The Experience of Being European (2)

If you look at terrestrial globe, Europe is tiny compared to Asia and Africa and chock full with even tinier countries. And almost all of them have its own language and its own version of history, usually going back to the Roman Empire. The only other area which is similarly cluttered with tiny countries is Central America & the Caribbean, but that region has only three languages: Spanish, English, French. Africa is the other way around: a huge continent with vast countries, each the home of scores of languages.

Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of Great Powers argues that Europe’s balkanized political structure is a major cause for its success in dominating the world in the 19th century. Tough competition between its many countries forced the major ones to become highly skilled in macroeconomics, warfare, agriculture and technology to survive and prosper. Other regions of world, like China and the Mughal Empire of north India, did not suffer the same political “evolutionary pressure” and therefore the European great powers managed to dominate them temporarily (i.e. for a century or two).

When I look at my stories, I see these European traits. The protagonists speak many languages and frequently do not share the same mother tongue. Countries tend to be small and competitive. The power-play of nations influences the plot development in manners similar to 19th-century Europe. (When I look at American SF writers, I often see that they pay less heed to humanity’s diversity of languages. And they often have less complex international politics.)

Good Reviews for My Novels

Today the Christmas issue (#6-2011) of the Swedish gaming magazine Fenix (link >>>) arrived by snail mail. It contained a favorable review of both my novels. Big smile. The reviewer particularly praised the quality of the novels’ imaginary settings: the fantasy world Gondica and the dieselretro continent Alba.

The Experience of Being European (1)

I started writing fiction in my early teens and now, when I have reached middle age and start to summarize my authorial experiences, I see underlying patterns in my stories.

I am a son of 20th-century Europe. The Cold War was an everyday reality for the first 30 years of my life. The society told my young self stories again and again about colonialism, decolonization, two continent-wrecking World Wars, and a lethal global influenza pandemic. I learned, without really thinking about it, what it is like to be a modern European:

Our continent arrogantly conquered the world — and lost it in humiliation

Our continent created the most advanced technologies — and used them to devastate our own lands

Our continent developed sophisticated philosophies — and let them excuse genocides

Our continent gave birth to human rights and parliamentary democracy — and then became home to the vilest tyrannies

Pride and ignorance have been our doom — our shame has been self-inflicted.

And yet, we are still around, humbled by our recent past. And we are building a 21st-century Europe that we hope will not repeat the mistakes of the 20th.

And those experiences seep into my writings without me thinking about it.

I write about flawed societies, about lethal conflicts — and about hope, about building something imperfect but better out of the devastation of war.

My protagonists grapple with the contradiction of barbarism within civilization. They join the side of cultured decency — and pay a steep price for taking that stand.

Man, Machine, Magic

When writing fiction, I am forced to review what I am doing time and time again. That makes me learn more about my creativity. A truism — certainly, but also an educational experience. Gradually I realize what themes I put into my stories.

A recurrent notion is how the protagonists master machines as tools in their struggles. This is a thoroughly modern idea, perhaps dating back to Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s novel about Frankenstein and his monster.

Most fantasy authors operate in the pre-modern paradigm, in which the protagonists strive to resist or master magic and nature. An explanatory example: The concept of the machine as a “force multiplier” is only hinted at by Tolkien in his descriptions of Saruman’s realm. The One Ring, the ultimate force multiplier, is clearly a Norse magic device granting the user superhuman perceptive abilities and charisma with non-material means. Even though Sauron used smithcraft to make it, it is not a machine.

I feel more comfortable writing in a modern paradigm. The machine, which is constructed by human skill, uses material substances from nature (iron, wood, petroleum, or its equivalents) to provide the protagonists with superhuman mobility, strength or perception. That is one reason that I have shifted my fantasy world Gondica (inter alia the stage for the Spiran och staven novel) to a post-medieval context.

That is an unusual approach in fantasy, because it lessens the importance of supernatural forces. Yes, there are such at work, like the spirits of the Direweald’s shamanistic para-reality The Endless Forest or the Dan-shi mystics’ ability to use spiritual strength to temporarily ignore constraints imposed by the laws of nature. But the mechanurgists (alchemy/artisanship magicians) use their sixth sense of perception to construct alchemical machinery by which they impose their wills on the world.

In some manner, this is the outlook of Jules Verne transferred to a world that somewhat resembles the Baroque era. Yes, whenever I take a closer look at my fantasy writings I see the recurrent shadows of this French giant. He was the first SF author I encountered, at the age of 8, and by the age of 15 I had read with great pleasure all his novels that had been translated into Swedish (a dozen or so). Somehow, his visions of the competent man mastering Nature by the clever use of technology — be it pre-industrial or Victorian — resonated with something in my soul.

I belong to a clan of engineers; its first one (my father’s mother’s father’s father) built church organs in the mid-19th century and my nephew belongs to its sixth generation. I have chosen a different professional path, currently earning my living as a tech writer. But whenever I write fiction, the engineer archetype, to borrow a Jungian notion, always enters the stage and assumes a commanding role.

“Das Boot” in Space

When I do role-playing, the action takes place inside my head and external props are generally unnecessary. Therefore, I have never been a fan of LARP (Live-Action Role-Playing). Also, bad props would disrupt my enjoyment, like plastic swords and cars passing by the “medieval” LARP site. So I have only participated in two major LARP events since the 1990s, both meticulously staged in pseudo-modern gameworlds.

One of them — Carolus Rex in 1999 — was an outstanding dieselpunk experience. The adventure was played four times over a week. It was the same adventure, lasting 30 hours, but with new crews each time. The following photos have been contributed by Olle Sahlin, who served in crews 1 and 3. (He was a galley cook the second time. The cooks did not really play, but were charged with making sure that the “regular” crewmen did not forget to eat.) I served in crew 4.

One of the four crews and the sub

The organizers had rented an ex-Soviet Whiskey class submarine, serving as a tourist trap in the port of Norrköping. The sub was “dead”: all machinery disabled and all important portholes welded in safe open positions. So the organizers put in their own wiring and props, creating the retro-futuristic starship HMS Carolus Rex. Her future was a dystopia: we participants were subjects to an authoritarian Sweden, created out of national-romantic notions from the late 19th century with an added layer of dieselpunk-era oppression.

Two officers at work

The political officer onboard

The spaceship was equipped with a sound system, copper-wire communications, 1980s green-on-brown computer screens and lots of other small things that created a credible illusion of “Das Boot” meets Star Trek.

Interacting with the ship’s AI (i.e. the gamemasters) through the terminal

Two crewmen at work

Thirteen years have passed since those 30 hours I spent aboard HMS Carolus Rex as her science officer. (Unfortunately I have no photos of myself “at work”.) What I clearly remember is how the painstaking preparations by the organizers created a great illusion. No failed props. We were cut of from the world and surrounded by the cold steel hull, blinking machinery and an excellent sound system that created humming engines, battle noise and so many other impressions. It was a fantastic stage with an extraordinary adventure for the crew in general and me personally.

The storyline dealt with Sweden’s war against Denmark among the stars, alien beings communicating through the AI, the rescue of enemy crewmen from a blasted starship and the intrusion of a mental monster. I loved entering a truly dieselpunk world, a place in which dreams and nightmares came true. The basic plot was quite trekkish, but also full of dystopian darkness. Defeat, death and failure — there was no happy ending, neither for the ship nor for the Kingdom of Sweden.

I have to commend the organizers for providing genuine Danish LARPers for the rescued enemies. Their triumphal rendition of the Kong Christian battle song at the news of Sweden’s surrender added salt to the mix.

A sound teaser in Swedish.

Remembrance Day 11.11.11

Here in Sweden November 11th is not a memorial day, because we did not fight (at least not officially) in the two World Wars of the last century. But I have lived in other countries and have thereby learned the importance of the date for most Europeans and Americans. So they go from the joy of celebrating freedom on November 9 (see my previous post) to the remembrance of the fallen on November 11.

World War I: four years of military bloodshed followed by a lethal pandemic. The old order breaking down and a new is born. Three authoritarian empires shattered and the map of Europe redrawn. Seven to nine (depending on how you count) new independent states were born from the ruins. The old ideals discredited. What people considered “normalcy” could not be restored after November 11, 1918.

Sweden did not suffer warfare in those years. Instead we stumbled through in our usual way, bending like the reeds in the storm to survive. There was hunger, but no starvation; there was occasional unrest, but no serious violence in the streets; there was profound political change, but no revolution; the influenza pandemic killed many people, but society handled the crisis. Sweden has its WW2 myth, the collective story of a people steadfastly united in the face of mortal danger, but we have cultivated no such notions about the WW1 years. Instead, 1914-18 was a conflict-ridden time which attracted scant attention by later generations, perhaps because we have little to be overtly proud about.

But it was an important period: it saw the victory of parliamentary democracy. The liberals and the social democrats realized a program for constitutional reform which among other things entailed general and equal suffrage and the abolition of the royal executive prerogatives. The conservatives disapproved, but acquiesced because they saw no other option for the country — thereby being sidelined in national politics for many decades.

The militant nationalism that led to the carnage at Verdun and Somme never seems to have flourished here. Sweden was a poor country in those days: in the decades before the war 20% of the population had emigrated to the United States and other countries to escape the misery. At that time Chicago was the home of more Swedes than Gothenburg, our country’s second largest city.

So what memory should a Swede honor? I wish to keep in mind that our modern democracy is less than 100 years old. It was established through a protracted non-violent struggle by a Liberal+Socialdemocrat alliance, two movements sharing a belief in the equality and dignity of all individuals. And one reason why our democracy has been so stable may be that we have a tradition of peaceful evolution rather than forceful revolution. The conservatives were not coerced, even though they were reluctant to join the march. And therefore we were spared the lingering bitterness that marred the post-1918 political developments of so many other countries.

Remember, remember the ninth of November

When I was a teenager I studied German in school for six years, eventually acquiring a good proficiency (sadly long lost because of lack of training). In those days, when the Cold War was going on with no end in sight, radio was a popular propaganda tool for for both communist dictatorships and democratic governments. In Europe, medium wave broadcasts had good regional coverage and were easy to pick with the AM receivers everyone owned. I trained my German by listening to stations in both the BRD and the DDR. The western stations were hipper and had better music, whereas the eastern stations had weird, and thereby amusing, newsreports. It was like hearing of a fairy-tale country, in which everyone was happy under the benevolent leadership of the One Party, also known as “the vanguard of the working class”. It is still puzzling why the communist regimes spent so much effort presenting a phony picture of their lands that nobody would believe.

In 1986, matters started to change. A surprisingly decent man, Mikhail Gorbachev, became the dictator of the Soviet Union and initiated serious political change. The consequences would be far greater than anyone could imagine at that time. What he did not understand, and what a lot of westerners did not pay attention to at that time, was that the system he administered could not really be reformed. It was too rigid, too dependent on the powers and vested interests of small groups, like the party elite, the security apparatus and the senior military, to avoid cracking under the strains of reform. It could only work — poorly, too — in one way, unlike the dynamic democracies of the west, which possess the powers of reform, restructuring and recovery.

In 1989, when Hungary started to make far-reaching freedom reforms, the effects rippled all over eastern Europe. It was an exciting autumn, the events unfolding week by week. Today’s date, November 9th, stands as a symbol for the liberation of the communist countries because the opening of the Berlin Wall was so mediagenique. One place, one major change, easy to report from by western journalists. But the peaceful Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, where the Old Guard just gave in, and the bloody December coup-d’etat in Bucharest were equally significant moments of change. At the end of the year, the old oppressive system had crumbled from the Elbe to the Black Sea.

It is hard to recollect today exactly what I felt and thought 22 years ago. Joy, for sure, because I knew this was the end of the Cold War Era and the birth of a better Europe. Lenin’s despotic creation, the Soviet Union, was approaching its end. And two years later, in the autumn of 1991, it broke apart once and for all from the internal strains unleashed by Gorbachev’s reforms. (All the King’s horses and all the King’s men, could not put Humpty Dumpty back together again.) The collapse was probably an unintentional side-effect of his ambitions.

My children were born many years after November 9, 1989. I am glad that they will never have to experience the fearful shadow of nuclear deterrence, nor hear the ludicrous propaganda output from behind the Iron Curtain, nor be drafted to defend our democracy from communist aggression. But I teach them what life was like in those pre-1989 days, so that they will be able to better cherish the liberties they take for granted: the freedom of speech, the freedom of belief, the freedom from fear. I will also teach them how important it is to struggle for justice and a better society in the face of darkness. Oppressors can be defeated in the long term, even though at a given moment the odds may seem poor and the risks great — Nelson Mandela, Vaclav Havel and Lech Walesa showed us how.