The Big Idea: S.M. Stirling

I often think to myself how lucky I am to have born when I was — not just in a general sense, but in the sense of being a writer. I swear, if I had to write a novel on a typewriter, I might just strangle myself with the ribbon instead. But it’s not to say I don’t think about what it would be like to live in a world that had changed — one in which every modern convenience goes out the window. As it happens S.M. Stirling has a very successful book series with this idea at its core, of which The Tears of the Sun is the latest. He’s here to explain that world, how it works, and how he himself would fare in the world he created.


The Big Idea behind the Change series starts simple.  On May 15th, 1998, the island of Nantucket  is covered by a dome of colored lights.   At 6:15 pm (Pacific time) it vanishes, and the Change propagates around the Earth at the speed of light.   Every animal advanced enough to have a spinal cord feels a momentary subjective instant of intense pain and a flash of light.

An instant later it’s over… and all higher technology has ceased to function.  Nobody knows why; nobody can tell how.  Not for a long time, and even then they only get enigmatic hints.  Nobody can do anything about it, either.

Electronics stop working; internal combustion engines don’t combust to the degree necessary to work.  A blacksmith’s forge works fine; diesels don’t generate enough pressure to function.

Life without high technology… sucks, frankly, if you’re used to having the toys and then get them taken away.

We’ll leave aside the fact that I’d be dead several times over without modern medicine; multiple episodes of asthma and pneumonia in childhood, complicated problems with infected appendix(es); yes, I had two!  The surgeon was extremely surprised.

But I wrote my first book on a manual typewriter.  That was when ‘cut and paste’ actually meant cut and paste, or in my case using a lot of Scotch tape.  Not surprisingly, that book was also shorter than most of mine.  Partly that was because it was my first, and I deliberately restricted the number of viewpoint characters and the length of time covered to keep it simple to write.  A lot of it was the sheer mechanical difficulty and expense of doing corrections and rewrites.  I prefer to rewrite constantly, redoing each day’s work before starting on fresh material.  On a manual that was hideously difficult; it might not have been quite so hard writing longhand, but I can’t compose longhand.  It just doesn’t feel right.

Then there’s the sheer expense of writing materials in the old days.  When paper was made from rags collected from old clothing and made by hand, it was expensive.  You couldn’t afford much unless you were fairly well-to-do to start with.  Books cost at least the equivalent of several days work for an ordinary man.

Our technology affects us in ways we can’t imagine, or at least can’t imagine without research.  Take something basic like calories in and calories out.  Look at a photograph from an American city a century ago, and one of the first things that strikes you is that the number of overweight people is miniscule.

This isn’t because they were undernourished; not most of the native-born Americans, at least.  They ate more meat than we do, and had a diet very heavy in fats and starches besides.  They just burned more.

A lot of them did very heavy manual labor; one of my grand-uncles (he was in his 70’s when I met him, as a child of 6 or so) was fond of lard sandwiches.  He was still about the same weight he’d been as a teenager… when he went around Cape Horn on a windjammer, climbing the rigging to reef ice-covered sails in the storms.  The rest of his life was spent on fishing trawlers.  He smoked, too, and used to stub out his cigarettes on his palms, which were covered in callus like the shell of a turtle, which fascinated me as a child.

But even affluent people, below the very uppermost level, walked all the time.  They climbed stairs, if they lived in a city.  Being overweight was rare, and was a sign of unusual income and leisure.  It meant not only having enough to eat well and not work, but enough to have servants who handled the high-effort drudgery of daily life.  An immense amount of ‘stuff’ that we buy as processed goods or commercial services then had to be done yourself; hence the Victorian cookbooks which start a chicken recipe with ‘first kill, clean and pluck your chicken’.

A writer in a putative low-tech society is either going to be wealthy, or have a wealthy patron, or he’s going to fit his or her writing in between bouts of things like chopping wood.  I spend three hours a day at the gym, but it’s not the same.  I’ve experienced a little of those demands; I did a lot of odd jobs during the years I was trying to get established as a writer (including a memorable two-day stint as a bouncer) and I’ve worked at things like bailing hay and cutting down trees.  Even with modern equipment, by the end of the day you just want to eat and sleep.

In my Change books, of course, all the higher-tech toys are taken away.

It’s not quite a plunge into the Dung Ages, once the initial horrors are over.  A lot of the available technology is actually 19th-century; the difference between cutting grain with a horse-drawn reaper and doing it with a sickle is actually about as great as that between a horse-drawn twine-binder and a combine.  But the drop in productivity is an immense shock to the people who do survive.

My initial protagonist is a folk-singer and Wiccan priestess named Juniper Mackenzie who has a place in the country and keeps horses and a big garden… and she’s shocked by the degree of sheer hard graft necessary to live.  A farmer she works with is moved to comment that he thought he knew what hard work was like, but that he had a new appreciation for his grandparents!

(I took that from talks I’ve had with farmers, and from things I saw living in Africa as a teenager.)

The Change isn’t a return to the past, though.  It’s a world in which modern people are forced to embrace a lot of aspects of the past; but the synthesis is quite new.  In a way the books are, like the Nantucket trilogy, an experiment in mass time travel.  Using bits and pieces and salvaged wreckage and memories of the past (including a lot of mythology and folk-memory which has very little to do with the actual historical experience) modern people have to create something new.

And it makes a great canvas for stories!


The Tears of the Sun: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt from the novel.

53 Comments on “The Big Idea: S.M. Stirling”

  1. Somebody has been channeling Jack L. Chalked! Paging Nathan Brazil, Nathan Brazil, please come to the rescue! Seriously, it sounds like a lot of thought went into this book. But since it is Sttirlibg, I would expect no less. I look forward to reading this one.

  2. I was a college student in the early to mid 90s, when a laptop was still a Shiny New Thing my parents couldn’t afford to provide for me. My maternal grandmother bought me a Smith-Corona electric typewriter instead. When I wasn’t using it, it sat on the floor by my desk, with its hard plastic cover over the keyboard. Many of my friends, seeing it for the first time, would gasp and ask “Is that a laptop?!”

    Unlike Mr. Stirling, I wrote every rough draft of every paper I ever wrote longhand, on a legal pad. I also do a lot of craft work (plastic canvas tissue boxes, most notably) which, given the technology of the time (I started maybe thirty years ago), meant that I drew a lot of my own patterns out longhand, on graph paper, with regular and colored pencils. While I’ve spent probably a couple hundred dollars or so on PC designing software in the last fifteen years, I find that I’m just more comfortable continuing to design my patterns longhand. For me, I can actually create designs faster that way. I’m sure anyone born in the last 30 years or so feels differently, but growing up with only one’s imagination to depend on is much different than growing up with computers and the programs that go with them.

  3. I’m 100% positive it’s a totally different story (plot, character, worldbuilding) and it’ll likely be great. I imagine I’ll probably buy it……..

    But still………

    Didn’t someone point out the premise of The Change was close enough to Boyett’s Cult Classic “Ariel” that tagging it with “A Novel of the Change” might be one step too close?

  4. As a past field medic (80’s military), it’s really apain to be away from modern infrastructure (electricity/running water/refrigeration) for weeks or months at a time. And after being a mechanic for a few years, yeah, physical labor is hard and you really do want to just sit or go to sleep. Not a lot of creative energy left. But was in best shape of my life back then, eating anything and never gaining a pound. Ah, well, I’ll stick with my desk job now and making a living with a keyboard.

    I’ve read 2 or 3 of Mr. Stirling’s ‘Change’ books and they’re decent page turners. I just don’t hold with the initial bad guy. Yeah, there’s some pretty good SCA fighters out there but outside of the SCA, there’s a hell of a lot of very well trained people as well (DEA agent I took marshal arts from was deadly fast with anything from bare hands on up). And really, Sauron with a court of bikers dressed in French medieval fashions? Would more likely be a mix of Klingon and Tuchux.

    Still, is good read but much preferred his Nantucket novels.

  5. This is a great series and I’ve enjoyed it a lot. Wonderful concept and ripe for exploring in many directions. I do like that so far Stirling has resisted most of the urge to detail exactly how/why certain physical ‘constants’ changed to block electronics and high-energy chemical reactions. Instead, he’s rightly focused on the practical — How does one adapt and rebuild societies? And there are spooky and also sinister elements coming more to the fore.

    Everyone is a critic department: His latest book in the sequence has the feel of the second movie in the Lord of the Rings series: a bit of a catch-up to re-integrate at least a couple core plot lines and an intermediate set up for the final (?) stages of the story. IMHO, it’s one of the weakest books in this series but necessary to read in order to understand what comes next. For me the ‘implementation’ — establishing the back history via the re-telling of previous events by some characters to new characters (and the reader) — felt a bit tedious. Shaving about 20% in length also wouldn’t have hurt. And some things might be better left to footnotes or diagrams than trying to shoehorn into a narrative (e.g. family connections related to fealty & rank). OK, so I’ve pooped on the book but it works and the series remains one my all-time favorites by far.

    Dan Tannenbaum (above) mentions Jack Chalker — By coincidence, I’m re-reading his Well World series right now.

  6. I enjoy reading the Big Idea posts, as I love understanding the mechanics behind how an authors turns thought into story.

    I had multiple people recommend the first Change book to me. At the time, I had been a Wiccan priest for 20 years. I own that it was my issues with it, and that YMWV, and I will say that it was an act of faith to get through the book. The Change aspects of it? Great. The Wiccan Priestess part of it? Why? As enmeshed as Wicca was in my life at the time, those aspects of the story jarred me out of the reading experience. Perhaps to someone outside the faith, those details seemed odd or magcial from the fantasy side of F/SF. For me, it seemed pasted on as an afterthought.

    Far too many happy coincidences for my taste. The characters immediately post-Change are walking across the country and discover a need for long range defense. Voila! Next two people they meet just happen to be an Olympic archer and a bowyer/fletcher. But wait! Wouldn’t it be easier to make them on a blacksmith forge? Voila! Next person they meet is a blacksmith. Other characters are faced with invading hordes. Voila! Next person they meet is ex-military special ops.

    Based on book sales, I am clearly in the minority when it comes to these books. I salute Mr. Sterling for his continued success.

  7. John, I would just like you to know that YOU are the reason why I stopped reading these books. I was in the middle of the third book when my best dude gave me Old man’s war to read. Thus started my love affair with military sci-fi. *swoon*

    *grin* Sorry I just thought it was funny enough to share. hehe..

  8. why talk about something happening in Nantucket by citing Pacific time?

    as for technology, it sounds like a lot of this book is pointing at “Ages”, as in the industrial age, electronics age, computer age, internet age, etc.

    an acre was defined as about the amount of land one man could plow with an ox. plow technology hasnt changed for millenia, but what pulls it is so different and had such sweeping changes to society that it was refered to as the industrial age. having the ability for one man to plow a hundred acres in a day fundamentally shifts what is possible in society. it alters the economic equations to the point of altering the fundamental solutions people arrive at. America was an agrarian, slave using, society, that was founded a century before the industrial revolution. internal combustion engines allowed something new to be possible.

  9. Wait, what does Stirling have against Nantucket? :-) I’m confused. I read Island in the Sea of Time, which is Nantucket back to the stone age, and now this is Nantucket sent back to ?? Is it the same fictional Nantucket? Same fictional chief of police, etc? Or an all new fictional Nantucket?

    I agree it sounds a lot like Ariel. I liked Ariel (and the sequel!), I liked Island in the Sea of Time, I might like this, but it all feels very mixed-up. Has anyone read them all and can enlighten me?

  10. @#11 lynn: Same Nantucket from Islands in the Stream, only from the other side (those left in the present). So, Nantucket gets sent back to bronze age and at the same time, all electro-chemical technology on present day Urth gets bonked over the head and stops working. And then SCA’ers and Wiccans run amok and make lots of sandals from all the useless tires.

  11. does it ever explain why heating water fails to produce steam, and if you contain that steam in a cylinder, that steam wil fail to push the piston under pressure?

    does wood no longer burn? or does water no longer turn to steam when heated?

    it reminds me of “Zombieland”, which was a great movie, awesome comedy, hilarious, and then towards the end, the characters are at a theme park, and throw some big switch, and viola, the park lights up. and I had to stop myself from wondering “who the hell is keeping all the coal plants running in this post apocalyptic world?” and maintaining the grid? and, oh, never mind, look, zombies!

    if you emp the planet, all existing electronics are wiped out, the grid implodes, and the damage will take a decade or more to repair. but heating water still produces steam and that steam can still drive a train or factory or whatever.

    I find it fairly impossible to suspend disbelief to the point of “basic chemistry has changed to prevent steam power yet the world looks like it did before, only no ‘technology'”.

  12. Woohoo, a big idea from one of my favorite authors on the website of another!

    @#3 Hillsy: I read Ariel based on Scalzi’s mention of it after Stirling’s “Change” novels. The only real similarities are the change ruining modern technology, and the societies that arise partially living off the refuse of the old. The Ariel novels are much more magical in nature than Stirling’s books, without going into detail and spoiling anything from either series. Both series are well worth reading and the more you read of them, the less they seem alike.

    @#13 Greg: One of my favorite characters in the series is an older bookish type who tries to figure all that out. He builds steam engines, and the wood burns, pressure builds up to a point, then flat-lines low enough to prevent it from doing any useful work. The steam goes…somewhere. And that’s all the explanation you get. The character’s best explanation is that the energy is going into another dimension if I recall correctly (it’s been a while since I’ve read that particular book), but it’s just a guess since he has no tools to measure what is actually happening. In other words, the law of conservation of energy appears to be invalid to some degree.

    And yes, that cracked me up in Zombieland too…sometimes being an Electrical Engineer can be a nuisance to enjoying movies :)

  13. @13 Greg: I think it’s in the second ‘series’ that it becomes explicit that the Change was caused by extra-dimensional alien/gods such that there’s either some really fine-tuned changes to physical laws or active intervention to prevent ‘technology’ from working. Specifically, steam pressure builds up to a certain point… and then just stops, regardless of additional heat or energy added to the system. Same sorts of things happen for batteries and other electrical systems, radioactivity, etc, or pretty much anything else that would be too useful.

    It’s kind of annoying, actually — turns the series into more of a fantasy epic quest, as opposed to the ‘geeks save civilization’ that made the first books a fun guilty pleasure. During the first books, I could enjoy watching the characters try to rebuild, while dealing with the pressures of war, to say nothing of simple survival… But knowing that no matter what, humanity simply isn’t allowed to have certain toys, kind of kills that for me.

  14. SM Stirling is a horrible author.

    Sorry, but it’s true. I struggled through the first few books of The Change, and they’re just badly written. Both in just writing skill, but also in verisimilitude.

    Your random teenage boy will just sort of arbitrarily say that he’s a master of the naginata, and you come across master bowyers in random RV truck stops.

  15. I really enjoyed the first 2-3 books in this series until my husband pointed out that I was starting to stockpile food, talking about buying a bow even though I hadn’t been to archery practice in forever, and generally acting paranoid. Books that get under your skin like that are really interesting, but I couldn’t keep letting it interfere with my real life. This is also why I gave up zombie books.

  16. David & Ben, oh. That sort of explanation would convert a book in my hands to a high density, low aeodynamic, poor gyro behaving, paper based frisbee.

  17. Let me throw out a Whatever-based question:

    If the plot of the book involves /strange goings on that defy they laws of physics/ that wipe out 5 billion people on the planet (Sterling’s Change series), that’s ok. If the protagonist of the book makes those strange goings on happen and in doing so wipes out 5 billion people on the planet (Atlas Shrugged) then it’s a bad thing?

    Don’t get me wrong, there’s no love lost between me and either of the titles in question. But I have to say that John’s assessment of Atlas Shrugged (genocidal prick as libertarian hero) definitely made me reconsider the apocalyptic genre as a whole. What does it say about anyone who casually dusts off 5,000,000,000 people in the first few chapters?

    Yeah, yeah, I know, Douglas Adams blew up the earth to make way for a pan-Galactic expressway in HHGG.

  18. Daniel:

    I think that line of questioning is going to go far afield from the topic of the entry, which is this series and this book, so I’m inclined to suggest that it might be a topic for another time.

  19. The Change series and its obverse “Island in the Sea of Time” trilogy are my favorite alternate history novels of all time. To me, nothing else compares, though Turtledove has occasionally come close, on those rare occasions when he can self-censor his over-riding tendency towards wordiness. As a professional physicist, I’ve never had the least bit of trouble suspending enough disbelief for the basic idea of the Change to work for me. I just think of Maxwell’s demon-like critters doing whatever is necessary (I’m a little disappointed that Stirling has gone further than his “alien space bats” idea in one of the early novels. He has made the newer ideas work for me though). The amount of research about different technologies and mythologies, and the depth of that research, are to me astonishing. Yeah, as a technology and history buff, I can occasionally nitpick some of his choices (it’s hard for me to see a real balance of power between the dark side and everyone else in the Change series, for example) but can’t imagine personally getting so many things RIGHT. I love his characterization of Wicca as the “very young, old religion” or words to that effect. These novels are among the few I will purchase in hardback as soon as they hit the shelves. As with any great series, I’ve grown so attached to the characters that reading about them being maimed or killed (or suffering, period) is emotionally painful. To my mind, HBO should have chosen this series over that by Martin (only then, I’d never get to read another novel of the Change!, so maybe that’s not such a great idea…..). The Nantucket trilogy would be, to my mind, more easily translated into feature film length, and my friends and I have spent some fun times casting it in our heads.

  20. #15 @ DavidBlack: Are you kidding me? In Dies the Fire technology stops for no apparent reason, but there’s all kinds of inconsistencies with what still works and what doesn’t. In the chaos after the Change, SCA members are good with pre-firearm weapons and they become survivors and band together. And there’s a scene where commandos hang glide to the top of a fortress and fight their way down.

    Every single one of these things is stolen flat out from Ariel, that was published in 1983. Not just the idea, but entire plot elements and events. The only real difference is that Stirling took magic out of the picture in the first book. But then he puts that back in later on, too.

    And Stirling doesn’t even write about his new book in Whatever, he pats himself on the back talking about what a great idea the Change is when its pretty clear almost everything about it is based on someone else’s work. The whole thing is lifted from Ariel (also subtitled A Book of the Change in 1983). He says that “the synthesis is quite new” (ego much, S.M?) What a joke. This “Big Idea” is really someone else’s Big Idea.

  21. @mikeyz There’s a good reason one can’t copyright or patent ideas and there are NO inconsistencies that I’ve ever noticed between what works and what doesn’t (basically, nothing that requires an energy source other than kinetic energy works, with the minor exception of low pressure (low energy density) steam engines. The one point that I think one could quibble over (nothing more, see the first phrase) is his retelling of the battle of Rorke’s Drift in the Nantucket trilogy. I rather doubt that Mr. Stirling has any problem with Eric Flint’s 1632 series (and he couldn’t do anything about it, if he did). As I’ve heard mentioned on the interwebs, YMMV and that’s the end of this discussion, for me.

  22. #10 by Greg on September 21, 2011 – 11:56 am

    “an acre was defined as about the amount of land one man could plow with an ox. plow technology hasnt changed for millenia”

    — common misconception, but it’s a really -big- misconception. In fact the animal-powered implements and other farming tools available in, say, 1900 were whole orders of magnitude better than those available in 1800. Tractors were one stage in a long history of change and progress.

    To give you an idea, a man with a sickle can harvest about .25 to .5 acres of wheat per day. A man with a cradle scythe (18th-century American invention) can harvest about 2.5 acres per day. An early 1840’s-style McCormick reaper can do about 15 acres a day. A twine-binder from around 1900 can do several times that, and eliminates the binding stage as well. And by 1900, horse-drawn combine harvesters capable of reaping (and threshing) even larger acreages were in use.

    “America was an agrarian, slave using, society, that was founded a century before the industrial revolution. internal combustion engines allowed something new to be possible.”

    — y’know, slavery was abolished in the 1860’s. Internal combustion engines didn’t become common until just before World War One, and didn’t replace animal power on farms until the 1920’s-30’s (later in Europe).

    It ain’t what you don’t know that’ll kill you, it’s what you think you know that just ain’t so.

  23. #8 by Chris on September 21, 2011 – 11:47 am

    “Far too many happy coincidences for my taste.”

    — if you’re talking about a disaster in which 95%+ of the population dies, everyone who survives is going to be the beneficiary of a long string of lucky coincidences. Anyone who survives and does well is going to be the beneficiary of a very, -very- long string of lucky coincidences.

    There’s just no way around this. If they weren’t extremely lucky, they’d be dead.

    To eliminate the happy coincidences, it would have to be largely a book about people who starved to death, or died of plague, or were killed fairly rapidly in various other unpleasant ways; and that wasn’t the book I was writing. Most of the mass die-off happens offstage, with just enough shown to make the scale and nature clear.

  24. #18 by tam on September 21, 2011 – 3:22 pm

    “It’s the agricultural revolution that makes us fat, namely sugar and wheat.”

    — take a look at a group shot from around 1900 in an American city. One of the first things you notice is that there aren’t many fat people. But it isn’t because of their diets; Americans on average ate as many or more calories then as they do now. The difference is in the output side, not the input.

  25. #25 by MikeyZ on September 21, 2011 – 7:04 pm

    “Every single one of these things is stolen flat out from Ariel, that was published in 1983.”

    — ah… no. You may note that the 2009 Ace reissue of ARIEL has a blurb from me on the cover.

    ARIEL was one of my inspirations, and a fine piece of work, but it’s just one of many.

  26. [Deleted because this is not a fight that needs to be picked, and more importantly, I don’t want it to be picked here. Let us not pretend that good ideas are not used by many creative people in many ways. Going into a fanboy snit about it is silly — JS]

  27. As a reader, I took the premise of the Change, or Emberverse, series as essentially a thought experiment: What if all technology developed much past the 16th century (and a few technologies, such as gunpowder, that were developed earlier) were suddenly, somehow, taken away? Not just our toys, but most of our weapons as well. Leaving aside how such a Change could come about (the characters in the first 3 books of the series are just as puzzled about this as we, the readers are), what effects would this have on societies, and on individuals?

    Focusing on the effects of the Change, rather than the cause, is what allowed me to get past the issues of Willing Suspension of Disbelief that I had with the series initially. Sure, it’s fantasy, but it’s useful fantasy, in that it allows the author and reader to explore what it might be like if all of the technologies that we take for granted today were to suddenly disappear without warning. In a similar vein, most all time travel stories are fantasy (at least ones in which modern people actually interact with historical figures), but have the redeeming feature of allowing history to be examined in new and interesting ways.

  28. I’m very much in the boat with Hugh. Add to the fact that I’m also a Wiccan folksinger (and frequently sing/hum along with songs mentioned in the book) and also ex-hard core SCA (still have the drop spindle and loom in my bedroom and rendered elk tallow in the fridge to make soap with as well as an enviable collection of knitting needles and yarn). I love this series, it’s the only series I’ll buy in hardcover because I can’t wait to find out What Happens Next. Plus I love Stirling’s methodical attention to detail (a trait I notice he shares with fellow Canadian author Guy Gavriel Kay who is also awesome).

  29. “…I’ve worked at things like bailing hay and cutting down trees…”

    The hay was baled, rather than bailed, I presume.

  30. having grown up on a farm, I find the experience of having farming explained to me in lecture format to be more than a little off putting.

    I mentioned plows, and you talk about combine harvestors???

    and I didnt say the internal combustion engine brought about the end of slavery. I was highlighting the difference in america between when it started and today. preindustrial age versus post industrial age.

    and as far as the industrial age impacting slavery, dude, cotton gin. the point is the machine was built for cotton farming, but it ended up fundamentally altering the economics to the point that the number of slaves in america skyrocketed. that is the point of “ages”. something seemingly basic, like a machine to remove seeds from cotton, had huge sociological impact because it made something new possible that simply wasnt possible before.

    That seemingly is the ‘big idea’ of your book, highlighting what happpens when you take technology away. because taking away steam power for example and internal combustion engines takes away the industrial revolution and what that made possible.

    the problem I have with these sorts of stories is that I often get the impression that the author thinks they are the first person ever to contemplate the industrial revolution and the sociological effects, and if tlwe take away that technology, wow, look how different the world is.

    Anyone who has read history knows how much the world changed as a result of various developments. it isnt too hard to guess what the world would like if they were taken away, because we already know.

  31. Hugh@32: “As a reader, I took the premise of the Change, or Emberverse, series as essentially a thought experiment: What if all technology developed much past the 16th century (and a few technologies, such as gunpowder, that were developed earlier) were suddenly, somehow, taken away?”

    it would probably look a lot like the 16th century, wouldnt it? Yes, it is a thought experiment, but dont we already know the answer?

  32. Greg: it would probably look a lot like the 16th century, wouldnt it? Yes, it is a thought experiment, but dont we already know the answer?

    In some respects, perhaps, but certainly not all. And 16th century what? Europe? Asia? America? Just the melting pot of cultures that was 1998 America would make the survivors of such a Change look considerably different that 16th Century England, or America, for that matter. And people in the 16th century didn’t have near the storehouse of knowledge available to them in the form of libraries (printing was fairly new in the 16th century, and most printed material of the time was either Bibles or other theological texts). Yes, much of that knowledge was rendered useless by the Change, but much was still useful. So no, I don’t think we “already know the answer.”

    I understand that you seem to have trouble with willing suspension of disbelief with this series, Greg, as I shared those issues early on. I am a reader who prefers science fiction over fantasy. I once read that the difference between an SF reader and a fantasy reader is that a fantasy reader simply accepts that dragons fly, whereas an SF reader wants to analyze how a creature of that wingspan and mass can achieve the necessary lift to achieve flight. And a fantasy reader’s eyes no doubt glaze over the “infodumps” common in many hard SF novels.

    I find that to read and enjoy fantasy, I have to simply accept that the world the author creates is what it is, and does not necessarily follow the same laws of physics that our own universe does. I find that I do prefer fantasy where the magic is understated, in the background and internally consistent (e.g. JRR Tolkien). Yes, to a great extent, Stirling’s Change series is fantasy (actually a mashup of SF, quest fantasy, alternate history, historical fiction, etc.). Once I accept that, I can move on and enjoy the story. And consider how humans would adapt to a world where magic is suddenly reality, or that to post-Change humans (as well as those in the 16th century), our own world would constitute, as Arthur C. Clarke would put it, “technology indistinguishable from magic.”

  33. hugh: “16th century what? Europe? Asia? America?”

    but thats no longer a “what does the world look like with 16th century technology” question. It now becomes a “OK we know what the effects of the industrial revolution on the world were. but what would it look like if *we* were there?”

    the economic equations would be the same. we can only do X amount of work per person, whereas today we can do 100X per person. the answers would be similar. knowing that 100X used to be available but never will be again doesnt change the math.

    If the big idea here is really one of culture rather than technology, then the question isnt what would it look like if we didnt have the industrial revolutionn, but rather what would it look like if we decided to give up (or forget or whatever) the cultural equivalent of the i.dustrial revolution. What if we re-embraced the idea of the divine right of kings. That is the cultural development that defines the border between Modern history and premodern.

    modern culture with preindustrial tech looks mostly like preindustrial tech but no divine right of kings. except that warlords and fiefdoms and other focusing points of power override the cultural awareness. so it doesnt matter. when energy is diffuse then the military approach is medeival knights who train for a decade or more who assert power and people like that can only be trained by a state who can afford a decade of useless soldiering.

    gunpowder concentrates energy. it is easy to use. and it isnt terribly surprising that the divine right of kings crumblesin the west about the same time that muskets become common. without muskets, you get the slaughter that was the farmers rebellion. With muskets, you get the slaughter that was an army of knights cut down in a single battle by musketmen trained for a couple months. (cant remember the name).

    so, if you take todays american culture, remove technology to pre-musket levels, what you end up with are a bunch of people who are aware that tyrranny and monarchy are bad systems, but who are unable to prevent it against a leader determined enough to build an army.

    so it looks like the 16th century with an american flavor, but stil 16th century. kings, monarchs, and tyrants win because they make up for the low energy demsity by having lots of highly trained warriors, which farmers cant rebel against.

  34. #11 lynn: “Wait, what does Stirling have against Nantucket? :-) I’m confused…”

    He must hate limericks.

  35. I stopped caring for the books when it turned into a regular fantasy story where people occasionally had nostalgia for a television or a fridge. The first book was interesting when people had to cope, but by the second book it wasn’t about coping — it was about cavalry charges, the Dunedain Rangers, and honey-glazed hams and cakes.

  36. I always thought it was amusingly convenient that kerosene still burns OK – in fact better than it does in real life, in consensus reality it doesn’t explode like a lighter fraction such as gasoline – when SMS wanted a nice big explosion. After all, a really big explosion is SF’s equivalent of Raymond Chandler having a man come through the door with a gun whenever the plot gets into trouble.

  37. Suspension of disbelief is, i would presume, a necessary prerequisite to enjoying alternate history stories. I really don’t think that Mr. Stirling is asking too much of us in order that he might create what has been a very enjoyable series of books. Sometimes stories ask too much of our ability to suspend our doubts. I really don’t think it is the case with the Emberverse series.

    The effects caused by the change on physical laws are, as the characters themselves explain, largely incomprehensible. While certain things continue to work as they once did, others work differently, and some things work not at all. The inability of the more scientifically knowledgeable characters to make proper sense of it all is constant. They simply do not have enough information to compartmentalize all that they know into a grand theory of the Change. Furthermore, the exigencies of daily life in the post change world make pursuing these questions in the detail required something for which time is not available to the curious among the characters. It becomes fairly obvious beginning in the first novel that the cause or causes of the change may only become better understood over time. This is something I really like about the series; the recognition that our knowledge of many things is only ever limited or imperfect make the story more believable – as entertaining speculative fiction – than a neat and tidy explanation ever would.

    I think it is fairly same to assume, the incomprehensible nature of the effects of the change is part of the intentional mystery surrounding its cause. It is something that is to be revealed as the books work themselves out. If a reader is unwilling to have some degree of patience in this regard, then science fiction is likely not the genre for him or her.

    On another note, I’d like to express a desire to read a sequel to Conquistador. I like alternate/parallel earths stories even more than uchronics. I have my fingers crossed that Mr. Stirling may one day return to that little world he created.

  38. Coronaeus: “e, the incomprehensible nature of the effects of the change is part of the intentional mystery surrounding its cause. It is something that is to be revealed as the books work themselves out. If a reader is unwilling to have some degree of patience in this regard, then science fiction is likely not the genre for him or her.”

    I don’t see that at all.

    Science is about distinguishing the things you dont know you dont know, about distinguishing what you really DO know from what you thought you knew, and about acknowledging when what you thought you knew was just plain wrong.

    a story that at its core says ‘I am going to take away a big chunk of your knowledge and I am going to make it impossible for you to understand it” isnt about science. It isnt science fiction. It might qualify as science fiction if that aspect of the world was dealt with in a thre act play form. ie the problem is steam engines and gasoline engines and electronics stopped working. act 2, people try to understand the change and fail. act 3, people understand the change and overcome it or find new solutions.

    it sounds like the change is nothing more than a writers tool to create a world that the author wants to present. but “world” doesnt make it a story. Gulliver meets the lulliputions and look how small they are. That isnt sstory, thats concept.

    If an author wants to make a statement about racism, it isnt enough to have green aliens and blue aliens. if an author wants their story to center around the epistemological issues of what we know, what we dont know, and what is unknown, taking technology away with no explanation doesnt make it a story either.

    what it sounds like is an alternate world story. and it sounds like that is how the author thought of it. The reader lives in a world of technology. the characters are put into a world where technology doesnt work. hijinx ensue. Gulliver lives in a world similar in size to ours. He finds a world where everyone is tiny. hijinx ensue due the differences.

    but not every alternate world any author creates is ccreated equal. some dont make sense. and if they dont, it throws the reader out of the story. if this world is ‘hah! your computer doesnt work anymore and I am going to force you to look at my version of this alternate world, nyah nyah nyah’ then I dont think it neccessarily means that a reader who fails to suspend disbelief for this is a non-science-fiction reader.

  39. I’m not sure I’d characterize science in quite the same way you do. Science concerns an attempt to better understand the world of which man is a part. The hope is, that through scientific inquiry, one moves from more imperfect to less imperfect understandings of the world. Knowledge is always incomplete and imperfect because it is always embodied. The dichotomy between knowing and not knowing is an inaccurate way of accounting for knowledge, much in the same way as are knowing and believing.

    But, I digress…

    Science fiction is a rather broad category used to describe a great variety of speculative fiction. Scientific accuracy may be a pre-requisite for those that prefer “hard” science fiction, but it is just as unimportant for those who favour other sub-genres. Most, I would assume, would characterize the Emberverse novels as Alternate History were they to choose a science fiction sub-genre to describe the books. According to common usage, they would still be deemed science fiction.

    While Mr. Stirling’s world may not appeal to some readers because of the mystery surrounding “The Change,” this mystery is not in and of itself bad fiction. It is a device that is used with a purpose in mind: What might happen in a world where not only do many of the Laws of Nature change, but our ability to make sense of the change is limited?

  40. Coronaeus: “it is a device”

    that much we agree on.

    Whether it is a good device or not seems to be the issue. I have no problem with hyperdrives in fiction. I dont have to understand how it works for it to be good. but some fiction abuses the device purely to achieve the plot ending desired and this becomes arbitrary. and arbitrary is seldom good for the backbone of a plot.

    the quintesential example is the teleporter and force shield in the Star Trek universe. When the problem is that the crew cant beam Picard off the planet (act 1), they try some solutions and fail (act 2), and then they “modulate the frequencies” (act 3) and viola, picard is off the planet, it becomes tiresome to watch.

    If one watches and reads enough science fiction, one may become hyper averse to crappy cliches one has read or seen so many times that it could choke a horse.

    The general rule I have heard is this: if it is arbitrary oave it at the beginning of the story with the rest of the story being “normal”, or have the arbitrary piece be “distant” from the central plot.

    having a down on his luck character win the lottery pretty much has to be the opening scene or it wont work as a story. if the world is arbitrary and random it has to be a fact nearly irrelevant to the main plot. the only way you can easily break this rule is in comedy. hitchikers guide to the galaxy had a ranfom universe but that was the funny bit. if the universe is arbitrary, if technology has been taken away arbitrarily, then you could do that in act 1, but you cant then have it arbitrarily be an unsolvable mystery well past act three. and “you cant understand the universe rules” is arbitrary. it would be ok I suppose if it were distant from the central plot, but it seems to be the central premise to the story.

    if one has read enough stories like this, it quickly becomes obvios to the reader that the author is present. the fugue state lifts. one is no longer lost in the story and one is aware that they are reading something arbitrary because thatd what the author wants to happen. suspension of disbelief generally requirres that the auhor ‘plays fair’. and arbitrary rules arent fair. (unless its a comedy and random events affecting the protagonist is part of the hu.or. hitchikers, et )

    its fine if an author wants to write a ‘what if trchnology went away.’ story .but they have to do it in a nonarbitrary world. otherwise, it becomes clear to the reader that the characters they care abiut are at the whim of the author. and that gets boring quickly.

  41. I also enjoyed the first couple of novels, but the last three have been an extreme disapointment.
    I baught this novel because I believed it would move the story along. I spent 14 dollars on an e-book and feel ripped off.
    It is just a rehash of old plot lines from a different point of view. Can anyone get my money back?

  42. I think the author is an excellent writer, but the series now feels like he is stringing it out to make money off of his readers. I do not know if i can finish the series. I want to know what happens, but he gets caught up in minutia and not much happens.
    I am not bothered by his worlds inconsistancies because they work in the world he created.

  43. Greg: ie the problem is steam engines and gasoline engines and electronics stopped working. act 2, people try to understand the change and fail. act 3, people understand the change and overcome it or find new solutions.

    — Greg, that is precisely -not- the book I was setting out to write. John W. Campbell would have disliked the Change series too… 8-).

    This is not a series about people solving a problem. It’s about them coming to terms with a situation they cannot change and, moreover, cannot really understand.

    The causes of the Change are not “supernatural” in the classic sense, but the posthuman entities responsible are not comprehensible by human beings. The issues involved are also beyond human understanding — they’re cosmological and ontological rather than ideological.

    This is not a matter of having enough information. It’s a matter of human beings simply not being smart enough, in exactly the same way that a dog can’t understand algebra, or a chimp grasp the difference between Social Democracy and Stalinism.

    The universe the books take place in is bigger, older, stranger and less comprehensible or controllable than the one the classic Campbellian SF used.

  44. Dear Mr Stirling,
    I am a 68 year old grandmother in Singapore, and a writer. I have read and re-read the Change books since they came out, and now the same for the Shadowspawn series.

    There’s just one thing I wanted to ask, but could never do so till I discovered this blog today: why didn’t you credit Mary Renault? Quotes from the Alexander books, and the entire horse-taming scene, keep echoing through Artos’ story, without acknowledgement. Whereas Nigel Loring’s affinity for the books of Donan Coyle (groan) is well attested.

    Can I ask — Is it a trifle boring to have to churn out 3 more novels to get Artos to his glorious King-Must-Die end? Would you rather be writing the fascinating Shadowspawn series? Do you brainstorm with John Ringo? Since Emerald Sea, he seems to be exploring the same moral aspect of SM as in Shadowspawn .

    Best wishes,
    more power to your Ipad,

    Stella Kon
    PS thanks for the postive passing references to Singapore in the Change books. I could mentally project JUST HOW our policy makers would respond to the Change.

  45. Sometimes it’s a good idea to just read the books. Too much analysis can ruin the story. Anyway, holy cow!, it’s fiction.

    Yeah, the ZombieLand scene at the end was ridiculous. I figured it was because it was a comedy. After all the killed Bill Murray.

  46. It’s fiction and I enjoyed it. I didn’t tear apart “Little Red Riding Hood” either. A good story is just that. Take it or leave it.

  47. Enjoying this series very well. Thank you for providing me many hours of enjoyment. I was just wondering if you knew that the new J. J. Abrams Tv show “Revolution” is totally ripping you off? Perhaps You are getting some re-numeration, but I don’t see you mentioned anywhere in conjunction with the show.

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