A fellowship of nine set out to escort the one young man who has the power to destroy the empire of a mad leader and his endless hordes of acolytes, in order to restore the state of relative peace between the various clans of the land… Have we heard this story before? This may sound like The Lord of the Rings, but S. M. Stirling’s is a tale all its own.
The Sunrise Lands, the first of a four-part series, takes place in the same universe as the Dies the Fire trilogy, a series that took science fiction to a literal level by turning science into fiction: gas can burn but not explode, gunpowder fails to ignite, and electricity no longer moves through wires. In one global flash of light, virtually all technology ceases working, plunging the world into a dark age. While the Dies the Fire trilogy examined how man starts to pick up the pieces of a broken world in order to survive, The Sunrise Lands begins its survey in Change Year 22, when life has settled to some sort of order. Most of those who populate this world are Changelings, those born after the Change, and their experience of this fallen world forms the main component of this novel.
To those who have read the earlier books, the world into which we’re plunged will seem familiar enough; newcomers are sure to be surprised and confused by the clan of pagan Celts, the people who fancy themselves Tolkein-esque Elves, or the Medieval/Arthurian “Portland Protective Association.” So here’s a crash course in Stirling’s post-Change America: national government collapses completely immediately after the Change due to a total lack of communication, and state government eventually follows. In a country of technology-dependent urban- and suburbanites, only those in rural regions survive, leaving virtually everyone defenseless and incapable of providing for themselves. Everyone, that is, except for those who’ve had experience with low-tech lifestyles, such as members of the Society for Creative Anachronism. So all those Ren Faire history buffs you’ve made fun of? Well, they sure come in handy when they know how to farm and wield a broadsword. The revenge of the nerds has come, ladies and gentlemen, and their ability to provide for their neighbors has allowed them to revolutionize their societies, instilling whole new value systems, religious beliefs, even languages.
How realistic is this possibility? Probably not very, but Stirling builds up credibility as he goes along, allowing even new readers to get a grasp on this strange new America. The appeal (and fun) of this book is its seemingly impossible premise, because it accomplishes a rarity in science fiction. Not only does The Sunrise Lands create a whole new universe that asks thought-provoking questions about ourselves, but it captivates so well as to place us within the world. It’s an all-too-easy question—how would I survive?—and the currency of the narrative begs it constantly. In only 20 years, those who have lived through the Change have become entirely new people; Stirling dares us to delve into our own beliefs, to test their certainty and to pick apart the pillars on which they so tenuously balance.
The speed of change is an unsettling phenomenon which can hit us personally: how else can we begin to explain the vast differences between our parents’ generation and ours, and why do our children look at us so strangely? How can the whole of history change in a decade? The Sunrise Lands allows us to break out our confining assumption that history moves in a gradual, continuous, and logical line. For everyone, the past (all time before one’s birth) is alien and completely unattainable. And the present, rather than being a state in the course of history, is the stage of one’s life. We each act as if our slice of history was the whole of the world and all else is alien. The Changelings who study history in the United States of Boise can only really grasp pre-1400 events because the modern age is an inaccessible place, so its logic is, too. How do great changes occur in such a short time? Because, Stirling seems to suggest, the present is all we have.
While these more philosophical probes are present (and inviting) throughout the novel, the narrative itself is more along the lines of a smart, sci-fi Western, and I pray that a film is made of this highly adaptation-friendly novel. There’s all the excitement of embarking on a new adventure that should come with the beginning of a series, with plenty of bow-slinging, sword-wielding action along the way. This is not the dense, emotion-rich Lord of the Rings (despite the plot homage), nor does it pretend to be. While the characters are credible enough, this very clearly sets out to be an action story with a wild and fascinating premise. Doing so is not only acceptable but probably a good idea, as otherwise there’d be too great a temptation to resort to intellectual prating rather than good storytelling. That being said, the tactic loses the novel some points: the exposition often resorts to winded tracts of non-essential detail, and the characters lose some believability by frequently narrating their mental states. But these are forgivable offenses, for the battle scenes are well-done and evoke a cinematic reading experience.
The Sunrise Lands isn’t for everyone, even all sci-fi geeks. It reads just as much like an old Western as it does science fiction, and let’s face it: the premise is bound to be alienating. Stirling’s answer to what would happen if the lights go out is inventive but demands some heavy suspension of disbelief, and its celebration of the historical re-enactor won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. But with deep historical questions and an exciting story that sets the stage for an anticipated sequel, it may very well be the perfect belated-holiday gift for that Civil War buff in your life.