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!