Kipling’s Dedication to the City of Bombay

The Cities are full of pride,
Challenging each to each —
This from her mountain-side,
That from her burdened beach.

They count their ships full tale —
Their corn and oil and wine,
Derrick and loom and bale,
And ramparts’ gun-flecked line;
City by City they hail:
“Hast aught to match with mine?”

And the men that breed from them
They traffic up and down,
But cling to their cities’ hem
As a child to the mother’s gown;

When they talk with the stranger bands,
Dazed and newly alone;
When they walk in the stranger lands,
By roaring streets unknown;
Blessing her where she stands
For strength above their own.

(On high to hold her fame
That stands all fame beyond,
By oath to back the same,
Most faithful-foolish-fond;
Making her mere-breathed name
Their bond upon their bond.)

So thank I God my birth
Fell not in isles aside —
Waste headlands of the earth,
Or warring tribes untried —
But that she lent me worth
And gave me right to pride.

Surely in toil or fray
Under an alien sky,
Comfort it is to say:
“Of no mean city am I!”

(Neither by service nor fee
Come I to mine estate —
Mother of Cities to me,
But I was born in her gate,
Between the palms and the sea,
Where the world-end steamers wait.)

Now for this debt I owe,
And for her far-borne cheer
Must I make haste and go
With tribute to her pier.

And she shall touch and remit
After the use of kings
(Orderly, ancient, fit)
My deep-sea plunderings,

And purchase in all lands.
And this we do for a sign
Her power is over mine,
And mine I hold at her hands!

Sept 11, 2001: the end of a peaceful interlude?

‘‘I suppose that what September 11th did was not so much change how we think of the world or humanity as remind us of a lot of things we already knew about humanity. (We could have done without the reminder.) It reminds us that any time of peace and prosperity is a fortunate exception to the way the machinery ordinarily works, and in retrospect it makes you appreciate that time.’’
Tim Powers

Peregrinus — the Roman traveller

Traveling in a pre-industrial society is a common matter in role-playing games. When I design such games, I usually insert text and tables that show what distance it is possible to cover during a day, depending on terrain. They are based on my experiences or hiking, sailing and canoeing in the Swedish wilderness.

The Romans were the infra-structure experts of the Iron Age and their roads and bridges served as major conduits of trade and transport for centuries after the fall of the Western Empire. A game designer has a lot to learn from those people. Here is a link to a clever piece of software on that subject.

ORBIS — the guide to traveling in the Roman empire >>>

“Fantastic Voyage” — the inner space of the cold war

I commute between home and office by subway, the only decent way of traveling in the downtown of our city. Half an hour each way with a book as company. Every now and then I choose some classic title for re-reading and currently I am into Isaac Asimov’s Fantastic Voyage.

It’s the Cold War, though the antagonists are called only Us and Them. A defecting top-notch scientist suffers a skull injury during the extraction and the only way of saving him is by micro-miniaturizing a research submarine, crewed by a brain surgeon and a few other specialists, injecting it into the scientist’s blood vessels and open a congested brain artery from the inside.

Dr Asimov wrote the story as a novelization of a film manuscript. It was in the early 1960s, before the good doctor’s style deteriorated into meandering verbosity, and the composition is a combination of period action-adventure and whodunit penned in an economical prose. The protagonist, the fairly hard-boiled spy Grant, is the expedition commander and has to deal with dangers inside the human body and the suspicions of sabotage on-board. The crew has 60 minutes to do the job and get out of the body, after which the miniaturization process will reverse itself automatically because of [insert scientific double-speak here].

The story is still a good read, unlike many other of Isaac Asimov’s tales that have gone stale with age. Yes, the gender roles are outdated: the brain surgeon’s competent specialist nurse gets an unfair treatment at several occasions, but Dr Asimov also makes sure to show how unfair this behavior is. If one compares it to other stories from those years, e.g. by Poul Anderson, Asimov’s stance is progressive. The authorial research appears to be meticulous (it’s Asimov after all) and the reader gets a lot of state-of-the-art (for circa 1964 that is) information on human physiology.

Anyhow, the micronauts’ initial plan falls apart and they are is forced to improvise a lot as they navigate through a human body. But they are quick-thinking and competent people and I like reading about ingenuity. A hawk-eyed reader might be able to solve the whodunit mystery by spotting several clues in the text, but that requires a certain amount of thinking outside the box. I read the story for the first time in Swedish translation when I was 14 years old and I failed. It ought to be easier for an adult who has read crime stories before.

This a good adventure yarn in an original setting. Keep in mind that it is 50 years old and then some of its idiosyncrasies become easier to handle. Yes, there was a certain tunnel vision in all societies during the Cold War and it is obvious here. Even though ideology like democracy or communism is never discussed, the story’s us-or-them morality is antiquated in the post-Vietnam War era.

The set-up can be transformed into an unusual role-playing adventure, though that would require quite a lot of pre-game map-making by the gamemaster, because she cannot know what routes the players will choose when things go bad (in this case the expression flow chart acquires at least one extra layer of meaning). Dr Asimov only had to account for one of them.

By the way, many years later Isaac Asimov wrote a similar story called Destination Brain. Don’t bother with it. It is chatty with some lousy attempts at in-depth characterizations. It is unfortunately one of the good doctor’s inferior late-in-life stories.

Do your dream!

Mark Twain wrote: “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did so. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

Yes, Mr Twain — that’s what I’m doing. Often. With joy. And trepidation.

A magician’s passing

Ray Bradbury, the extraordinary storyteller, has passed away from old age. (Read Washington Post’s Obituary here >>>)

I read his work mainly in Swedish translations when I was young.

The Martian Chronicles was way above my head when I was ten years old (I was an adult when I realized how subtle its many stories were). The reason I picked it up at the local library was simple: it was located in the same shelf as the Heinlein juveniles and I wanted to read everything labeled science fiction.

October Country had a more profound impact when I read it as a teenager in secondary school; the quality of being the outsider, yes, that struck a chord in my nerdy heart (in those days, being a nerd in that particular hometown was decidedly uncool). Mr Bradbury’s words gave me new insights on the road to adulthood.

Fahrenheit 451 was an unsettling reading: a sparse description of a bleak and stupid future. The death of art and beauty. The suppression of thoughts and dreams. A scary masterpiece. I read it 35 years ago and and key scenes still come to my mind when I think of it.