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.

Once upon a time…

When I write my novels and shortstories, it is usually so that the main character appears and wants me to put her or his story into printed words. I write what they have experienced, even when it gets peculiar. Because “that’s the way it was”.

Ursula LeGuin writes in Always Coming Home (one of her more philosophical books) about telling a story “like it was” or “as it was”. Different approaches to the closeness of reality and the nature of truth. I write only fiction about imaginary worlds because that opens the gates to the realms of “like it was”. However, I always wonder how the readers will react to the tales I convey from the citizens of those never-never lands. Their life-stories fascinate me, otherwise they would not be able to keep my attention for all those months it takes to type a manuscript.

So far, I have gotten quite nice reviews from people in the sf/fantasy subculture, which is great because they are discerning readers well versed in the in’s and out’s of the genres. But the major book publishers have been reluctant, making me one of many self-published authors in the current PoD-revolution. One of the more interesting rejection slips I have received stated that my novel Spiran och Staven is written for hard-core fantasy readers, which are not a part of that company’s target audience. Well, that’s an honourable verdict indeed.

Currently I am handling Adèle von Rosen’s account for her dangerous attempt to reach the rugged interior of the arid Altimundo plateau in 1940 in the midst of the Republican Rebellion. Being a spy and a progressive republican, she is hunted by both the Imperial secret police (for what she knows about rebel activities) and a local aristocrat (whose anger she triggered by provocatively defying a gynophobic custom).

Four days later I stepped off a motor coach in Degauer Satna, soaked in sweat and with a rucksack on my back and trekker’s boots on my feet. Before leaving the Garða-rām I had also exchanged the old cap for a khaki slouch hat more suitable for a desert climate. To most native passengers I must have looked like a wealthy Erþayn youngster out to see the strange corners of the world. Some had tried to chat with me during boring hours on the road, but I knew none of the local languages and their knowledge of Mariþi had been too limited for meaningful conversations. The warm and stuffy nights that I had spent at roadside inns had been plagued by nightmares about strafing aircraft and pursuing dark-suited lithe men wielding gleaming knives.

I had now come to the end of the Road: it runs for almost seven hundred leagues up from Port Veronica at the coast and arrives here at one of its two inland termini, the other being next to Ariana more than a hundred leagues away. Degauer Satna is also at the edge of our world: east of the town the Central Escarpment rises steeply for thousands of feet. That dark mountain wall runs north and south as far as the eye can see. And up there, beyond a craggy rim that is half obscured by haze and dust, lies the Altimundo.

The darkness and the hope

Ursula LeGuin is an author that has accompanied me since my teens, when I encountered A Wizard of Earthsea in Swedish translation. I have even had the pleasure of meeting the venerable lady face to face at her Swedish publisher’s office about 20 years ago.

By now I have read most of her stories. Two of them shake my heart every time I enter their pages even though I have read both a dozen times or more: the novel The Tombs of Atuan and the short-story The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas. Human cruelty, liberation and escape are their key concepts. LeGuin shows that a decent human must act responsibly when society is unjust, even if the price gets steep. Liberty is gained by actively rejecting the status quo.

Arha of Atuan is a de facto slave, even though her position has a high status — society expects her to surrender her freedom to serve chthonic powers that instead ought to be shunned. While growing up she gradually learns that she is not the person others believe her to be and the insight eventually sets her free, though freedom turns out to be a tough road. In sparse scenes the reader sees the dreary life at the desert shrine and how its human denizens become twisted by their unnatural existence.

The city of Omelas is located elsewhere in never-never-land, the most attractive place one can imagine. But what is the price paid for the abundant blessings? Yes, there is a serpent in the shadows, though many townspeople deny its true qualities. The shortstory cuts like a glass shard in my heart — I am one of those unsettled souls that refuse the city’s covenant and instead walk away from Omelas.

“The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.”

To use a term coined by the American author Chaim Potok: “the sacred discontent”, i.e. to reject injustice and act accordingly, accepting the cost this choice entails.

“Alltid i rörelse”

För sisådär 25 år sedan valde jag ett motto att sätta under min egendesignade vapensköld. Efter lite funderande skrev jag: Alltid i rörelse. Jodå, det stämmer fullt ut, både kroppsligen och själsligen. Jag är en vandringsman, även när jag till synes har en fast boning.

Som ett tecken på denna attityd har jag skrivit fantastik (SF och fantasy) i olika former alltsedan jag 1968 hittade Heinleins Rymdkadetten i folkbiblioteket på vår lantliga västgötska ort. Mina första försök var skoluppsatser i svenska i tredje klass och när jag hade nått gymnasiet trakasserade jag lärarna i svenska, engelska och tyska med korta noveller i Tolkiens och Arthur C Clarkes efterföljd.

Vad är då så attraktivt med de två genrerna? I diktsamlingen Passad formulerade Harry Martinson vad det innebär att vara fantastikförfattare:

Jag har planlagt en färd,
jag har inrett ett hus
på nomadiska kuster inåt.

Sjustjärnans brödfruktsgren lockade evigt.
Oåtkomlig i vintergatornas trädgård
var den gren av skådebrödsfrukter.

Men nya visa upptäcktsmän jag mött
har pekat inåt
mot det nya Gondwanas kuster.
Och de har sagt mig
att gömda vågor alltid vandrar där,
att hav av gåtor alltid strömmar där
kring inre resors obeskrivna öar

och jag har lyssnat till dem
och anat
en ny passad – ett nytt Gondwanaland.

I mitt författande söker jag detta Gondwanaland. I min ständiga rörelse mot det okända vill jag utforska det kosmos som inte finns här och ge det en litterär substans som gör det synligt i vår verklighet. Och de visa upptäcktsfarare som jag mött heter JRR Tolkien, Chaim Potok och Ursula LeGuin.