Sea Serpent

Arthur Rackham’s version of a sea monster featuring some very wild dentition.

Secret Agent [Reading Challenge 2021]

Secret Agent
Britain’s Wartime Secret Service

by David Stafford
BBC Worldwide, 2000

[Challenge # 12 : A book featuring spies or espionage.]

Super-spy shenanigans, the kind we’re familiar with from James Bond movies and Cold War espionage novels, began in WWII — in the offices of Britain’s Special Operations Executive, a secret agency separate from the regular spy agency, the SIS. The SOE dealt with the dirtier aspects of the war, like destroying enemy infrastructure, working with resistance groups inside Nazi Europe, assassination, and propaganda. This book, written in conjunction with a BBC TV documentary series that came out in 2000, acts as both an accompaniment and extension of it.

I have to say I learned a lot, but also that it was kind of dull. This was probably because the book was designed for those who had already seen the documentary and wanted to go more in depth on the subject matter. But it didn’t help that the more exciting SOE episodes from the war, such as the destruction of a heavy water plant in Norway that foiled Nazi Germany’s plans for an atom bomb, were rendered lackadaisically. I know this wasn’t supposed to be a thriller novel, but I just didn’t feel the danger and risk.

It didn’t help that a lot of the reminisces of the folks who actually worked in the SOE during the war were along the lines of “Captain Jenkins was a rough and tough jolly sort of fellow who knew his P’s and Q’s.” I’m exaggerating, of course, but it did seem that was all most of them had to say. The book and documentary came out in 2000, so I’m sure many of those folks have passed by now.

(That brings up a haunting point: within my lifetime, all of the people who had first-hand memories of  WWII will be gone, victims to fighters to perpetrators.)

Another fault of the book is that it barely mentioned the most spectacular of the SOE’s successes, the assassination of Nazi leader Reinhard Heydrich.

The book did have some interesting parts, such as the dangers of the radio operators, who accompanied the teams of agents on enemy territory. The operators were a must-have as they were the only means of communication with the agency. The messages were heavily coded, and went first to a human radio operator in England who transcribed them, then on to a decoder who resolved the actual message. Radio technology being what it is, they were often heavily garbled. But there were no international phone lines or internet back then. The radio sets were a little larger than what might fit in a cigar box, and transmission was very risky as the Nazi occupiers had means to sniff out locations. For safety’s sake the radio operators were always on the move.

Other interesting parts dealt with a branch of the SOE that made forgeries and primitive James Bond-like gadgets, such as an exploding rat. Seriously.

I also learned some things I’d rather not know, such as the fate of several women SOE agents, who captured and executed at a German concentration camp — injected with Phenol (phenolbarbital) and shoved into a cremation oven still alive, though presumably unconscious. The incident so traumatized the Nazi guard that did the deed he ran away from the camp and never went back.

I have to say the book did inspire an interest in the time period for me. I’ve watched several good movies and documentaries on Nazi Germany and also on the Mossad, who was responsible for bringing Adolf Eichmann to justice.

Worldbuilding Wednesday 3/31/21: Atompunk Robots

Tobor the Great, from the 1954 movie of the same name

Atompunk robots (those in media from 1945 – 1965) tend to have the same sort of names. Short ones like Gort, cutesy ones like Robbie or Tobor (“Robot” spelled backwards) or functional ones combining scientific terms with letters and numbers. That’s the sort I was after here with this randomly generated list. These names showed up most frequently on toys, models, and illustrations, perhaps inspired by early names for computers and rockets. As always, some silliness was generated.


Robots of the Atompunk Age


Cyber N-48

Colossus 1




Tetrabolt the Invincible


Unit X-55

Magna 51


Meteor 5

Unit Centauri

The Iron Colossus

Turbo-One The Indefatiguable

Automaton Z-945

Crypton 58





Servantmech 963




The Iron Terror

Red Unit E-35

Roto 42

Masero The Indomitable


Gog 4

The Iron Defender


Omni 5

Getting Around in the Atompunk Age


One of the futurism themes of the post-WWII era was transportation. This makes sense. Innovations in manufacturing and aircraft design,  the growth of large cities, and the need for improved highway systems and vehicles  all came together in a magic moment, in the Western world at least. Germany had its Autobahn, Britain the M- series of roads, and the US the Interstate system of super-highways. All of these promised a world of speed and possibilities.

Illustration by Arthur Radebaugh

The Bohn corporation only made alloys, but you’d never know it from their series of ads depicting exotic vehicles in the early years of the Atompunk age. None of which were ever built. But this twin-rotor helicopter has a distant military cousin, the Boeing Chinook.

A French company promised a future flying in doughnut-shaped coléoptère aircraft, which had the ability to take off and land on its tail so long runways were not needed. But the technology just wasn’t there yet, prompting problems with controlling the ungainly beast. There was also the problem of how to load passengers.

The Vanadium Corporation of America muscled into Bohn’s act, touting not only a Cadillac-like milk delivery truck, but also an underslung monorail.

These small monorail cars must have been inspired by Disneyland’s Peoplemover, long lost in the Steampunk revival of Futureworld. Slightly larger versions now shuttle passengers around airports.

How’s this for a wild ride? It’s hard to say if this two-story train and its rail is sailing off into the sky or tethered by those horseshow-shaped pylons to the earth. I say it’s sailing off, the horseshoes containing an antigravity function.

This institutional ad featured a real-life flying saucer car, like that seen on the cartoon show The Jetsons. Interestingly Mom is driving it with ease, a paper sack of groceries in the seat beside her as there’s no trunk. The Pointer dog apparently came along for the ride.

The US Airforce came out with a whole zoo of exotic jets during this time. This one is a follow-up to the A-12 / SR-71 Blackbird.

Not to be outdone, the US Navy came up with this long-necked ekranoplan design which ran on skis. Did it have its own nuclear reactor on board? Of course!


Worldbuilding Wednesday 3/24/21: Anarres and Urras

Ursula K. LeGuin’s political science fiction novel The Dispossessed has as its subtitle “An Ambiguous Utopia.” But screw that. Isn’t this a whamdoodle of a cover? Twin worlds, close enough to touch, one lush and green, one red like Mars but cratered like the Moon, done up in a riotous rainbow of colors?

(I’ll do a later post on the many covers of the novel, which is approaching its 50th anniversary.)

I bought this very same paperback as a teenager just because of it, and because I liked LeGuin and had heard good buzz about the book. On reading it, however, I was underwhelmed, because I expected something grandious and full of action, and The Dispossessed is not that. It shares the Cold War background that rooted The Left Hand of Darkness (literally, in that case, because Gethen was a planet in its ice age) but lacks the romance and adventure of it. However, that doesn’t mean it is a bad book. Just beyond 9th grade me.

Now I can appreciate it for what it is, and in fact it’s something of a comfort read, in that I re-visit it every few years and always take back something new on the reading. Which is the mark of a superior writer, IMO.

One of the things that I appreciate anew, and have respect for, is LeGuin’s method for naming the characters. Those living on Anarres, the “moon” of the Tau Ceti system (though it’s really more of a double planet arrangement) are named by a computer on their birth, a unique, two-syllable, randomly generated name using a limited number of consonant sounds (b, d, g, gv, k, l, m, n, p, r, s, sh, t, v) and vowels (a, e, i, u) which the parents must accept no matter how crazy the sound of it is, because it’s what they are ideologically conditioned to do — Anarres being a sort of Communism that actually works, without the authoritarianism. Shevek, Bedap, Gvarab, Pipar are some examples of the names. Anarrians get only one name, the idea of a family or family line being one of the “propertarian” elements they divested themselves from when they left Urras as polotical exiles.

Those living on the home planet, Urras, in contrast, have flamboyant multi-vowel names that are sort of Hawaiian, sort of Latin, to my ears anyway. This is for only one language, that of the nation of A-Io, which is accepted as the “America” country analog (though to me it reads more like Switzerland.) The other nations have their own languages.

Writing fanfic on either world? Here are some names for you.


Proper Names from The Dispossessed






























Rae Ieseano

Opo Dae Turi

Ievo Pon

Aru Oemanai

Sanoi Airo Isru

Ere Nait

Atru Shul



Ini Nilae


Sei Nea

Soi Aetu

Uira Kae

Nui Iko

Viti Enail

Te Reto



Kio Pe

Amo Li

Vaa Chaea


Ili Ea

Ute Amo Li





In the glory years of the Atompunk Age it was customary for major automakers to create buzz by depicted futuristic “concept cars” showing what may be coming down the assembly line in the next few years.  This marvelous illustration not only shows the Ford Gyron with its rocket-like tailight/exhaust piece, but also what were thought of as futuristic fashions… any of which could be used today, as a likewise example, for a movie about the future. There’s an exmphasis on wide, stiff cowl necklines, and Jiffy-pop skirts for the women. (But notice they are still wearing stiletto heels and white gloves.)

I also like the illustrator’s style, again indicative of the time: angular yet casual, breezy, posed, graceful, using a limited palette of oranges, pinks, steel blue, and brown.

Worldbuilding Wednesday 3/17/21: The Best of
xxxxTwittersnips (Off the Map)

Click to see larger

You have to look closely at this map until it begins to look a little familiar….

(It’s Europe with water and land masses reversed and relabeled as new countries.)

Like the map, here’s some places that currently don’t exist, but could.


Imaginary Places

German  cities / towns
Ulmesslen, Münrach, Spargán, Amsprechtdanberg, Munsilacht
Icelandic  cities / towns
Trömjabik, Heybegär, Geykhovik, Rëtradacik, Trisjavik
Finnish cities / towns
Helsadam, Helscupäa
Russian  cities / towns
Zobnovik, Cheysnovek, Zhervond, Besprydov, Zsonich
Greek cities / towns
Helspená, Axatis
Italian locations / cities
Forte Colombotti, Monte Moramo, Luguardia, Monte Sanciatti,
Strada di Sfornello, Trienna
Indian cities / towns
Lassadjram, Dhamunja
English  cities / towns
Cryleston, Lisburn, Cambley
English villages
Pigsgirdle, Mencheese
Scottish villages
Baillieston, Haighaith
Wild West locations
Brittle Wheel, Buffalo Clay, Dead Prospector Pass, Packbull
American Southern Gothic towns
Gicksonville, Charlesmead, Jucksville
Canadian provinces
Yeskatoon, Ilberma
Other places
Aëlenbul  (Turkish city)
New Sedley  (American colonial town)
Amdhezjen  (Balkan city)
Rhoëbba  (Austrian city)
Zarabinda  (Spanish city)
Spriáthe  (Hungarian city)
Shavistan  (Central Asian kingdom)
Chiscatawnee  (Small Tennessee town)
Portfiddle  (Small Maine town)
Rangiatea  (New Zealand town)
Zaat Asiv  (Israeli city)
Lansjefrellson  (Scandinavian town)
Paolupora (Polynesian island)

Swooning Spaceman

For a change, the BEM (Bug-eyed monster, even though it’s a robot) is carrying away a strapping but unconscious young man instead of a scantily clad young woman. His plight is equally dire as the robot seems none too friendly.

Worldbuilding Wednesday 3/10/21: Let’s Talk About

The 2018 Marvel movie Black Panther featured an advanced yet isolated African kingdom called Wakanda which is the birthplace of the titular superhero character, T’Challa, who is its King. Wakanda is powered by vibranium, one of those rare yet powerful imaginary elements favored by comic writers. Vibranium is both a blessing and a curse: blessing, because Wakanda owes its prosperity to it, and curse, because everyone else in the world wants it.

In the movie the country’s capitol lies in a green, jungled valley, a place of skyscrapers, eco-friendly tiered parks, abundant vegetation, and waterfalls. Exactly where it is, in Africa, is a harder to figure out. The original conception of Wakanda in the comics showed it as being in West Africa, on the coast, as pictured in the top illustration — the rough vicinity of Equatorial Guinea. But later depictions show it in East Africa, in the Ethopian highlands. Wherever it is, it’s a stunning vision of an Africa that never experienced colonialism or slavery.

BLACK PANTHER, Wakanda, 2018. © Marvel / © Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures /Courtesy Everett Collection

The name Wakanda itself sounds African, calling to mind words like Watusi and Wanangwa. But Black Panther creator Jack Kirby may also have derived it from Native American mythology, a twist on the word Wah-kon-tah, meaning all that is right and good. The Lakota word for “Great Spirit” — Wakan Tanka — is similar.

In the comics Wakanda had a number of neighbors: Niganda, Ghudaza, Zwartheid, Rudyarda, Mohannda, Narobia. Is it possible there are more?


Imaginary African Nations




























Equal Opportunity

A hopeful Atompunk depiction of the Space Age from the early 1960s complete with  revolving space station and a family of astronauts with jetpacks. Now the early 1960s were likely as sexist as America ever got, and very very firmly into gender roles — boy child has a blue spacesuit, and girl child a pink one. In addition girl child has a frou-frou skirt attached to hers, and is lugging a doll dressed in a similar fashion. But… she is present, unlike Mom, who we can assume is whipping up a space-age lunch at home in the space station. This seems to me to say (if a child’s book can say anything) that girls can look forward to adventuring in space in the decades to come, while adult women, still mired in the sex roles of the past, are excluded.

So perhaps it’s not so sexist after all.