This is the Way the World Ends, Portland Style

Post-apocalypse fiction is all the rage right now. Nothing like a good ol’ world-clearing disaster to cheer you up when you’ve lost all faith in humanity. It’s important, too, to study such books and movies on a purely practical level (when psychopathic biker gangs start roaming the atom-smashed landscape of our once-green Pacific Northwest, those of us who have, for example, watched Mad Max will definitely have an advantage). And maybe post-apocalyptic fiction is just a pure, primal representation of the classic heroic journey: rags to riches, chaos to community.


At any rate, postapocalyptica seems to be everywhere lately: Justin Cronin’s The Passage has been on this summer’s bestseller lists for weeks; Mockingjay, the third book in Suzanne Collins’s crazy popular teen death-match series is set to come out in August; and two years ago, The Road by Cormac McCarthy won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. All of these books are set to get made into movies, or already have been.

My favorite post-apocalyptic epic, S.M. Stirling’s Dies the Fire trilogy (Dies the FireThe Protector’s War, and A Meeting at Corvallis), hasn’t gotten as much attention as the above titles. Not even locally, which is a surprise since it is set in Portland, Corvallis, and the surrounding Willamette Valley. In Stirling’s imagined world, most technology suddenly ceases to function: engines and guns quit firing; computers, radios, and televisions go silent. Without any of our modern transportation network, food supplies to the cities are cut off and rioting and mayhem ensue. A sadistic ex-Medieval-studies professor takes the chance to grab power, organizing a sword-wielding army of toughs and making a stronghold in Portland’s Central Library.


The books in the series follow several different bands of refugees as they form communities in the foothills of the Cascades, learning to be self-sufficient and mastering archery and swordsmanship for their defense against this threat from Portland. The different bands of survivors develop unique cultures in the decades after “the Change,” based on the personalities of their founders. One group follows Wiccan spiritual practices, another is highly militaristic. A group of young rangers, born into this future world, read salvaged copies of Tolkien books and find them more believable than the stories of the past told by their parents. These rangers make their base at the historic lodge in Silver Falls State Park, a place that they call “Mithrilwood.”


It’s really fun, page-turning stuff, and the local setting is both hilarious and also engaging and believable, written with an admirable attention to details of local flora and fauna. There’s a lot of action, too, and the violence is described in shocking, anatomically precise writing which took some getting used to, but ultimately made it feel even more real. It’s a series of books that I will not soon forget.

Ah, it appears that the sun has reached three hand spans past the horizon, and it’s time for me to go practice my broadsword fighting. After all, you never can be too prepared.