Thoughts in a Time of Drought

“History knows no happy endings, just crises that come and go.”

This summer has been extremely hot and dry here in Sweden. The unusual weather started in May and still continues two months later. Sweden’s meteorological records go back 270 years and nothing like this summer has ever been registered. The scientific underpinning of anthropogenic climate change is strong so I am convinced that mankind is heading into an era of turbulent weather.

(However, if you, dear reader, happen to be a climate-change denier, this blog post is NOT an invitation to enter your objections in the comment field. The post’s purpose will become clear below, and TL;DR is not an acceptable excuse.)

Mythic and Real Climate Horrors
Norse mythology speaks of the Fimbulvinter, a winter that lasts for three years and heralds Ragnarök when the world will perish in storm and fire. Archaeologists speculate that this mythic winter may been a reflection of an extreme cold-weather event around AD 540, caused by volcanic eruptions. I have lived through many harsh winters so I understand my distant ancestors’ fear of that season.

But these days, a Fimbulsommar appears to be a more realistic threat to my country. Warm summers are generally considered to a blessing among us Swedes, but I have endured hot Augusts in the eastern Mediterranean, in Florida and in Afghanistan, so I have come to understand how long periods of drought and heat can be regarded with as much fear as overlong winters. The Sun is not a merciful celestial entity, something that is obvious in descriptions of Apollon, a Greek Sun god that also is the lord of plague, and in the legend of Phaëthon, a demigod whose failed attempt to steer the Sun chariot across the sky almost causes the end of the world by taking the Sun too close to Earth’s surface.

The warming of Terra will probably disrupt the extant political order severely as people and agriculture will have to move away from the expanding tropics. At the same time, the rising oceans will inundate major urban areas like Dhaka, London, New York and Mumbai.

Melting polar caps will reshape our world

American Revolution vs European Evolution
When I was young, science fiction stories often spoke of a future unified Earth, usually considered to be a “good thing” with humanity coming together in a union of regional “states”. Often such a unification was justified by appeals to reason, e.g., as a way ensuring peace and social stability. But the warming of Terra might instead justify a “unification by necessity” scenario: the challenges to human civilization become so huge that long-term transnational efforts are required to ensure its survival.

The European Union can be seen as a case of transnational cooperation originally instigated by the necessity of avoiding yet another devastating European war. Unlike the United States, which was created by a revolutionary declaration in 1776 and by the promulgation of a constitution in 1787, the fusion of Europe’s nations (starting in 1952 with the CECA Treaty) has incrementally expanded in extent and scope, treaty by treaty. This evolution will probably never end and so I dare not guess what a united Europe will look like by the time my children, all born around the millennium, get grandchildren.

In the last thirty years, the European Union has had to find new ways of dealing with some serious and unexpected challenges, for example:
— the Balkan Wars in the 1990s, and the resulting political complications, some of which remain unresolved 20 years later.
— nation-building in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001/02. I went to Kabul ten years ago as a member of EUPOL Afghanistan, a civilian EU police support mission.
— widespread piracy around the Horn of Africa after the internal collapse of the Republic of Somalia in the 1990s. EU has organized the long-term counter-piracy Atalanta and Nestor missions.
— the huge refugee influx caused by the drawn-out Syrian civil war in the 2010s
— the spectre of resurgent European authoritarianism, also in the 2010s.

The EU administration in Brussels has therefore been forced to develop central political and administrative mechanisms for crisis management. Whether those efforts have been productive is another issue, but we can at least commend the EU for trying.

A Green Cyberpunk Setting?
Going from reality to the realm of science fiction, I now envision an EU-inspired setting for an RPG setting, perhaps in 2118. Heroism in small steps might be an apt campaign theme, i.e., determined characters strive to handle minor crises that never stop coming.

The loose Terran Federation is Earth’s dominating political entity. It grows in slowly size as more and more sovereign nations accede to it because they need to join its civilization-saving ventures. The TF’s tasks at hand are immense as agriculture must be reorganized at the continental level and new cities built at Earth’s new coastlines. Its Crisis Investigation Center dispatches intrepid operators to troubled spots around the world. Their job is to check what is really going on and figure out what to do about it, their conclusions sometimes leading to the establishment of specialized operations for handling specific problems.

But serving as an field operative of a cumbersome organization is never a smooth ride; in this particular context, CIC agents often need to come up with creative solutions that accomplish what’s needed, while keeping the home office in a state of semi-ignorant complacency. When hotshot freewheelers, for example militant activists from the Emerald Serenity movement, jump into the fray, the situation of the ground gets even more messy.

Voilà, I have moved from my reflections on this extreme Swedish summer to outlining a setting for a semi-near-future science fiction campaign based on a very troubled Earth, executed as “green cyberpunk”. And that’s the core of this post: a piece of political science fiction inspired by the current grim climate changes.

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Partisan: Röd gryning över Sverige

Summary in English: This blog post deals with the unearthing of the lost unpublished Swedish role-playing game Partisan, which deals with Sweden under a fictional foreign occupation.

För någon månad sedan fick jag den enda existerande manuskopian — åtminstone så vitt jag vet — av det sägenomspunna opublicerade rollspelet Partisan (läs mer om fyndet här — länk >>> ).

När jag var ung under Kalla kriget var Första Maj den dag som diverse vänstergrupper gick ut på min hemstad Göteborgs gator för att hylla Lenin och kräva proletariatets diktatur. Därför skriver jag idag lite om Partisans kallakrigssetting med en sovjetisk ockupation av Sverige i samband med ett tredje världskrig i Europa.

Sverige under Kalla kriget: ett folk i vapen

Under Kalla kriget hade Sverige ett toppmodernt flygvapen i världsklass och en stor men omodern armé. Nittio procent av männen, och en avsevärd del av kvinnorna, genomgick militär utbildning så nästan vem som helst kunde skjuta kulspruta eller pansarskott. Följande officiella ställningstagande är hämtat ur broschyren Om kriget kommer (länk >>> ), som fanns med som en bilaga i samtliga telefonkataloger under Kalla kriget. Det byggde på landets erfarenheter från Beredskapstiden 1940-45.

“Det totala kriget måste mötas med ett totalt försvar. Vi måste försvara oss vilka angrepp och påfrestningar vi än utsätts för. Det gäller vår frihet och vårt oberoende, vår existens som en självständig nation.

Sverige vill försvara sig, kan försvara sig, och skall försvara sig! Motstånd skall göras ständigt och i alla lägen. Det är på Dig det beror — Din insats, Din beslutsamhet, Din vilja att överleva.

Vi ger aldrig upp! Varje meddelande att motståndet skall uppges är falskt!”

Sovjet som ockupationsmakt

Sovjetsoldater i krigets Afghanistan. Okänd fotograf.

För att lära något om Sovjetunionen som krigförande ockupant skådar vi mot Afghanistan. Där höll Kreml 1979-88 en “socialistisk” lydregim under armarna med manskap och pengar. Röda arméns fruktlösa metod att jaga gerillagrupper med konventionell mekaniserad krigföring, vållade oerhört lidande hos civilbefolkningen på grund av urskiljningslöst bruk av artilleri och attackflyg.

En sovjetisk ockupation av Sverige samtidigt som tiotusentals av våra soldater bedriver fria kriget (länk >>> ) i skogarna skulle antagligen ha blivit lika brutal. Kreml skulle snabbt ha installerat en marionettregim i Stockholm, ty så gjorde Stalin i samband med finska vinterkriget och i Polen 1945, och så gjorde hans efterträdare i Ungern 1956, Tjeckoslovakien 1968 och Afghanistan 1979. Villiga quislingar hade säkert hittats inom det sovjetlojala Arbetarpartiet Kommunisterna .

Partisankriget

Vårt land är vidsträckt och oländigt. Under ett pågående tredje världskrig i Västeuropa blir därför Sverige en svårkontrollerad erövring, ty Kreml kan inte avsätta de hundratusentals man som krävs för att hålla hela riket pacificerat. Storstadsområdena söder om Dalälven och strategiskt viktiga punkter som flygbaserna vid Frösön och Kallax är hårt kontrollerade, men mycket av det skogklädda inlandet kan som bäst patrulleras av andrarangens infanteriförband, vars soldater ofta lider av de sovjetiska åkommorna superi och korruption.

Svensk partisan i uniform m/59. Okänd fotograf.

På landsbygden finns sålunda denna kampanjmiljös särskilda potential: svenska plutoner och kompanier bedriver fria kriget genom att organisera motstånd, spionera på fienden, ta itu med quislingar, och upprätta förbindelser med den svenska exilregeringen i Storbritannien (jo, dåförtiden fanns ordentliga planer för en sådan). Under 1980-talet finns det många gamlingar som minns hur saker och ting fungerade 1940-45 och deras erfarenheter kommer väl till pass.

Det svenska försvarets decentraliserade mobiliseringsorganisation gör att skjutvapen och ammunition knappast blir bristvaror. Däremot blir mat och sjukvård bekymmer, ty livsmedel är strikt ransonerade, läkemedel likaså. Visst finns det gott om vilt och fisk i skogarna, men partisaner behöver en allsidig kost.

Det NATO främst vill få från svenska partisaner är militära underrättelser: Sverige tjänar ju som framskjutet basområde för sovjetiska flygvapnet VVS, vars bomb- och attackplan angriper de amerikanska konvojer som fraktar förstärkningar till Frankrike och Storbritannien, och sovjetiska luftförsvaret Vojska PVO, vars robotar och jaktplan ska hindra NATO:s bombplan att nå moderlandet. Sådana underrättelser förmedlas enklast via radio, så telekrigföring blir en väsentlig partisanverksamhet, medan ockupanterna avrättar folk som innehar otillåtna radiosändare. En del brittiska och amerikanska agenter smugglas in i Sverige för att delta i denna verksamhet.

Hemliga armén i Sverige

Läs mer om hur den svenska staten under Kalla kriget i detalj förberedde underjordisk motståndskamp mot en sovjetisk ockupation i den här DN-artikeln från 1998 — länk >>>

Alla krig tar slut

Hur länge ett tredje världskrig av detta slag skulle kunna rasa är svårt att bedöma, men efter ett par år tar det antagligen slut. Tre möjliga slut:
1. Sovjetunionens nederlag leder till Sveriges befrielse.
2. Sovjetunionens seger leder till ett realsocialistiskt Sverige inlemmat i Warszawapakten. I ett sådant sammanhang kan partisankampen fortsätta några år till.
3. Ett kärnvapenkrig vållar civilisationens sammanbrott. Här övergår Partisan till Wastelands.

Partisan: portugisiska lärdomar

Summary in English: This blog post deals with the unearthing of the lost unpublished Swedish role-playing game Partisan, which deals with Sweden under a fictional foreign occupation.

För några veckor sedan fick jag den enda existerande manuskopian — åtminstone så vitt jag vet — av det sägenomspunna opublicerade rollspelet Partisan (läs mer om fyndet här — länk >>> ). Nyheten väckte extremt intresse bland svenska gamers: min blogg fick plötsligt tio gånger fler besökare än normalt. Då visade det sig också att Fria Ligan redan för några år sedan hade registrerat varumärket “Partisan” för spel och leksaker, vilket i sin tur gör att mitt urmanus, oavsett omständigheterna i övrigt, inte kan ges ut.

Hursomhelst, när jag granskar de texter jag skrev för trettio år sedan, konstaterar jag att FV för mina färdigheter Världsbyggare och Regelsnickrare är högre idag, konstigt vore det annars. Bland annat har mina vistelser i Indien och Afghanistan ändrat mitt sätt att se på hur krig och ockupation påverkar samhällen på djupet. Min sedan tjugo år bortgångne indiske svärfar deltog i kampen mot det brittiska kolonialväldet på 1940-talet och han hade mycket att förtälja. För tio år sedan levde jag i Kabul i ett land som förötts av inbördeskrig, ockupation och förtryck sedan 1970-talet.

Dessa erfarenheter har lärt mig mycket om hur vardagslivet rullar på som vanligt mitt i allt allt tumult: barn går i skolan, bagaren säljer sitt bröd, medan moskéer och kyrkor kallar de trogna till bön såsom de gjort i över tusen år.

Tyrannen Mao Zedong slog en gång fast att gerillan rör sig mitt i det vanliga folket som fisken i vattnet. I min omtolkning: ockupanten må vara nog så hård och nitisk, men vardagslivets “bakgrundsbrus” stör många gånger ut de små företeelser han spanar efter.

Ett illustrativt exempel: Filmklippet ovan handlar om den oblodiga portugisiska nejlikerevolutionen 1974, vilken jag som femtonåring följde via svensk TV. Movimento das Forças Armadas, en grupp demokratiskt sinnade löjtnanter och kaptener, störtade  den högerdiktatur som styrt sedan 1932. De planerade sin kupp skymda av rutinmässiga militärsysslor, så säkerhetspolisen urskiljde inte vad som var på gång inuti den krigsmakt som så länge varit regimen trogen.

Om jag skulle göra Partisan idag, skulle jag lägga ut texten ordentligt om just detta: hur underjordens folk gömmer sig mitt i överjordens vardag.

Steampunk and the Dark Man’s Burden

Colonialism is a frequent backdrop to my stories, regardless whether I write dieselpunk or fantasy, stories or role-playing games. Since I have one foot in Europe and one in India, I have had the unusual experience of seeing that phenomenon from both sides. Some of the elders of my Indian clan, all of them sadly departed by now, participated in the liberation struggles in the 1930s and 1940s, whereas others served in the British Indian army and fought the Japanese. All had much to tell me and I cherish those memories. And here in Europe it is hard to avoid the “white man’s burden” narrative of colonialism; it appears in all kinds of popular culture.

So I write about characters from both sides of the fence and let them explain by themselves how they relate to an authoritarian colonial order − make no mistake about it: colonialism is getting a stranger’s fist punched in your face, even though the force of the blow may vary depending on what nation does the colonizing and when.

“The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much.” − From The Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad.

Scene from the US conquest of the Philippines circa 1900. Artist: Vasili Vereshchagin

Colonialism often gets soft-pedalled in steampunk. SM Stirling’s alt-history Indian Raj in Peshawar Lancers is an illustrating example: the author unsuccessfully strives for a Kipling-ish mood in a tall tale (featuring airships, evil cults, etc) in which romanticized British and French adventurers save a colonial regime, and incidentally its native subjects, from Russian machinations, while Indian nationalists appear as terrorists and Afghan tribesmen resemble pseudo-Orcs. Bruce Sterling’s The Difference Engine approaches the same issues in a less rose-tinted manner, for example by an unflattering portrayal of the English protagonists’ harsh attitudes toward First Nation Americans.

So this is the above-mentioned burden of colonized peoples: to be amusing sidekicks, expendable femmes fatales, and devious adversaries to white protagonists, or to be background witnesses to the plot-shaking actions of Americo-European heroes. It reminds me of Arthur Conan Doyle’s use of foreign characters in his fiction, for example devious or temperamental Italians and South Americans, or the predatorial savage in The Sign of Four. Such aliens are strange to behold and difficult to comprehend, thus becoming menacing outsiders to white insiders − them versus us, the psychological curse afflicting colonial settlements everywhere.

However, all is not gloom. In Steve Turnbull’s novellas about Anglo-Indian sleuth Maliha Anderson, Indians are full-fledged protagonists in his steampunk Raj and Ceylon. And I approach colonialism with a critical mindset in my dieselpunk novel The Ice War, in which, for example, Eurasian spy Johnny Bornewald faces widespread racism, and is at times able to exploit that sentiment, because those contemptuous Europeans presume that he is an ignorant yokel.

Podcast: Funderingar kring ång- och dieselpunk

Summary in English: A Swedish podcast about what is steam- and dieselpunk. My debut in podcasting.

Den gångna helgen var min dotter Elin och jag på Silwersteam, en steampunkkongress i Eskilstuna. Där blev vi ombedda att delta i Fandompodden #49 som tar en titt på företeelserna ångpunk och dieselpunk. Bland annat använder jag Miyazaki-filmerna Howl’s Moving Castle och Laputa som exempel på vad de två genrerna kan erbjuda, och förklarar varför jag gillar att författa dieseläventyr. Länk till podcasten >>>

Artist: Ian McQue

11 September: A Thought for the Day

Tuesday 11 September 2001: I was on sick leave. Wife and I had two children at home, age 3 and 1. I had gone to the big grocery store in the nearby shopping mall. When I was at the checkout counter, wife phoned and said that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. Quite naturally I assumed it was an accident. I paid and headed for the mall’s home electronics store. All TV sets in the shop windows were tuned to news channels, showing the burning buildings. I joined the crowd of watchers for some minutes before I headed for the safety of home.

I think it was when I sat in the couch in front of our own TV that I realized the full scope of the catastrophe. The following Sunday, our Methodist church had many Americans in the pews, tourists that had been stranded in Stockholm because the US had closed its airspace. And six weeks later I arrived in New York and experienced its citizens’ grim mood. It was a dark autumn.

Fifteen years is a long time (15 years before 9/11, Gorbachev had just started reforming the Soviet Union), but it seems to be hard to move out of the 9/11 political paradigm. Western nations are still deeply involved in Afghanistan, many security policies established in haste in the years following 2001 are still operational, and so on. Fear-mongering politicians have appeared all over Europe and the US.

But global social indicators tell us that the world today is a notably better place than in 2001: poverty and illiteracy are down, average life-span is up, wars are fewer, and so on. There is less cause for fear and more cause for hope. And that is the perspective I want to share at this anniversary.

Dust & The Road — two short-stories

“The mind, once expanded to the dimensions of larger ideas, never returns to its original size.”
— Oliver Wendell Holmes, American physician and poet, 1809-1894

A few years ago I started working on a set of retro-tech* science fiction stories that take place in the multifaceted Patchwork World. I have now published the first e-book in the series, containing two stand-alone short-stories — link to the book >>>

“Dust” has its origin in my stint in Kabul in 2008-09 and is an account for what daily life is like for an expatriate expert in a fictional war-torn city. It also looks at why a middle-class professional chooses to go to a dangerous faraway place for the sake of people he does not know.

This is the beginning of Dust:

I will always associate Ariana with the smell of dust, dry as cinder. It is a land of few colors: brown soil, grey rock and green vegetation characterize the hills and valleys. What do the inhabitants really subsist on in this arid home of death? It took some time before I realized what the farmers cultivated and what their herds grazed. We will usually not eat what they grow, but they are able to eke out a meagre existence here.

The sole relief for my eyes was the blue sky, a brilliant shade that I had never seen back home. Occasionally puffy clouds would drift across it, adding white to the limited palette. The sunlight is so sharp that the human eye cannot determine its color; just dazzling, be it white, yellow, or pale orange. It is only at the brief sunrises and sunsets that you are able to look in the sun’s direction and then the disc is orange, casting pink and purple hues across the sky.

What do we do here, aliens in an unearthly land, hated by some, distrusted by most and appreciated by too few? Ariana had for decades been a place shunned by the powers-that-be, the home of fierce natives and devoid of anything that would attract the attention of outsiders. However, the game of power is played according to rules that often are hard to comprehend for common men.

“The Road” addresses what post-war life may be like for a veteran. There will be no return to a previous normality. In 2015 “The Road” was published professionally in Waiting for the Machines to Fall Asleep, an anthology with stories in English by Swedish science fiction and fantasy authors. My story received favorable mentions by several reviewers and that encouraged me to move ahead with the Patchwork World project. For example, here is what Chuck Rothman wrote about “The Road” at Tangent Online:

“Kitu is a marshal on ‘The Road’, keeping traffic moving on the major transportation route on another world. She finds two friars, Brod and Klim and helps them on their way. But Kitu sees through their appearance to discover that they have secrets, and offers to help, as we learn she has secrets of her own. Anders Blixt creates a vivid society, and Kitu is an excellent character.”

Two years ago I started working on Dusk and Dawn, a stand-alone novella that takes place some years after “The Road”. It is an action adventure in a part of the Patchwork World that is very different from the milieus in “Dust” and “The Road”. However, I write in my spare time, so it moves forward more slowly than I want.

* The label retro-tech indicates that people in the stories use less sophisticated technologies than ours; it can also be referred to humorously as “the future as it used to be”. For example, the Oceanic civilization in “Dust” and “The Road” has radio valves, diesel engines and cars, but lacks semiconductors, helicopters and jetliners.