Autumn lectures

I have been invited by the Stockholms Spelkonvent (Stockholm gaming convention) to speak on gameworld design. My appearance will be on Saturday, September 17 at 5 PM.

I have also been invited by Forodrim (the Tolkien Society in Stockholm) to speak on how I write fantastic fiction. It will be at the society’s monthly meeting on Saturday, October 15.

My Mars (3)

The Mars of wonders ceased to be an active literary trope in the early 1960s, when Leigh Brackett published her last shortstories of that type. They aptly described how Mars was transformed by the arrival of Terran technology: its dramatic era ended and the red planet became a part of an interplanetary civilization dominated by its blue sibling. Real-world astronomy had simply advanced too far for the fiction to be viable for the readers. Later, a few writers experimented with books in the genre, but then only as deliberate pastiches (e.g. Michael Moorcock, Lin Carter and S M Stirling).

On the other hand, there have been several gameworlds published with wonderous Mars as the venue: GURPS Mars, Space 1889 and other. Some designers go for the Burroughsian “high” style, whereas e.g. GURPS Mars is more suitable for the Brackettian “low” style. When I wrote the Red Sand (Röd Sand) campaign world for Saga Games and the Fenix magazine a few years ago, I deliberately aimed for the low style, because that gives better openings for adventures. I also adhered to the D-list of components that I introduced in my previous blog post.

Three years ago, on September 2, 2008, I flew from New Delhi to Kabul. I had gotten a six-months contract as a civilian press officer in a EU mission in war-torn Afghanistan. When the jetliner crossed the Hindukush mountains, I looked out at a landscape that was utterly alien: desiccated brown mountains, peak after peak, as far as the eye could reach. When the plane approached Kabul and descended towards the ground, I spotted ruins and scars of war around the city. To me it was like seeing a shadow of the Mars of my dreams. Half-way there, so to speak. Well, at the ground level, today’s Kabul was very much an terrestrial city with Nokia cellphones, Toyota cars and Kalashnikov-toting policemen and soldiers.

But still, that impression from high above the ground remains in my heart. Then what to do with it? I cannot make Brackettian pastiches, because they would not ring true — I do not write hardboiled pulp prose. Planet Mars is another thing today, too, the abode of the hard science fiction of Kim Stanley Robinson et al. So instead, I will have to find another way of putting my dreams to paper. I am working on that.

Addendum: One of Leigh Brackett’s gritty Martian stories from Project Gutenberg (link >>>)

My Mars (2)

There are different ways of depicting the oldstyle wondrous Mars. Here are two well-known examples:

Edgar Rice Burroughs invoked the “high” mood of fairytales with patrician adventurers in palaces, True Love™, honour before reason, etc. “And the sight which met my eyes was that of a slender, girlish figure, similar in every detail to the earthly women of my past life. She did not see me at first, but just as she was disappearing through the portal of the building which was to be her prison she turned, and her eyes met mine. Her face was oval and beautiful in the extreme, her every feature was finely chiseled and exquisite, her eyes large and lustrous and her head surmounted by a mass of coal black, waving hair, caught loosely into a strange yet becoming coiffure.”

Leigh Brackett wrote in the gritty “low” tradition of pulp action with plebeian adventurers in grimy taverns, roguish endeavours, questionable motives, etc. Carse walked beside the still black waters in their ancient channel, cut in the dead sea-bottom. He watched the dry wind shake the torches that never went out and listened to the broken music of the harps that were never stilled. Lean lithe men and women passed him in the shadowy streets, silent as cats except for the chime and whisper of the tiny bells the women wear, a sound as delicate as rain, distillate of all the sweet wickedness of the world.

I prefer the pulp-ish approach: Mars as a grim place with rugged people who get sand in their boots. It should contain the following elements:

Deserts: Yes, this is an arid place, where water is a commodity of great value. (Canals are optional, whereas caravan routes, oasis towns and waterwells are mandatory.)
Doom: Mars is dying slowly and most people know that. It will yet last for many generations, but the downwards curve is obvious.
Dilapidation: “Here be Ruins.” A lot of ancient ones. Caused by a changing climate, warfare and natural calamities.
Diversity: There have been other human species than Homo sapiens on Earth, like the Neaderthals and the “hobbits” of Flores, but they went extinct during the last ice age. On Mars, the situations is the opposite: several sapient species compete for the scarce resources.
Devolution: This is the opposite of progress and evolution. Mars’s many societies were far more advanced in the past. For ages they have been regressing by losing technology, skills and knowledge one piece at a time.
Danger: Life is hard on Mars. This is a place with little mercy for the weak.

Continue to part 3 — link >>>

My Mars (1)

The Italian astronomer Schiaparelli and his American “successor” Lowell badly misread their telescope observations of Mars more than 100 years ago. Their astronomy books on the Red Planet convinced a lot of people that it was a populated world with a decaying hi-tech civilisation, thereby creating a subset of science fiction dealing with a dying desert world full of high adventure. Writers from many countries* gradually established a common vision of what that imaginary place is — or ought to be — like: ancient ruins, dry ocean beds, decaying and decadent cities older than Babylon.

I encountered this Mars for the first time during a summer vacation when I was about ten years old (late 1960s) and my favourite uncle lent me his Swedish pulp magazines and cheap boys’ adventure novels from the late 1940s. I don’t remember the name of the book’s author (some long-forgotten Swedish hack writer) nor its title. It was a ripoff on C-quality SF from the United States: intrepid engineers built a back-yard spaceship in our northern wilderness and flew to the red planet, where they had pulpish adventures among the dying world’s noble humanoids and savage wildmen. The novel was bad, really bad, but it was a part of that particular tradition of the fictional Mars. And I immediately fell in love with the concept.

And that love affair still remains 40+ years later. Since 1988, I am a great fan of the Space 1889 “steampunk on Mars” role-playing game, in which our Swedish scientists travel along the canals, thwarting the diabolical schemes of the Stench Abyss cult and furthering the interests of king Oscar. My own game version of this Mars is more pulpish, less Victorian (link to a Swedish PDF >>>).

Continue to part 2 — link >>>

*Americans like Leigh Brackett, Robert Heinlein, Edgar Rice Burroughs; British like Michael Moorcock, W E Johns; Swedes like Sven Wernström.

Review of the John Carter trailer

When I was a teenager, I read the first five of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s John Carter novels in Swedish translation. They were exciting adventures on a fairy-tale Mars, even though I don’t think I would enjoy them to the same extent 35 years later. However, the idea of a properly done John Carter movie is appealing. There is one on the way, though so far we have only seen an almost poetic trailer — quite unlike what one would have expected for such a tale of never-ending derring-do.

Here is anyhow an amusing review of the trailer. It starts in a weird manner, but be patient and you’ll get to the proper stuff after a while.