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) that features romanticized British and French adventurers saving a colonial regime, and incidentally its native subjects, from Russian machinations, while Stirling lets Indian nationalists appear as terrorists and Afghan tribesmen as 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.

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Discovering Middle-earth

The first time you enter Tolkien’s Middle-earth by accompanying Frodo and his friends on their hazardous journeys, you are as unfamiliar with the lands of Middle-earth as they are and, hopefully, you get equally astonished. When JRR Tolkien in the 1930s set out as that world’s first intrepid explorer, he too made amazing discoveries all the time, as he explained in a letter twenty years afterwards.

Lúthien: Wonder Woman v 1.0

In JRR Tolkien’s tales, there are a number of badass women. Galadriel is the mightiest person among the Free Peoples of the Third Age, and Éowyn pulls off a stunt that no man could do. And when we go back to the First Age, we encounter the toughest of them all: Lúthien. During her adventures with Beren she enters Sauron’s den of werewolves and then faces down Morgoth himself — the latter a feat that no Noldo prince or Adan warrior was ever able to match.

Here we see Lúthien and Húan go up against the werewolves of Tol-in-Gaurhoth. Artist: Randy Vargas. Click on the picture for a larger version.

Back to the Keyboard

After a long and tiresome hiatus, I have returned to the creative keyboard (unlike the mundane one at the office). Since last autumn, some beta-readers have given me a lot of constructive feedback on the Dusk and Dawn MS, a steam(ish)-punk adventure in the Patchwork World setting. So I have started doing a thorough revision, starting from chapter one. I will do a complete overhaul of the final third of the story after realizing what will be the “hero’s journey” for protagonist Fennec. I will insert an ancient human archetype in a science fiction context, emphasizing growth and responsibility. It feels so good to return to that alien multi-faceted world, the home of so many of my dreams.

My 2016 — a summary

When a year approaches its end, it is tempting to summarize it in a few bullet points. So here are my significant SF/fantasy/RPG experiences in 2016, listed in chronological order.

  • Collaboration of the year: Gustaf Gadd and I wrote Skymningshavets gåtor, a seafaring fantasy campaign book for Drakar och Demoner, during the spring.
  • Boost of the year: I received the Swedish RPG Dragon Award at Gothcon in April.
  • Book of the year: I read and re-read Agent of the Imperium, an complex and enjoyable science fiction novel in the Traveller universe by Marc Miller.
  • RPG campaign of the year: We were Pinkerton agents investigating a murder in New Orleans in early 1870.
  • Boardgame of the year: Terraforming Mars by Fryx Games — wow!
  • Tragedy of the year: Evert Johansson, one of my old Traveller buddies, suddenly passed away in November at age 58.
  • Movie of the year: Rogue One.
  • TV-series of the year: Agent Carter S1 — yes, I know it is not new, but I did not have a chance to watch it until a few weeks ago.

The Best Plans Laid by Mice and Men

In the spring, after delivering a sea-faring campaign book for the latest version of the Swedish fantasy RPG Drakar och Demoner, I made a nice schedule for fiction-writing in my spare time till the end of 2016: publishing Dusk and Dawn, starting the sequel to The Ice War, and making a few RPG articles for the Fenix magazine.

However, mundane life intervened and disrupted all planning: this autumn I have had to spend all available energy on my children’s schooling and on earning my paychecks while suspending the fiction projects. But there is at least one piece of silver lining on the involuntary writing hiatus: my buddy Carolina Gomez-Lagerlöf got time to read the completed MS of the Dusk and Dawn novella and she found a serious flaw in a major turn of events. Her verdict is justified, so I now will have to rewrite several chapters to improve the story’s pacing. However, being somewhat wiser than nine months ago, I won’t make a prediction about when it will be completed.

Diesel adventurer

Illustrator Marc Scott has made a set of diesel-era adventurers at ArtStation. See them here — link >>>

The lady above could certainly be protagonist Adèle von Rosen in my Ice War / Republican Rebellion alternate timeline. I am outlining a story in which that warm and sturdy dress would fit perfectly. (Click on the picture for a larger version.)