This is a guest post from S.M. Stirling, author of The Change series and Black Chamber. The Change is the story of a generation of people who are forced to adapt to a post-apocalyptic, technology-less world after a mysterious event wipes out much of the world’s population. The final book in the series, The Sky Blue Wolves, is out next week.
I didn’t anticipate that the Change series would run to 15 books – 18 if you include Island in the Sea of Time and its two sequels, which are related – when I started. However I did deliberately make the universe as “expansive” as possible.
Other authors, even really good ones like Patrick O’Brian, have written themselves into corners by not leaving themselves enough room; he ended up writing the year 1813 twice in his great Aubrey-Maturin series of historical novels, 1813(a) and 1813(b) since he ran out of “Napoleonic War” to use. You can’t know how well a series will take with the readers, so I always give myself latitude – having the protagonists and villains reproduce is a good start.
In addition, that makes books more realistic in a way. Individuals have story arcs, and the arcs have closure, but in the Real World™ there aren’t any real endings, just stages… and a great deal is always happening offstage!
I’d just come off the Island books in 2001-2003, which were about a group of moderns (the island of Nantucket from 1998) inexplicably cast back to 1250 BC, and I was wondering what to do next.
Usually the idea for a book comes to me in a series of scenes, and glimpses of characters, and then I “backfill” around them to get the complete picture. Both are a lot of fun; it’s enjoyable when the Inspiration Fairy sprinkles you with dust from her wand, but the conscious work of writing the other bits is also enjoyable. It had better be, because the Inspiration Fairy is an unreliable lady! And the research and worldbuilding is just nuts and cream to me; I was a historian in my undergraduate incarnation, and I love history and the related fields of archaeology and anthropology. My main problem is not turning a novel into a textbook! Some writers want their readers to suffer for their research; with me it’s more a matter of burbling on about all the cool little nuggets of fact I come across and assuming others will be as enthusiastic as I.
With Dies the Fire, my first glimpse was of my character Juniper Mackenzie, who was sitting by a campfire, playing her violin, with her dog at her feet and a Traveller-Romany wagon in the background and two tethered horses. I “knew” that she was a musician and a Witch (in the technical modern sense, a Wiccan), and I could see that she was red-haired and green-eyed. And then I saw Mike Havel, and I “knew” that he was a bush pilot and former Marine and that he came from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. The rest sprang from that.
If the Island trilogy was about moderns in ancient times, the Emberverse/Change series was, I knew, going to be about a modern world stripped of its technology – the “Change”, when all the higher technologies of combustion engines (including guns) and electronics stop working at 6:15 Pacific Time in March of 1998 – the same mysterious even that sends Nantucket to the past. It’s the flip side of that displacement, the “what happened in the year we left behind”.
That makes it a fairly grim apocalyptic tale to begin with, though the worst of the collapse happens off-stage, but it’s not about a reversion to the past even though the characters ride horses, use swords and bows and eventually steel armor and build castles. As one character says much later than Dies the Fire, ‘you cannot really bring back the past, even if you wear its clothes”. The Change books are, among other things, a meditation on what it would mean for people with modern minds to be stripped of the material structure of our civilization, reduced to living among the ruins.
New cultures and civilizations arise, and in some instances – the SCA-flavored realm that Norman Arminger builds, or the Clan Mackenzie that grows around Juniper Mackenzie – they draw heavily on the past. But not so much on the actual past as on the myths and legends and popular conceptions of the past; people fall back on those because the basic ideology of modernity, scientistic materialism, has been discredited. If the laws of nature can change arbitrarily and drastically, what remains of the Enlightenment project?
And then there’s the matter of who, or Who, caused the Change; it’s too precise to be a random accident. Religious explanations are common, or “aliens did it”… and they’re both true. You’ll have to read the books to get the details; and even then… well, beings who could do that would probably be incomprehensible to us, in some senses. As one character notes, how can a man explain all his mind to a child, or a God to a man? As the series goes on, the Powers behind it gradually become more and more involved, for good and ill. There are contacts and glimpses, but they’re necessarily incomplete.
From a writerly point of view, the Change gave me the latitude to do honestly things that have to be fudged in historical fiction or in secondary-world fantasy. The Clan Mackenzie aren’t really much like pre-Christian Celts or Scottish Highlanders, for example… but they don’t have to be. They’re what a bunch of modern people drawing on popular-culture tropes about ancient Celts create in a terrible emergency to keep them going. The villain of the early books, Norman Arminger, has lived much of his life in a dream of feudal Europe – he’s a genuine historian, among other things – and tries as hard as he can to actually recreate it. His descendants wear hose and houppelande and build castles… but the castles are reinforced concrete, and nobody is forgetting double-entry bookkeeping or the germ theory of disease, and the arrowheads are made from salvaged stainless-steel spoons. Various Native American groups fall back on their cultural memories, but what emerges is something new.
This lets me have some very cool space to work with – Samurai, knights, cowboys and Indians and pirates, all in the same scenes, oh my! And the research had a lot of side-benefits; meeting people like Kier Salmon, my insider on Wiccan lore (and a great deal else), for example, and becoming friends.
Working on this series has been a fair chunk of my life, and a larger one of my professional career, and I’ve enjoyed the hell out of it – it’s let me do what I set out to do, which was to write the books I wanted to read. I’ve had great fun with the worldbuilding; I take it seriously, but I’m also allowed to play with it. Wrapping it up with The Sky-Blue Wolves (Mongols! Evil magicians in Dark Towers! Princesses with magical swords!) was a bit of a wrench, but I’m just as enthusiastic about the next project, and just as hopeful for it.
Writing’s what I do… but it’s also what I am.
S.M. Stirling is a writer by trade, born in France but Canadian by origin and American by naturalization, living in New Mexico at present. His hobbies are mostly related to the craft? He loves history, anthropology and archaeology, and is interested in the sciences. The martial arts are his main physical hobby. Find out more about S.M. Stirling and his work here.