8 May 1945: The Price of Freedom

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“Acquainted with the Night”

I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain—and back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light.

I have looked down the saddest city lane.
I have passed by the watchman on his beat
And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.

I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet
When far away an interrupted cry
Came over houses from another street,

But not to call me back or say good-bye;
And further still at an unearthly height,
One luminary clock against the sky

Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.
I have been one acquainted with the night.

By Robert Frost

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.

The Grand Master In Memoriam

Ten years ago Gary Gygax, the man who turned role-playing games into a tangible reality, passed away. Mr Gygax charted a significant part of my course through life. I first encountered his game Dungeons & Dragons in May 1977, when I was 18 years old. I became an enthusiast (en eldsjäl) at once and I still remain one 41 years later. The hobby has brought me so much joy, so many fulfilled dreams, so many new friends.

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.

Ursula LeGuin in memoriam

Only in silence the word,
Only in dark the light,
Only in dying life:
Bright the hawk’s flight
On the empty sky.

Renowned science fiction author Ursula LeGuin has passed away after a long and creative life. I initially encountered her stories via the Swedish translations of the Earthsea books four decades ago. The brilliance of her tales made me read and reread them in English as an adult. There I encountered ideas that touched my heart and that have stayed with me ever since. Three passages have been particularly influential:

1. Arha’s inner liberation from her foul chthonic masters at the end of The Tombs of Atuan;
2. Sparrowhawk’s profound reflection on life, mortality and the ocean’s ever-moving waves in The Farthest Shore;
3. The people that decide that they must walk away from Omelas lest they lose their humanity. There I go, too.

I met Ursula LeGuin once around 1990, when she visited her Swedish publisher. I got an invitation for a small fan-gathering, where she patiently answered questions about her stories and explained many how’s and why’s. A pleasant event whose memory I still cherish.

Desolation Ornithopter

Ron Cobb created this “insectoid” ornithopter for an early attempt to make a Dune movie. That film did not materialize, however; instead we got very different and quite jumbled movie some years later.

Anyhow, this is a beautiful flyer that I’d love to see in some other setting. It would for example fit nicely in my baroque-futuristic Wolframfästet (The Tungsten Citadel) RPG milieu, in which the Earth is a worn-down desolation.