Web Search nikon coolpix digital cameras The Miserable Annals of the Earth: A reading of <i>Corvallis</i>

Sunday, October 22, 2006

A reading of Corvallis


Once upon a time, I had an email from S.M. Stirling explaining precisely what it was that had changed in how physics worked in his The Fire Dies/The Protector's War/A Meeting At Corvallis trilogy. I wish I had it, so I could quote it. Even if I did, though, I still wouldn't really understand it, because when it comes to physics, well, the Late Great Jeff Webb was the science genius on this superteam. My super power is all about spelling, word choice, and sentence construction.

But it's something to do with the speed of various thermodynamic reactions and electromagnetic phenomena being slowed down to a point where stuff that explodes won't explode anymore, and electricity won't flow the same way, either. The end result: pretty much all modern technology stops working, for reasons no one understands.

In the world Stirling describes in the three books I've already cited above, this leads to a massive global dieback of the human race as our modern civilization, with its enormous technology driven carrying capacities for huge centralized populations, crashes and burns in a spectacular fashion. Cities become mass graves, then abandoned ruins, and then, for the most part, open air mines that the surviving tribes ransack for raw material. The survivors themselves -- far less than one percent of the pre-Event civilization -- organize themselves in eccentric fashions largely dictated by the strongest personalities of the alpha-folks who organize their communities.

One the one hand, you've got the Bearkillers, a more or less free community run by an informal warrior-nobility that anyone with sufficient skill can join, ruled by their particular alpha-male, Lord Bear, otherwise known as ex-Marine and former bush pilot Michael Havel. Bearkiller society is largely deranged towards a Tolkien mythological imprint by the presence of young Astrid Larsen among them, who is what we would call nowadays a major league geek girl -- to the point of actual estrangement from reality, except, in the post-Event world, reality is largely what you make it.

Allied with the Bearkillers you have the deeply fucking weird Clan MacKenzie, organized around the leadership of one-time half assed Wiccan and medieval reenactor Juniper MacKenzie. Despite the nuttiness of their pagan beliefs and Scottish wardrobe choices, the Clan MacKenzie fields some of the deadliest archer formations in the post-Event world, which means you laugh at their stupid graven idols and the silly little plaid skirts their menfolk wear from at least 600 yards away, hopefully with the wind blowing strongly in their direction, at that.

On the other side of the viciously spiked portcullis is the Portland Protective Association, organized by former history professor and part time Society for Creative Anachronism lunatic Norman Arminger, who styles himself the Protector and Warlord of Portland. He's a bad, bad man, who organizes what's left of the organized crime crews, street gangs, and those really annoying guys in the SCA who always wished they could fight with actual weapons, into a huge medieval style army under (literally) the Eye of Sauron, the symbol he chooses for his new nation's flag.

Then, trying desperately to stay neutral in the coming conflict, you have the city-state of Corvallis, run by a Faculty Senate comprised of surviving professors and administrators from a large pre-Event agricultural university. Yeah. They got hopes.

How S.M. Stirling turns out so many extremely readable, fabulously researched fantasy novels in such short order I will never understand. Yeah, he churns out the occasional turdburger -- what I call a 'house payment' book -- especially when he's working in someone else's franchise, as with that endless David Drake Belisarius re-enactment he did the text for a while back, or his various TERMINATOR books. But when he's working within his own conceptual frameworks, he nearly always delivers the goods (I say 'nearly always' because DRAKON was pretty much crap, although, as always, it was crap that once you started reading it, you found it nearly impossible to put down until you'd finished it, due to Stirling's amazingly readable writing style).

With A MEETING AT CORVALLIS, he's finished the spin off trilogy to his preceding ISLANDER trio with a consistent level of excellence even surpassing those three preceding volumes. His usual fabulous level of detail goes hand in mailed gauntlet with his always enthralling characterizations, and, well, if you like fantasy adventure with some military overtones, I can't recommend Stirling's work enough.

About MEETING specifically, I will say one thing -- he managed to surprise me with the ending, which is a rare and enjoyable event for someone who reads as much, and as analytically, as I do. This is, I suppose, a long delayed dividend from Stirling's dreadful resolution to his Draka trilogy; by letting the bad guys win there, he created an atmosphere in which I simply couldn't be sure how he would resolve the conflict in this particular trilogy. I'd still much rather he'd had the Draka get crushed as they so richly deserved at the end of THE STONE DOGS, but at least that book's truly disappointing resolution can now be seen to have had a slight silver lining here, a decade or two further down the line.

One aside, though -- as I say, I can't remember what the pivotal change in the laws of physics that powers this series was, and I wouldn't understand it, either. But I can't see how, at the moment, something that slows down the speed with which energy transfers from one state to another would have any effect on, say, lighter than air craft, or the chemistry of creating poison gases. Were I an evil sonofabitch like Norman Arminger, with a huge, devoted following of murderous crazies behind me and an even huger force of slave labor I could set to any project I chose, I suspect I'd have foregone 13th Century European military maneuvers in favor of trying to reproduce the phosgene gas and dirigible delivery systems of World War I.

Of course, that's mostly just my memories of Niven and Pournelle's LUCIFER'S HAMMER talking, but still, I'd think that a lighter than air armada would lead to inevitable military victory even without the poison gas armament -- being able to drop napalm (which does work in the books) from high above the battlefield should be a nearly insuperable advantage.

Leaving all that aside, though, A MEETING AT CORVALLIS is an excellent resolution to an excellent trilogy. And once again, mad props and sincere thanks to S.M. Stirling for comping me a copy.

1 Comments:

At 10:54 PM , Anonymous S.M. Stirling said...

Glad you enjoyed it; perceptive review -- Astrid _is_ mad as a March hare and in the here and now she'd be on meds and watched carefully.

But madness is defined by your environment as much as the contents of your head. In the Dies the Fire universe she ends up as the founder of the Dunedain Rangers and her kids speak Sindarin as their first language.

In the second trilogy, people are translating things like "The Ballad of Eskimo Nell" into Elvish, and coming up with ways to scream FUCK FUCK FUCK! when they hit their thumbs with a hammer.

That's not what she had in mind at all... 8-).

As to lighter-than-air craft, they exist post-Change just like gliders and will play some part in the follow-on trilogy but they've got problems.

An early airship pioneer (from Brazil, oddly enough) remarked that flying an airship was like trying to hammer a candle through a brick wall.

That was with internal-combustion engines. The highest possible power-to-weight ratio in the Changed world is guys pedaling madly on cut-down bicycle frames.

This can work but you'd better pray for a following wind, or at least calm air.

As to poison gas, note that even Hitler didn't use it on anyone who could retaliate in kind. That's because it just gums up the works without giving either side much of an advantage.

Arminger _did_ try to get his hands on pre-Change stocks of gas in "The Protector's War".

As he said, his attitude was: "Insecticide for people. I like it."

When that fails, he's left with the production potential of the post-Change world, where large-scale industrial-process chemisty is impossible due to the temperatures and pressures involved. The lab-scale production he could manage could be matched by his enemies, so there's really no point.

 

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