AE Bookshelf: The Fantastic Worlds of S.M. Stirling

There are few things quite as simultaneously intoxicating and disorienting as stumbling upon an enjoyable and prolific author you haven’t read before. S.M. Stirling has over the past 25 years written or co-written 47 novels and countless short stories. His work stretches all over the genre spectrum from hard science fiction to meticulously researched alternate history to no-trope-left-unmolested urban fantasy. But there are two ideas that form the binary sun about which nearly all of Stirling’s stories orbit: The first is a fascination with the relationship between culture and technology, particularly in heretofore unseen combinations of genuine historical examples. And the second, an interesting sort of moral relativism where all systems of ethics are treated as being of basically equal value but which nonetheless allows the existence of real honest-to-badness villains.

There are few things quite as simultaneously intoxicating and disorienting as stumbling upon an enjoyable and prolific author you haven’t read before. S.M. Stirling has over the past 25 years written or co-written 47 novels and countless short stories. His work stretches all over the genre spectrum from hard science fiction to meticulously researched alternate history to no-trope-left-unmolested urban fantasy. But there are two ideas that form the binary sun about which nearly all of Stirling’s stories orbit: The first is a fascination with the relationship between culture and technology, particularly in heretofore unseen combinations of genuine historical examples. And the second, an interesting sort of moral relativism where all systems of ethics are treated as being of basically equal value but which nonetheless allows the existence of real honest-to-badness villains.

Perhaps the perfect place to start reading Steve Stirling is Conquistador. Published in 2003, this standalone novel is set in a world not terribly different from our own. Pocahontas’s line lives on and the World Trade Center never fell but, by and large, the course of history is a familiar one — until two California Fish and Game officers (neither of whom would feel particularly out of place in a Dirk Pitt novel) stumble upon a high-volume black market trade in endangered animals. The source, it turns out, is a mysterious portal to an alternate universe, one where Alexander the Great was not poisoned in Babylon, thus providing the butterfly flap that changed everything. Conquistador is rife with characters that are flawed and believable (if a little too true to type), engaged in a great struggle which hinges, as all great struggles do, on matters both vital and petty.

If this sounds only tangentially SF to you, Stirling would like to convince you otherwise. We asked him to comment on alternate history’s genre status, particularly on the case John Scalzi made against Quentin Tarantino’s film Inglorious Basterds being science fiction.

“I see his point,” Stirling said, “but disagree on two grounds. First, the movie wouldn’t just be different without the alternate history elements. It wouldn’t be the same movie at all.”

But what of other Hollywood epics that take liberties with the historical timeline for the sake of drama? “They’re just indifferent to historical accuracy, and so is the audience they’re directed to; Tarantino was doing alternate history deliberately. It’s not as if he (and the audience) didn’t know that Hitler did not die in a hail of bullets and blaze of fire in a Parisian cinema in 1944. Alternate history is unambiguously science fiction. The fact that [the movie] wasn’t marketed as either is more of a joke on the public by Tarantino than anything else.”

Alternate history done well gives us worlds that are as strange and alien as any to be found in science fiction. And worldbuilding really is Stirling’s gift, made all the more impressive by the way he prefers to build his fantastical worlds inside our own familiar one rather than striking them out of whole cloth. We had a chance to talk to Steve recently about the settings he’s developed. “There’s always an element of alternative or hidden reality there,” he said of his fiction. “At least, I hope to God there is because I wouldn’t want to live in any of the worlds I’ve designed.”

To really get a full grasp of how expansive Stirling’s worlds are, you have to turn from his standalone novels to his lengthier series. The series (or rather trilogy of series) that has garnered him the most attention recently is the Change Cycle. The first trilogy in the cycle, the Nantucket Trilogy, sees the modern island of Nantucket hurled some 3200 years into the past where modern technology and ideas leave the inhabitants both over-equipped and ill-prepared to contend with the full bloom of the world’s Bronze Age cultures. These books really draw out Stirling’s tremendous love and knowledge of history and, taken on their own, are among the most thrilling time travel romps out there.

The Nantucket Trilogy was followed by the Emberverse Trilogy, which considers the world from which Nantucket disappeared and in which, at the same moment as the island vanished, anything based on technology invented after the Bronze Age suddenly ceased to function. The trilogy provides an interesting counterpoint to the Nantucket series. One explores the interaction between modern technology and Bronze Age civilization, the other Bronze Age technology and modern civilization.

Stirling is now in the process of tying these two trilogies explicitly together with a new six-book series, set in the Emberverse decades after The Change. It takes on the feel of high fantasy in a world where today’s society has been relegated to the role of the unknowable ancients who have left behind only ruins and artifacts. The protagonists, most all born after technology suddenly ceased to hum, look on the mythical pre-Change world with a mixture of pity and awe. Mostly, when they hear old folk wax nostalgic for the old ways, they are secretly relieved that they don’t have to live in a world of neckties, televisions and treadmills. But in The High King of Montival, the characters find themselves passing through the ruins of Toronto and an entire chapter is devoted to marvelling at the magic of the CN Tower. There’s another kind of magic in the world as well, however. The sort of magic that lets Wiccan ceremonies work real sorceries and lets evil minds possess weaker men and brings arcane blades, heavy with prophecy, from a space between worlds — a space that is growing narrower by the day. It is clear that by book six, the worlds of the Nantucket Trilogy and the Emberverse will come crashing together.

When we asked the creator of these universes if he felt that robust worldbuilding might be a tool that literary fiction could stand to borrow more often from genre, Stirling was quick to agree. “It’s definitely underused [in mainstream literature],” he said. “A lot of mainstream writers are painfully limited that way.”


Full Name: Stephen Michael Stirling
Born: Metz RCAF Base, France. 1953.
Most Recent Book: The High King of Montival (The Change series, 2010). The fifth volume in the series, The Tears of the Sun is forthcoming this Fall.
Recommended: Conquistador (2003)
Biggest SF Influence: “Poul Anderson, undoubtedly.”
Favourite Current Canadian SF Writers: “I’m very fond of Dave Duncan’s work, and also of Tanya Huff, Michelle Sagara/West, and Fiona Patton. And Julie Czerneda.”
Website: http://www.smstirling.com


AE Bookshelf is an ongoing series profiling Canadian authors of science fiction. If you are interested in contributing an AE Bookshelf entry, please query editors@aescifi.ca.

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