About a month ago, I started writing about how being from a small country in northern Europe influences my writing. I enjoy creating alternate histories (uchronias) for the modern world in my games and stories. I start at some event in the past, let it have a radically different outcome than in reality and build a modified time line to an appropriate ”now”. Interestingly, I often ”delete” the American revolution of 1776, either by letting it not happen at all or by letting the rebels fail. This has not been any conscious anti-American strategy, but a handling of the flow of events in manner that I find plausible.
The rebellion in 1776 has been one of the most world-changing events — at least that I can imagine — in the past few centuries, because it led to the creation of a new continental state of the same magnitude as the far older Russia and China. This state has been able to handle macroeconomics in a far more constructive way than other two: its big population and enormous industrial base have influenced the course of modern world history significantly.
A North America without the United States would have been fragmented into several competing states or colonies with French, British, Spanish and Russian ties. None would have the ”immensity” or the ”go” of the United States. So when I posit alternate Earths, they tend to become more Europe-centered, more authoritarian and less advanced in technology than the original. Russia becomes a major benefactor in global politics, because it can exploit its hugeness better.
Whether it is fully realistic is hard to say, but to me it is at least plausible. The political ideas of 1776 influenced countries all over the world. The economic ”pushy spirit” in the US has lead to innovations in all fields of technology. And the material resources of this huge state enabled the Western democratic nations to survive and outlast three authoritarian adversaries during the 20th century.
I have published my first two novels. Now when they are behind me, I face new challenges. Since a few years, the English dieselpunk spy adventure Pandora has been resting in my computer. I haven not touched it since early 2009, when I had done about 80 book pages. Now it is time to once again take a close look at the MS. During the least few weeks, I have identified several plot points that need to be revised and the ending has to switch from downbeat to (at least partially) upbeat. The nationality of the male protagonist should be changed, the plot dealing with his sister’s adventure needs a new location, etc.
Jules Verne is an interesting literary phenomenon: an author who wrote adventure fiction in the Victorian era and still retains his popularity 150 years later. His books are today classified as science fiction, but when he wrote them they were rather some sort of near-future techno-fiction. Many stories take place in a boosted version of his contemporary world. For instance, The Mysterious Island is directly tied to the American Civil War, and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea contains specific dates and geographical locations relating to the 1860s plus some veiled references to the Great Indian Rebellion of 1857. I would rather say that Jules Verne belongs to the same literary niche as Tom Clancy, whose hitech adventures take place in a speeded-up alternate Earth: an airliner crashing into the Capitol, Washington DC; Israel misplacing a nuclear warhead during the October War in 1973; a Soviet nuclear SLBM submarine defecting to the United States; etc.
Jules Verne’s stories were very important to me during my youth. When I was eight or nine years old, my father gave me a copy of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and said: “I liked this book when I was a kid.” (Dad was born in 1927.) I immediately got absorbed by the fantastic voyages of the Nautilus through the 19th-century oceans*: the ruins of Atlantis, sunken treasure ships, deep-sea monsters and warlike natives. During my excursions to the local library I soon discovered A Journey to the Centre of the Earth, From the Earth to the Moon, Around the World in Eighty Days, Michael Strogoff, Two Years’ Vacation, and many other of his voyages extraordinares.
One thing that I love about Verne’s stories are his competent protagonists. He writes about men (well, it was the Victorian era after all) who face serious calamtities without flinching and who use whatever skills and technology they can muster to overcome the obstacles in front of them. I come from a clan of six generations of college engineers (M.Sc.)**. My ancestors, starting with my father’s great-grandfather in the 1860s, built church organs, gasworks, rural phone systems, and satellites and my father made sure to pass on the stories of their lives to me when I was young. In my mind they were ”Vernian” men and worthy of respect. So this modern outlook on life — technology, competence, perseverance, sterling performance — became engraved in my heart.
My fantastic fiction, be it stories or games, always have an air of Verne. I enjoy writing about our earth (which frequently is a spectacular place by itself), making it “verne-ified”: a planet that is more dramatic, where individuals face greater challenges, where incredible things happen. For tales like Iskriget (The Ice War) and Pandora I have created such alternate-history Terras, sometimes familiar and sometimes grander.
My protagonists — competent women and men — face great challenges, strive to do their duty to their fellow man and get scarred on the way. There are no simple solutions to difficult problems and the stories’ endings are only partially happy. History will always move on when the protagonists wind down after their adventure; they know that no utopias exist and that –- regardless what they have accomplished -– their achievements will not provide The One Remedy for the world’s ills. Instead they have only handled a few specific serious problems, but much remains for others to deal with.
* 44 years later, I still remember the excitement I felt reading the section where Nautilus is stuck under the Antarctic ice and the main protagonist, professor Arronax, is close to suffocating.
** ”Civilingenjör” in Swedish and ”Diplomingenieur” in German. My nephew, currently a student at a polytechnic university, is the vanguard of the sixth generation.
I started writing role-playing games professionally in 1979 and in 1985-89 it was my fulltime profession. In the 1990s I decided expand on my œuvre to novels. The first one, a dieselpunk alternate-history adventure called Iskriget (The Ice War), was completed in 2003 and the second one, a renaissance-flavoured fantasy adventure called Spiran och staven (The Sceptre and the Qaurterstaff), in 2006.
I wanted to broaden my horizons so I started writing another spy adventure in 2006, this time in English. I call it Pandora, a provisional name, and it is a piece of alternate history, taking place in a 1984 that does not resemble ours. I worked on the story on and off during the following years, but in early 2009 my ability to write fiction vanished after a death in the family. The sorrow dulled my spirits and I put the story on a virtual shelf.
However, during the summer I have started pondering on it again. I have so far written about 85 book pages. There is a main plot twist, but I am uncertain how to use it to create a reasonable positive ending. I am a fan of Tim Powers’s stories and he has the habit of letting things go badly awry in the last two chapters, while still permitting the protagonists to get out of the adventure in a reasonably upbeat way. I would like to achieve something like that, and it may require some significant revisions. I’ll have to think it over during the autumn. Anyhow, as a teaser, here are the beginning of the story, setting the scene: the world is not fully like we are used to.
A mild touch to the arm dispelled the young man’s dreams. “Monsieur Blokker, would you like some lunch?” The dark-skinned airhostess’s voice had precisely the right volume to overcome the pro¬peller noise. A faint Danish accent coloured her crisp French.
“Meat, fish or vegetarian?”
“Fish and a glass of white wine, please.”
When young man had cleared the plate, the airhostess returned with coffee and a piece of marzipan-filled chocolate, wrapped in the purple foil of Anthon Berg. As he sipped the coffee, his eyes strayed over the white wing’s two flickering propellers down to the tiny clouds racing east across the wind-whipped ocean. The noon sun shone from the six o’clock position, out of sight from this porthole. The chair to his left was empty, because the cabin was only half-filled. Today that was a relief, because the young man was too tired for the polite small talk between strangers that is the custom of long-distance flights.
An unexpected movement in corner of the eyes – a twin-engine fighter aircraft with a forked tailed raced past. The young man was sufficiently knowledgeable to recognize a Jagdfalke with drop tanks under the wings for extended range. It banked to turn in front of the airliner, revealing the state markings on its grey wings: Prussia’s rhomb, divided in two black and two white triangles. Tiny flames danced on the nose cone – a warning salvo.
The loudspeaker crackled in Danish and French: “This is your captain speaking. Prussian planes have hailed us and ordered us to proceed to Neue Danzig for inspection. We expect to get there in three hours. I apologize for the inconvenience.”
The young man checked the other passengers, who looked through the portholes while talking to one another. The propeller noise mangled their words before they reached his ears. Fear cut the mind: Is this because of me or one of them? Sunlight reached through the porthole to touch his hands as the airliner banked and changed the course ten or fifteen degrees to the south-west.
The wind made the airliner approach the runway across Neue Danzig, a settlement in a tight area between Ophir’s vast taiga and the grey South Atlantic, its layout complying with a surveyor’s square matrix. The young man tried to see what military installations were there, but only glimpsed a cruiser and six destroyers among the fishing boats and merchant ships in the port.
The escorting fighters circled a few thousand feet up while the airliner touched down, and landed just after it had stopped at the end of the runway. A grey half-track approached and stopped thirty yards away with its machine gun manned and ready. Soon an airfield tractor attached a pulling device to the airliner’s nose wheel. With a jolt the plane started to roll towards a secluded part of the airfield where anti-aircraft artillery surrounded concrete buildings and hangars. Here a dozen mechanics were working on the six engines of a huge a huge ocean surveillance aircraft. Next to it, a flight of Jagdfalkes stood in a line, their propellers an uneven row of crosses. A blocky land frigate rested at the side with the hovercraft skirt slacking, the guns pointing in different directions and Prussia’s black and white flag fluttering from the radio mast.
A stair-car waited where the airliner came to a stop. The purser opened for six grey-clad soldiers, wiry cocksure lads with Mauser submachine guns, followed by a sergeant and an unarmed official in a dark blue uniform.
“I am lieutenant Witting of the Customs Service,” said the blue-clad man in French. “Welcome to Neue Danzig. The Prussian state has apprehended this aircraft. We are looking for deserters, spies and contraband. All passengers and crew are to come with me for inspection of travel documents. We hope that the journey to Fredriksborg will resume in a few hours. The Danish authorities there and the British ones in Cape Town have been informed of our action.” His bureaucratese with a German accent grated like a coarse file in the young man’s ears. “Come with me and don’t forget your cabin luggage.”
The young man adjusted his green bowtie. Two days’ air journey had taken him from the slushy snows of Amsterdam to a mild summer, so he folded his woollen coat over the arm, hiding the small briefcase. While disembarking down the stair with warm sunlight in the face, diesel fumes from a thudding generator under the wing choked his nostrils. Customs officers and soldiers were emptying the airliner’s cargo bay.
A squad of riflemen trailed the newcomers as Witting took the lead to a grey one-storey building with the sign Norddeutſcher Zollverein above the entrance. A table with coffee, tea, beer and sandwiches waited in the drab lounge. A stand displayed news¬papers and magazines in German and French. The young man grabbed the November 1983 issue of the Observateur Français in order to enjoy Estelle Lalande’s caustic book reviews while waiting for things to happen.
“John Blokker, please come here.” The summons by a customs officer one minute later indicated that the young man was the first one to be investigated.
Why? Do they know who I am? – worry stabbed along his back.
An anonymous door opened to a plain room, where an official in a civilian suit waited behind a desk.
“Bonjour monsieur. So you are John Blokker. I am detective sergeant Francke of the Prussian Criminal Police.” His French was devoid of accent. “Please have a seat. I have a few questions.” Calm eyes scanned the young man’s face. “Your passport and tickets, please.”
John presented the requested documents.
The policeman inspected them while checking against a type-written list. “John Blokker, subject of the Dutch state, born in 1964. Six foot tall, grey eyes, dark hair. That appears to be correct. Profession and employer, monsieur?”
“Corporate courier for the Stella Shipping Company of Rotterdam,” said John.
“Why are you travelling to Ophir?” asked Francke.
“To deliver documents to my employer’s branch office in Fredriksborg,” said John.
“You travelled by direct flight from London to Cape Town. Second class. Very expensive. Why?”
“My manager instructed me to do so,” said John.
“For what reasons?” asked Francke.
“I am a courier. I never question my boss’s opinion on the urgency of an assignment,” said John.
“So what do you carry?” asked Francke.
John put the briefcase on the desk. “Sealed envelopes with customs documentation attached. I don’t know the content.”
“Please unlock,” said Francke.
John opened the two code locks and took out five thick envelopes and some attached sheets. Francke buzzed for a uniformed customs officer, who removed all of it.
“Why is your passport issued recently? A courier ought to have a worn one, full with stamps and visas,” said Francke.
“My previous passport was stolen at a burglary in my apartment three weeks ago,” said John.
“How inconvenient,” said Francke.
“Yes, but my employer has the right connections, so I got a new one almost at once,” said John.
“So if we find another young chap who travels as John Blokker, he is a fraud?” asked Francke.
Strange twist in the conversation, John thought. “Just so.”
“You seem uncomfortable, young man,” said Francke.
“I have spent two whole days travelling, including more than 24 hours inside the cabin of a plane crossing two continents. I have now arrived in a third while getting my travel plan disrupted, causing the loss of I don’t know how many hours. Couriers don’t like such complications, monsieur.” John let his tiredness slip through the polite mask.
“I see your point. But with rebellion simmering in South America and war clouds at the horizon in Europe, a government cannot be too careful. I am sure you understand that.”
“John Blokker.” The policeman switched to German with a Berlin dialect. “You are not showing your true colours. You are not Dutch, I know that. You are from northern Germany. Prussian lads of your age serve the state with three years military conscription. Are you a duty shirker who has sought the protection of the Dutch flag?”
John’s intuition said that this was no ordinary plain-clothes detective: he must belong to the Geheimpolizei. He switched to his mother’s Low German dialect. “Well, I spent my youth in Greifswald in Swedish Pomerania. But I don’t wish to live there. However, I have never resided in Prussia.” A simultaneously truthful and evasive declaration. Would it suffice?
“I understand that decision.” Francke pushed the passport and tickets across the table. “Don’t ever think that you can fool an experienced police officer, Herr Blokker. Anyhow, I am done with you. The customs people will return you stuff when they are satisfied. Gute Reise.”
“Adieu.” John preferred French when speaking to an enemy.
I torsdags skrev jag om hur jag plötsligt insett vad den oavslutade romanen Pandora egentligen ska handla om. Idag började jag röja på allvar i texten. Det handlar om 40 A4sidor på datorn. En sidointrig har opererats bort helt och hållet, ett par av huvudpersonerna har bytt namn (det krävs för att jag ska kunna få dem att agera annorlunda) och många beskrivande avsnitt har stramats upp och förkortats. Om några dagar ska jag nog kunna börja lotsa huvudpersonerna vidare i handlingen.
Jag har tidigare berättat om den skugghistoriska spionromanen Pandora och hur den har kört i väggen. Idag, när jag promenerade genom ett vårsoligt Gamla stan på väg från kontoret till T-banan (skönt med en halvdag), så fick jag en eureka!-upplevelse. Jag såg lösningen, jag såg vad romanen ska handla om istället. Visst det kommer att kräva en varsam revision av existerande manus, men nu finns det en historia att göra klart.