S. M. Stirling is the New York Times bestselling author of numerous novels, both on his own and in collaboration. A former lawyer and an amateur historian, he lives in the Southwest with his wife, Jan. His latest book, out this week, is The Tears of the Sun, the latest Emberverse novel in the books of The Change.
The most frequent question I get about my work is variations on ‘where do you get your ideas’?
The flip answer to this ‘from a small mail-order business in upstate New York’, but it’s actually a fairly interesting problem.
Some of what I write just comes to me; for as long as I can remember I’ve had long, intricately plotted, colorful daydreams. For most of my life I’ve spent as much time in them as in what claims to be the real world. I was rather surprised to find out that a lot of people don’t operate that way.
The daydreams are furnished from what I read, see and hear, of course; I can remember when they were heavily Burroughs-influenced and as In the Courts of the Crimson Kings witnesses, sometimes they still are!
The beginnings of a book usually come to me that way; flashes of characters, scenes, bits and pieces that flow out through the fingers as if they’re being dictated, or as if I am. Once I’d decided to show the flip side of the Nantucket books, where the island is displaced in time, the character of Juniper Mackenzie came to me as an image of a red-headed musician singing by a campfire, with a gypsy-style caravan in the shadows behind.
Then comes the hard part. I think it was Baudelaire who said ‘every little bourgeois feels inspired when he sees a sunset; it is application that makes an artist’. You have to be able to do the bits between the inspirations with conscious technique; not only the writing pur sang, but the backgrounding. It occurred to me while I was working on the basic premise of the Change-the sudden removal of energy-dense technologies by entities beyond our comprehension-that this was a great opportunity to create something new in the way of a ‘secondary universe.’ Tolkien’s Middle Earth and Howard’s Hyborian Age are well-known examples. These are common in fantasy, and this series was obviously going to blur the sub-genre boundaries. Here I could combine one with a post-apocalyptic scenario to give a really broad and varied canvas; not a fictionalized version of the past, but a future heavily influenced by other fictionalized versions of the past.
That tied in with other themes I was working on in the books; ethnogenesis (the creation of new peoples) and the relation between historical memory and the present. There are a lot of groups in the Change books who have ostensibly ‘recreated’ past societies. This seems natural, not least to the people concerned; after all, they’ve had much modern technology removed. If you look a little closer, this isn’t exactly what’s happened. Nobody can recreate the past; this has been tried innumerable times (New England started as an attempt to recreate early Christianity, for example) and it always produces unanticipated results.
What the various groups-the Portland Protective Association, the Clan Mackenzie, or Mad King Charlie’s Morris-dancing Deep England, or the Sioux-are doing is creating new societies based on myths, legends and folk-memories about the past. This isn’t completely new. Our myth of the Old West, for example, was in full flower before the Civil War, when the Plains and Rocky Mountains were still Indian territory. Kit Carson was reading penny-dreadful stories about “his” adventures while he was an actual Indian fighter and scout in the 1840’s, while he was having the adventures that won him fame. People who went West were moving into mythic ground and often behaved accordingly, modeling their behavior on what they’d heard and read.
For that matter, when the Spanish conquistadores first saw the Valley of Mexico and the great Aztec cities with their palaces and pyramids, they apparently turned to each other and said: “This is like something out of Amadis of Gaul!”
Which was a thud-and-blunder sword-and-sorcery epic of late medieval provenance, fantastically popular with underemployed hidalgos and would-be hidalgos in Renaissance-era Spain. Mexico was conquered by armored fanboys trying to emulate their equivalent of Conan; and in a case of art imitating life, rather than vice versa, the attempted assassination of Conan in Howard’s “Phoenix on the Sword” is taken almost word for word from the real fight that led to the death of Pizzaro, the conqueror of Peru.
In the Change novels, this myth-influenced ethnogenesis intersects with the reality they’re faced with; human nature hasn’t changed, and while some technologies (electronics, internal-combustion engines) are forbidden, many others (antiseptic surgery, for instance, and reliable methods of contraception) are still available, which makes the environment fundamentally different from any past era.
Hence you get knights on bicycles, horse-drawn trains, pikemen with balloon reconnaissance, windjammers and Moorish corsairs, and any other number of contradictions that can be a lot of fun and open up endless plot possibilities. Just to mention the bicycles, men on foot can outmarch horses, given a week or two. (This is one reason armies in the old days could be tracked by the bloated dead horses.) But people on bicycles can do this quite fast, if you didn’t get caught while the horse was galloping at its maximum 35-45 miles an hour for a brief period. Horses can’t sprint forever either! A fairly crucial bit of The High King of Montival depends on some people pedaling bicycles mounted on a framework running on an old railway outrunning mounted archers.
At the same time, the post-apocalyptic setting presents the interesting spectacle of modern (well, 1998) people confronting many of the things that really are characteristic of the past. This includes some obvious parts, such as the omnipresence of hard work. One of my great-uncles was fond of lard sandwiches. The thought boggles the modern mind, but he’d been a sailor all his life; a hand on a windjammer going around Cape Horn in his early teens, reefing sail in storms that left an inch of sleet frozen on the canvas, and then a long life on fishing trawlers; always cold, usually cold and wet, and doing hard manual labor every day. He needed those calories! And he used to stub out his cigarettes on the palm of his hand; the callus was that thick, even in his seventies.
But it also involves more subtle effects. We’re used to the anonymity of modern life; you can chose who you associate with, you can move (literally or socially) if you get at odds with your circle of friends, and distance doesn’t matter much to communication. Most of your social relations are voluntary. Those that aren’t are usually with some bureaucracy like the IRS or the Health Department. We’re so used to this we assume it’s natural, but in fact it’s an artifact, and a fairly recent artifact, utterly dependent on fast communications, affluence, and a whole host of social norms based on those.
The post-Change world is once more one of small and stable communities-no more than several hundred for most people, often less. In a setting like that, where you’re stuck with the sun rising and setting on the same people, where a mile is a long way, and where you depend on those people to make your life possible by being willing to work (and at need fight) for you, the context of daily life becomes completely different. Public opinion acquires a terrible power; what people think of you is a matter of, quite literally, life and death. You have to get on fairly well with your family and neighbors. If you’re ‘hated out’ of the place you live, it is at the very least a sentence of exile and probably of desperate poverty, quite probably of a miserable death. Our ancestors weren’t just irritated by gossip; they feared it, and rightly. It could kill. They didn’t operate by consensus because they were instinctive communitarians, but because they had to do so. This life provided strong support and identity, but it also constrained. Much of the literature of early 20th-century America, such as Main Street, was written by authors who’d fled places like that to New York or the other great cities and poured out the bile and bitterness it had produced. In the Change universe, it’s back to Gopher Prairie and no escape.
Or take the attitude towards risk…
The end of all this is the Mother of All Generation Gaps, as those who grow up in the new setting (the Changelings, they’re called) are alien to their parents and find their tales of life before the Change meaningless. Which, in turn, offers fascinating opportunities for conflict!