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 the locals’ 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.

Blixt: The Next Generation

Yesterday I had a nice author interview. The Swedish teacher in my youngest daughter’s class had instructed the students to write an essay about an author. So my daughter decided to write about the one she knows best, i.e. science fiction & fantasy author Anders Blixt. She therefore interviewed me for half an hour about my books The Ice War and Spiran och Staven and what inspires me to write. I spoke a lot about my memories of the Balkan War in 1990s, Afghanistan in 2008, the Apollo project in my childhood and other sources of inspiration.

Memories of a war

James Stockdale, an American navy pilot who spent several years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam, has written a book about how to face a severe experience with a constructive mind-set and turn it into something that will be a defining event in your life. You must endure it with the conviction that you will eventually come out of it, but also that there are no shortcuts that will make it easier. Each day must have one focus: to make you do what you need to survive with dignity and self-respect even when hope is faint. Yes, the ordeal may put your life at risk, but do not make it rule you or transform you into a lesser person. Afterwards, draw whatever positive conclusions you can for your future – let the experience teach you what is important and what is not.

I have no regrets about my working in Kabul seven years ago, even though the sojourn caused some mental scars that will never go away fully. Those six months in a warzone taught me that the material goods so cherished in my home country turn trivial when my mind harbours vivid memories of ragged children searching for food in a garbage dump and of the thunderclaps from nearby car bombs.

Instead, what has become precious is stretching out a hand to somebody in need and seeing how she thereby gains the power to take herself out of a quandary. What you give will come back to you – perhaps one should call it “the Law of the Echo”?

So when my days come to an end, I wish to leave the world knowing that I have planted good seeds in the fields, grain that will nourish those that come after me. All things said and done, people are what matters – all else is dust.

Show, don’t tell!

I walk through the dry hills
I hold the little girl’s hand
I wrestle the wildfire
I share the pain
Because if not I, who?
If not now, when?

In 2008-09 I served six months as a civilian specialist in a European Union non-military undertaking in Kabul. When I came home, I summarized my experiences in the six lines above. Some years have passed, but the memories of that war-torn country still burn bright.

People have many times asked me why I, a well-established middle-aged professional, chose to accept something as hazardous and arduous as that assignment.

When I look at my kids growing up in our quiet corner of the world, it hurts to know that such childhoods are a privilege enjoyed by far too few. The American writer Chaim Potok spoke of “sacred discontent”, i.e. the emotion that propels the common citizen to stand up against injustices by putting himself on the line: “This just can’t go on.” I want to teach my kids the difference between what is important in life and what is fluff. And I can only do that by walking the walk.

Review: The Forever Engine

In 1989, Game Designers’ Workshop (GDW) launched Space 1889, a science fiction role-playing game dealing with the Victorian Era as pulp science fiction: jungles on Venus, canals on Mars, Verneian and Wellsian superscience, and a plentiful supply of bowler hats, derring-do and stiff upper lips. It was a labor of love by designer Frank Chadwick, but despite GDW putting a lot of supplements on the market in just one or two years, the game failed commercially and was discontinued. A pity for us enthusiasts, but Space 1889 remained alive on a smaller scale, with articles and supplements getting concocted on a fan-basis.*

Frank Chadwick is nowadays also a science fiction author and recently I got hold of his steampunk novel The Forever Engine. I read it in a week during my metro journeys between home and office. So, what did I discover? Well, this is not a story belonging to the game’s canon universe, even though there are numerous similarities; that quickly became obvious by references to the Confederacy having survived the American Civil War and the Revolutionary Commune ruling France since 1871. However, this “revisionist” approach is probably an advantage, because Chadwick gets free hands with making an exciting plot without having to pay too much attention to whatever facts have already been published.

Story Overview with Hopefully no Significant Spoilers
in 2018, history professor and Afghanistan veteran Jack Fargo of Illinois gets involved with a British time-traveling project. The endeavor backfires badly and Jack gets involuntarily catapulted back in time to the 1880s. However, it is not the Victorian Era “as we [or Jack] know it”, but another one with interplanetary ether flight, airships, Martians and other peculiarities. The puzzled Jack is arrested as a spy, but presents credible evidence for being an American scholar and a time traveler. The British powers that be therefore recruit him to a scientific investigation/undercover operation, in which the participants are about to face a James Bond villain. Jack joins the team with the hope of finding a way of returning to his beloved daughter.

Jack Fargo is, however, no Bond protagonist; he is a widower with a daughter, and he is scarred by war experiences and family tragedies. He has a sharp mind and good military skills, but he gets shot up quite badly during the investigations. His sidekick, Communard spy Gabrielle Courbiere, may look like a Bond girl, but she has a serious case of Asperger’s syndrome and a troubled past. Their adventures in London, Bavaria and the Balkans are portrayed in a gritty, almost noir manner.

Covert operations easily go awry in reality, and in this story they do, too; I appreciate Chadwick’s realistic approach to what nightly skirmishes are like and how gruesome it is for a human to kill or maim other humans. The final confrontation between Jack and the boss villain is cleverly set up and Jack must use wits rather than brute force to resolve an extremely dangerous situation. Nuclear bombs are our destroyer of worlds, but this place has other equally frightening weapons.

The expression “forever engine” refers to a machine built by the master villain with Martian technology, a contraption that appears to be a perpetuum mobile. The British scientists in the novel know that such devices are impossible and Jack, using his 21st-century science knowledge and clues accumulated during the adventure, manages to figure out how it really works and what threat it poses to humanity.

The villain is also a more complex character than one would expect, and despite being a brilliant scientist, it turns out that he is short on manpower and that he is a poor schemer. Ergo, he has high intelligence, low wisdom, to speak in role-playing terms.

My Verdict
I enjoyed The Forever Engine. Sometimes I was thinking faster than the protagonists and sometimes not. It is nice to be surprised when reading a spy/action story; at my age I have read so many that I am familiar with many tricks of the genre and its clichés therefore bore me. Here I was rarely bored, though at two-thirds of the running time, the story got sluggish for a while.

The supporting cast was a pleasantly diverse lot: a British army officer with courage issues, an tough and competent Afro-American sergeant of the Ottoman army (a former slave from South Carolina; all of it makes sense in context), a not-too-efficient Bavarian feldwebel, and an unpleasant Royal Navy commander. Plus an assorted collection of Britain’s brightest physicists.

Also, the Tolkienian ending was to my taste. (“It must often be so, Sam, when things are in danger: someone has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them.”) The hero’s cup is filled with a bitter draught — Jack Fargo has to empty it before the ordeal is over.

My main disappointment was the absence of Mars and Martians. I hope Frank Chadwick will compensate for that shortcoming in future stories about professor Fargo: I want trans-planetary canals, teeming bazaars, eery temples, ancient conspiracies, and foul horrors beneath the two moons!

My verdict: four red planets out of five.

* My gaming group started a Space 1889 campaign in 1990 and we still keep it running, visiting its Mars for some adventures once a year or so. In the 1990s, I also wrote a few Space 1889 articles for Swedish gaming magazines such as Rubicon and Sverox. Read some of the texts in English here >>>