limit” would be absolutely vital.  If it couldn’t be done, millions of people would die.  Almost everybody over about 60 would probably die within a matter of months from the burden of work and illnesses that we can cure .  The rest would live a hard life that typically ended not much after 40.  Most of the people that survived would end up as the equivalent of peasants.  It would be morally imperative to try to find ways to keep technological civilization going, and none of the major characters in the book even appears to think about trying.

The people I hang around would also take a very different approach to personal defense than the characters in this book.  For personal defense my techno-geek friends would probably look at whether or not pepper spray and other non-lethal gases still worked.  A few of them could probably rig up more lethal gases, though they might not actually do that due to storage problems and the danger of killing themselves.  They would probably buy up the highest power air rifles they could find—good for rabbit hunting and discouraging people you don’t want around.  They would look at ways of modifying those air rifles for increased penetrating power—quite feasible under normal physical conditions.  They would see if any of the many explosive compounds that chemists are aware of still worked.  In order to keep projectile weapons and explosives from working, our ‘alien spacebat' friends would have to keep a lot of substances from working the way they normally would, including match heads and lighter fluid to name a few.  If no other projectile weapons would work, a lot of people would probably improvise throwing spears or darts rather than going for bows and arrows because of the steep learning curve to become a good archer.  If they designed improvised crossbows, they would probably go for some kind of repeater design.

I doubt that the initial weapons technologies would be anywhere near as medieval as they are in the book.  People would improvise armor and arms from the abundant high-quality metal in cars and especially trucks.  They would find ways to use parts of truck beds as armor, truck springs as the basis for projectile weapons, gasoline from trucks and cars for ‘Molotov cocktails’, glass and metal for spear points, and so on.  I’m not at all sure those improvised weapons would be all that inferior to medieval-style ones.  We live in an environment filled with tools potentially lethal enough to awe your average medieval knight.  
While people still accepted money, smart people would probably go to the hardware store and buy up things like saw blades (maces made out of circular saw blades set in a wooden handle?), drywall hammers, hatchets, crowbars, bicycles, binoculars and telescopes, bottled water, mechanical water filters, and lengths of PVC pipe, to mention just a few things that would prove useful.  Over-the-counter pain relievers like aspirin would be another smart purchase, as would vitamins, cigarettes, toilet paper, and birth control devices.

For the first few weeks fresh water would be a more precious commodity than food.  People without access to water would die in less than a week.  People with water and no food could survive uncomfortably for up to a few months, depending on how much body fat they started out with and whether or not they had access to vitamins.

The fourth plausibility problem is that government and communications tend to collapse more easily and completely than I suspect they would under this scenario.  Governments tend to show a much smarter side of themselves when their power is seriously threatened.  At the state and federal level at least some of the powers that be would realize that lack of communications seriously threatened their ability to govern.  How would they overcome that?  Initially with bike messengers.  They could find avid bicyclists that routinely do 50 to 100 mile rides in a day, and use them to set up long-distance messenger relays—sort of like a bicycle version of the pony express, only replacing the rider instead of the horse.  You could probably get a message 200 miles in a day in an emergency once the system was operational.  In the longer term, smart governments would probably set up signal towers with gas or kerosene lights and mirrors.  In reasonably flat terrain they could use telescopes to extend the distance messages could be sent, especially at night.

Communications would allow governments to bring in troops to areas where local government power is threatened.  Those troops would no longer have projectile weapons, but they would still have advantages, like much better body armor than anything civilians would be able to improvise, good stocks of MREs initially, and discipline.  Bicycles would be at an absolute premium for moving troops, and governments would undoubtedly confiscate a lot of them.  Once railroads were cleared, governments would probably build bicycle-based vehicles to move men and goods along them.  Even without trains, control of railroad lines would mean the ability to move men and materials more quickly.

Governments would try to get water pumping systems working on some basis in the cities, even if it meant drafting people to sit for eight or twelve hours at a time peddling improvised bike-based pumps.  If they fail to get enough water, the cities would quickly become untenable.  Governments would try to get anybody in the major cities whose job went away due to the ‘event’ out to the surrounding farms.  Farms would be desperately short of manpower to protect the harvest and get it in.  The problem would be in training and hardening the city people (and a lot of farmers who were used to sitting in an air-conditioned tractor) enough to make them useful.

Undoubtedly some areas would collapse into anarchy temporarily.  Escaped prisoners would complicate matters a lot.  Without guns the guards would lose control of at least some of the prisons and thousands of escaped prisoners would add to an already chaotic situation.  The cities of over a million people would simply be untenable.  There wouldn’t be any way to move that many people out the distance they would need to be moved or to house them once they were moved.  You also wouldn’t be able to move enough food or water in to maintain all of those people, especially in California, where major cities are built in deserts and maintain themselves by pumping water from great distances.  

Given the timing of this event (1998), I was surprised that nobody mentioned Y2K as a possible explanation for the event.  Granted, it wouldn’t explain everything, but it would probably be the first explanation a lot of people thought of.  Fear of Y2K would also play a role in that some people were already stocking up for what they thought would be the collapse of civilization, so at least some people would have somewhat larger stocks of easily portable food than normal.

As I said at the beginning of this review, if you can get past the initial plausibility problems this is not a bad book.  If you’re a hard science person, be prepared to throw the book down a couple of times and walk away saying “NO.  It can’t work that way.”  I did.  I also went back and continued reading.  I’m glad I did, because this is not a bad story at all if you’re willing to treat the ‘event’ as essentially magic and overlook quite a few other plausibility problems. 

Comments are very welcome. 

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Copyright 2004 By Dale R. Cozort

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