I just finished reading the paperback version of S.M. Stirling’s novel The Sunrise Lands and, just as with its predecessors in his inventive Novels of the Change series, this book comes off as a masterpiece among the alternate history/alternate universe genre. The main character, Rudi Artos Mackenzie, undertakes a quest, with the aid of eight companions, with the goal of reaching Nantucket Island, rumored to be the origin place of the mysterious Change that altered the world.
For those unfamiliar with the earlier books in the Change series, The Change refers to an unexplained phenomenon that occurred in the year 1998 and changed the laws of physics to disallow any type of powered machinery. No man-made electricity, nuclear power, steam power, or anything that would run an engine or machine. Oh, and gunpowder and all other types of explosives no longer work. Formerly explosive substances can burn, and they sort of fizzle when lit, but they do not explode. All of a sudden, a thug with an ax-handle is better armed than a cop with a handgun whose bullets are filled with non-exploding gunpowder. Those who know how to handle a sword, or who can effectively use bows and arrows, generally survive and prosper, while those with archaic or otherwise useless skills, such as computer programmers, television news anchors, bloggers, lawyers, and similar ilk, tend to die out. And, literally, hundreds of millions of Americans did die out, along with billions of other humans around the world. Out of this chaos, small communities form, with leaders who have weapons skills out of the medieval era, personal charisma and leadership ability, and a plan to ensure their continued survival, and the survival of their followers.
The Sunrise Lands takes place some 22 years after The Change (CY22 or Change Year 22, corresponds to 2020 AD, as useful dates are found in the beginning of each chapter) follows the exploits of several of the now-grown children of some of the leaders of the surviving communities that developed after The Change in the Willamette Valley of Western Oregon. These adventuresome heirs are led by Rudi Mackenzie, who was told in a vision to go to Nantucket Island. With him are his twin half-sisters, Mary and Ritva Havel, Ingolf Vogeler, a traveler from the exotic lands of the East (Wisconsin, actually), Mathilda Arminger, is the crown-princess of Portland, Odard Liu, a second-generation hereditary Baron from Mathilda’s kingdom, Edain Aylward, the son of an English soldier who happened to fall in with Rudi’s mother as she established a Wiccan nation in Western Oregon, Father Ignatius, a warrior-monk of the Mount Angel Abbey in Oregon, and Alex, a weapons-toting manservant in thrall to Odard’s family and Barony.
Without going into a general summary of the whole book, I will mention some of the highlights that I found most interesting. As with any alternate history or alternate universe tale, the really intriguing parts are when the reader gets to see the way in which the author re-makes the world and invents or re-invents societies and cultures. Stirling is a master at creating these alternate nations and societies. At this point some 22 years after the Change and the great die out it caused, we see the dead lands of the east coast, inhabited by semi-cannibalistic savages, and not much else that can be considered human. The Midwest contains a few civilized nations, such as the State of Iowa, and the Republic of Richland (Wisconsin), along with a resurgent Sioux nation in the Dakotas and Minnesota. As mentioned in the other Change books, the rejuvenated Native American nations are largely Native in the cultural sense, as racial groupings tended to form a real melting pot effect. Further west, the Mormon areas of Utah and Idaho formed the theocracy of New Deseret, and a military dictatorship in Boise, Idaho, led by a very efficient and idealistic man named General Thurston, whose goal is to restore the now-defunct United States of America. To the east, in Montana, an anti-technological cult led by The Prophet, a real-life figure well-known to those who followed current events in the 1980s and 1990s, (I won’t spoil the surprise for those of you who have yet to read the book). This cult is expanding its power, and, like Mohammed’s followers in the years after the founding of Islam, conquers all in its path, and converts non-believers at sword-point.
Rudi Mackenzie and his band of adventurers travel through these lands, and a recurring theme throughout the Sunrise Lands is the ways in which the now-grown children of those leaders who founded new societies after the Change, find their way and exhibit cultural traits and ideas very alien from the pre-Change societies that their parents grew up in. For example, Rudi and all of his companions except for Alex are the children of post-Change societal founders, and on their journey they encounter other sons and daughters of The Change. In Boise, they meet the sons of General Thurston, Martin and Frederick Thurston, both of whom play very important roles at the end of Sunrise Lands, and, it seems, will play major roles in the next book, The Scourge of God. The military leader of the Prophet’s army is the adopted son of the Prophet, and this son, Sethaz, will play a major role in the sequel. A recurring thread in the book is found in conversations between “Changelings” as the post-Change generation is called, in which these adult “kids” constantly express how sick and tired they are of their parents talking about how life was like before the Change occurred. To these young adults, television, airplanes, computers, electric light bulbs, jobs selling electronics, and all the things we take for granted in the real world are so much nonsense. To them, the history books of the twentieth century seem like fictional fantasy, while the tales of the middle ages and stories like Ivanhoe and the Lord of the Rings seems like the real world to them. Talk about a Generation Gap!
All in all, The Sunrise Lands is an exceptional work of alternate history, and I, for one, cannot wait to read the next book in the series. The Scourge of God is already out in hardback, with the paperback release date set for September 1, 2009.