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Aniara by Harry Martinson


by Harry Martinson

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"That was how the solar system closed
its vaulted gateway of the purest crystal
and severed spaceship Aniara’s company
from all the bonds and pledges of the sun.

Thus given over to the shock-stiff void
we spread the call-sign Aniara wide
in glass-clear boundlessness, but picked up nothing.

Though space-vibrations faithfully bore round
our proud Aniara’s last communiqué
on widening rings, in spheres and cupolas
it moved through empty space, thrown away.

In anguish sent by us in Aniara
our call-sigh faded till it failed: Aniara"

Such is the fate of the spaceship Aniara, as chronicled in Nobel Prize-winner Harry Martinson’s epic poem. After being thrown off course its 8,000 souls are left to live what remains of their lives in a vast spaceship hurtling into the unknown emptiness of space, with no hope of ever returning to Earth.

This epic poem is everything a work of science fiction should be, providing a fantastic situation that nevertheless resonates with us, and using that situation to explore mankind. Here Martinson chooses as his topic how mankind comes to terms with hopeless, pointlessness, and the inevitability of death. Being trapped on Aniara renders life meaningless for all the passengers on board- if they make scientific discoveries they can’t send them back to Earth so no use will ever come of them, they can write poems and songs but they will be trapped within the confines of the ship, and everyone knows that eventually Aniara will reach its limits on this unending journey and everyone aboard her will die. This is a fantastic situation, yes, but is it really so different from our lives? The passengers of the spaceship Aniara are making, after all,

“A lifelong journey onward to an end
which would have come in any case, and comes.”

The struggle with whether our actions in life have meaning, and the struggle to come to terms with our eventual demise are not challenges that require space travel to be a reality. Martinson explores how people deal with these challenges by presenting us with the microcosm of the ship. At first the passengers keep the hopelessness of the situation at bay with mima, “a filter of truth, with no stains of her own.” Mima presents the passengers with images of far off planets and with recordings of terrible events happening back on Earth, providing a Plato’s cave that people are all too happy to flock to. Mima is more than a computer, she’s a conscious thing that has desires of her own, and she eventually welcomes death to avoid seeing the horrors of Earth dying behind them. With the loss of mima the mirror-world she created is lost as well, and thus the passengers turn to religion, whether the old ones of Earth, or factions worshipping the lost mima, or sex cults. As the journey gets longer and the ship strikes further into the emptiness of space the religion gets more extreme as the hopelessness becomes harder to bear: a cult featuring human sacrifice has a surplus of volunteers. People retreat into memories of their life before entering the ship, even if the worlds left behind seem hellish. The bearers of these memories aren’t the usual archetypes found in science fiction but interesting characters in their own right, from a female pilot (about whom the narrator notes “she wounds you in the way that roses wound”), to a blind poetess,

“with songs so beautiful they lifted us
beyond ourselves, on high to spirit’s day.
She blazoned our confinement gold with fire
and sent the heavens to the heart’s abode,
changing every word from smoke to splendor.”

Despite a few events that rejuvenate the excitement of the passengers there are no long-term victories on Aniara. Being on the ship forces an acknowledgment of the inevitability of death, strips the passengers of the normal pantheon of reasons life isn’t pointless, and the passengers are powerless to invent new reasons that satisfy them; even the religious cults are abandoned in time, with only some small symbolic gestures remaining. Nihilism conquers this microcosm, as the numbers of insane and suicides multiply. Eventually the ship breaks down too severely to be repaired and death comes for all who remain. Having read The Death of Ivan Ilyich recently I can say with certainty that I found Aniara more affecting. The events of the poem are hopeless, yes, but the warning rings through clear: for all its flaws Earth is a paradise, and mankind, “a king with an ashen crown,” must maintain it or face the vast emptiness of space.

This work essentially won Martinson his Nobel Prize in literature, and despite the controversy the win was well deserved. It’s a travesty that this work is out of print, and so rare that used copies cost hundreds of dollars. It’s beautifully written, the characters are usually not drawn with much detail but still manage to be interesting, and the setting it presents is masterfully constructed. Best of all, these virtues exist to actually explore ideas worth exploring and to say something worth saying, which you would expect to be commonplace in science fiction but which, sadly, is not. Why is this work so little known in the genre of science fiction when far, far lesser works like Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, Clarke’s Childhood’s End, and Neuromancer by Gibson are not only still widely read, but held up as some of the best works of science fiction to ever be put to paper? Aniara is better than any of those works by an order of magnitude, and yet it’s been all but forgotten. It speaks poorly of the genre’s fans, and sadly is justifies some of the lack of respect shown to science fiction. Aniara lives up to the potential of science fiction, and you should read it unless you absolutely can’t stand that genre.

One minor complaint: in Aniara Martinson makes up a plethora of words, both used to identify technology and used in normal conversation. Especially in the few stanzas that make heavy use of the slang of old Earth I found it just too much. I wish he had pulled a Gene Wolfe and only used existing but rare or archaic words, but it’s impossible for me to criticize Martinson for this too severely when he effectively addresses this exact point:

“The galaxy swings around
like a wheel of lighted smoke,
and the smoke is made of stars.
It is sunsmoke.
For lack of other words we call it sunsmoke,
do you see.
I don’t feel languages are equal
to what that vision comprehends.
The riches of the languages we know,
Xinombric, has three million words,
but then the galaxy you’re gazing into now
has more than ninety billion suns.
Has there ever been a brain that mastered all the words
in the Xinombric language?
Not a one.
Now you see.
And do not see.” ( )
1 vote BayardUS | Dec 10, 2014 |
An immense spaceship drifts deeper into space, away from an Earth ravaged by nuclear holocaust. Wonderfully melancholic and at times painfully tragic, reading Harry Martinson's sci-fi poem (here in the original Swedish) is a great but uneven experience. I found the first third or so, as well as the finale, to be the most powerful, while the middle part failed to hold my interest in the same way. Some parts are excellent, but at other times the text feels confusing and contrived. I'm also not crazy about Martinson's way of using invented words (this is not a principled objection, it just didn't work that well for me here). To be fair though, my expectations may have been unreasonably high. Overall, I wanted to like "Aniara" more than I actually did; for me, the premise is better than the execution. I will probably give it another shot in a year or so, however, as I got the feeling it will improve on a second reading. ( )
  backlund | Aug 25, 2014 |
En fantastisk bok om livet och döden. ( )
  Polhemsbibl | Sep 6, 2012 |
Good introduction to poetry for the science nerd and scifi geek who doesn't 'get' poetry. I still don't get most poetry, but read Aniara again every now and then. ( )
1 vote ari.joki | Sep 30, 2010 |
  www.snigel.nu | Nov 18, 2007 |
Showing 5 of 5
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» Add other authors (21 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Martinson, Harryprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Klass, StephenTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Meriluoto, AilaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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First words
My first meeting with my Doris shines
with light adding loveliness to light itself.
But the simple truth is that my first
and just as simple meeting with my Doris
is now a scene that anyone can see
every day in front of him in every hall
funneling the refugees to lift-off zones —
on forced migrations to the tundra globe,
in these years when Earth has come to such a pass
that for her toxic radiation she's prescribed
rest and quiet under quarantine.
We are compelled to seek out other words
which can shrink all and shrivel all to comfort us.
The word for Star has now become indecent,
the low names high for loins and woman's breast.
The brain is now a shameful body-part,
for Hades harvests us at its behest.
I shall relate what I have heard of glass
and then you'll understand. In any glass
that stands untouched for a sufficient time
gradually a bubble in the glass will move
infinitely slowly to a different point
in the body of the glass, and in a thousand years
the bubble makes a journey in its glass.

Similarly, in an infinite space
a gulf of light years' depth throws a vault
round bubble Aniara as she goes.
For though the rate she travels at is great
and much more rapid than a rushing planet's,
her speed as seen against the scale of space
exactly corresponds to that we know
the bubble makes inside this bowl of glass.
There is protection from almost everything,
from fire and damage due to storms and frosts,
add whatever blows may come to mind —
but there is no protection from mankind.
And many stood unspeaking.
But suddenly someone said
a light-year is a grave.
Those twenty years of journey
are sixteen hours of light-path
on the sea of the light-year grave.
Then there was no one laughing.
Then nearly all were crying.
A light-year is a grave.
Last words
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