A MEETING AT CORVALLIS
By S.M. Stirling
Hardback, 497 pages
Prolific science fiction and fantasy writer Stirling returns to the world he created in "Dies the Fire" in this third book in a trilogy about the survivors of a world-wide apocalypse.
The setting is the Willamette Valley 10 years after the Change, which snuffed all intensive energy processes around the world: No electricity, no engines, no firearms. Starvation, disease and chaos have wiped out most of humanity, but Oregon fared better than most, losing only about 95 percent of its population.
Some of the survivors have begun to carve a new civilization out of the ruins using methods and models from pre-industrial times. The Valley is home to rival factions which have adopted medieval forms such as post-English Conquest Norman feudalism and Scottish clans. Portland is the center of a budding empire under the brutal rule of the Protectorate and its leader, Norman Arminger. Corvallis is the most progressive place in the Valley, a free city with a nominally democratic government centered around the former university and governed by the Faculty Senate. In the foothills of the Cascades near Salem are the holdings of the Clan Mackenzie led by Wiccan devotee Juniper MacKensie and on the west side of the Valley, a community called the Outfit has established itself under the guidance of Mike Havel, a former Marine.
The factions are ruled by charismatic leaders. They've not only adopted medieval forms of government and methods of subsistence, they've developed and refined forms of warfare and combat based on their chosen models. And warfare and combat are the central feature of Stirling's world. Bandits roam the forests and thickets. In the early years of the energy-free world, many survivors resorted to cannibalism. The more rational survivors banded together to meet these threats and out of necessity reintroduced swords, armor, bows and arrows, catapults, castles and fortified towns. Horses, oxen and bicycles are essential for transportation and war. Steel is plentiful as the hulks of otherwise useless cars and trucks are everywhere.
Unfortunately, the expansionist ambitions of the power-hungry leader of the Portland Protective Association have spawned a full-scale war, with the Willamette Valley as the battleground.
The success of any alternate-universe science fiction world is in the details and Stirling is a master of the details. His foundation in history and pre-industrial weaponry and tactics is impressive and he uses his knowledge to create a richly layered setting, which provides the background for well-realized characters and plenty of suspenseful action. There are no one-dimensional villains or good guys.
Stirling obviously knows the Willamette Valley and the story takes on an extra dimension for Oregonians who know the landscape. Stirling's vision of this new world is a little eerie when it involves familiar locations such as a crumbling Interstate 5, the ruins of Eugene and Salem, or a Corvallis where the town meetings are held in Gill Coliseum and a wall encircles the city.
There is a sense here that the geeks shall inherit the Earth. Former members of the pre-change Society for Creative Anachronism dominate the evil Portland Protective Association, which rules from Molalla in the south to Puget Sound in the north and Pendleton in the east, on the premise they had a head start with their knowledge of medieval weaponry and methods. I've been to a couple SCA events and it takes some effort to envision the participants as likely survivors of an apocalyptic event. Another group in the novel takes as its model the Rangers of J.R.R. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings." They've taken possession of the former Silver Falls State Park. They're highly motivated to train themselves to a fighting peak, so maybe the idea works.
The Pendleton area, by the way, is aligned with the bad guys. It provides the evil Association with light cavalry composed of crude but crafty cowboy types riding quarter horses. Stirling must have visited during Round-Up week and come away with a slightly skewed view.
Stirling is working on another trilogy set in the post-Change world 25 years after the events of this book. "The Sunrise Lands" is scheduled to be published this year.
Bill Andrus is the EO's book review editor. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.