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Good not to be always mindful/ Of our torpid transmigration


By Harry Martinson (Translated by Stephen Klass & Leif Sjoberg)

11 Feb, 2015

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I could be mistaken, but I do believe that Harry Martinson’s 1963 poem Aniara is the very first science fiction novel by a Nobel Laureate that I have ever read [1]. It’s also the very first work of poetry I’ve ever reviewed [2] (that is, all poetry rather than just containing poetry).

The specific edition I am reviewing is the 1999 translation by Klass and Sjoberg, which has the advantage over other editions of being available on Scribd, quite possibly legally. Although I must have read the reviews of the mid-’70s edition in Galaxy, Analog, and Galileo, somehow I managed to forget not just the reviews but the very existence of this work. There is an upside to this: I was able to read Aniara as though it were an entirely new and unfamiliar piece

Aniara is just one ship in a vast fleet of ships rescuing refugees from a 24th century Earth which has become increasingly radioactive after thirty-two world wars, thirty-one of which have involved the detonation of nuclear weapons as part of the festivities. Happily for humanity, while frigid Mars and swamp-covered Venus are in no way as inviting as was pre-nuclear-war Earth , they are both a lot friendlier to life than post-nuclear-war Earth. They offer much-needed sanctuary to the fleeing millions.

A mishap sends Aniara off-course before it reaches Mars. While the ship itself can sustain human life indefinitely, the Aniara and the eight thousand people aboard (refugees from Dorisburg, for the most part) will never see Mars. They will drift ever deeper into space, able to communicate with the Solar System but unable to return to it.

Happily for the people trapped in Aniara, the craft is a well-appointed one. It is equipped with a semi-mystical device called Mima. Mima, created by humans but evolved beyond their comprehension, is able to weave the information it gathers from the universe into creations that not only entertain but spiritually sustain the increasingly isolated humans of Aniara. The humans demonstrate a laudable aptitude for hedonism, which Mima supplements with creations that are vital contributions to the continued will to live.

Unfortunately for the humans dependent on Mima and even more so for Mima, Mima is continuously updated on events throughout the universe, including back on Earth. World War Thirty-two was not the final World War. As Mima watches, Dorisburg is incinerated, the very stones beneath the city vapourized. Humans are continuing their dreadful, inexorable quest to render every square inch of the Earth a burned, radioactive, lifeless wasteland. A horrified Mima, cursed with omniscience, shuts itself down and despite the best efforts of the humans, never wakes again.

This leaves the humans to their own devices. As one might guess from the fact that they’re the same species that has managed to commit ecocide on the only world truly suitable for them, events after Mima’s suicide do not necessarily develop to the advantage of the slowly dwindling, aging population of humans in Aniara.

The 1999 edition begins with a lengthy essay about Martinson and his work, an essay I found informative but orthogonal to my purposes. For no reason I can explain or justify, if you arrange words in stanzas they become opaque to me (unless they are then set to music). I wanted to see if I could find my own way through the text without help. I didn’t actually want to have the information Klass was presenting until after I read the poem. For this reason, I suggest leaving the essay until last, which is what I did.

Martinson’s world-building is about as rigorous as Bradbury’s, that is, evocative but slight. It’s not hard SF, but that’s not the sort of verisimilitude for which the poet is aiming. Knowing this, I was able to suppress the urge to e.g. work out how fast the Aniara was going (the speed of plot [3]). I will admit to one small peeve, which I will charitably lay at the feet of the translators rather than the author: JUPITER IS NOT A GIANT STAR! It may well be that planet has the wrong number of syllables for the poet’s purpose, but … really. Martinson’s creative approach to astronomy and related matters gives the work an misleadingly archaic feel. If I didn’t know that this was written in parts over the 1950s I would have guessed this was a text from the 1940s or perhaps even the 1930s.

Hedonism cannot save the humans from their increasingly oppressive plight — nothing can save the humans from their increasingly oppressive plight because the humans are an inextricable part of it. Martinson takes what seemed to me a fairly sympathetic view of libertines who turn to pleasures of the flesh to stave off, however unsuccessfully, existential despair in the face of eternal exile and certain doom, which when you think about it, is what we all face eventually. Religious and political excesses prove no more effective than hedonism and are a lot less fun.

I think the moment when I began to suspect this wasn’t going to end well was somewhere around World-war Thirty-three or four, when humanity manages to do to Mima what eldritch horrors do to Lovecraft’s fragile protagonists; Mima’s godlike omniscience is a poisoned gift, given that it must share its universe with the ecocidal, genocidal humans. I felt sorry for the dancers and libertines desperately trying to forget the horror of their circumstances, but it is Mima who is the real victim. The hedonists are of the same species as the bomb-wielding leaders committing ecocide and the frequency of war argues it is an inherent characteristic of the species; Mima, in contrast, is an innocent bystander. Poor Mima.

I did a little research before I started reading the book (context!) and discovered that Poul Anderson had read Aniara. Given that Anderson’s Tau Zero turns upon a similar mishap [4], I was expecting to be reminded of Anderson’s work. As it turns out, the author that came to mind was not Anderson but Norman Spinrad. His 1974 novella Riding the Torch is in many ways a lot closer to Aniara than isTau Zero; Anderson’s characters leave a peaceful, semi-utopian Earth that has fallen under the boot of the dread Swede. Spinrad’s Earth is burned clean of life, as it is in Martinson’s poem, Anderson primly acknowledges the game of musical beds his characters play, Spinrad, in contrast, seems to gleefully embrace his characters’ sweaty, Disco-Era hedonism.

I am happy that Scribd offered me a convenient way to read this work but having read it, I’d say that this is something worth having on paper. The most recent edition is the 1999 one. Not having read the others I cannot say which translation is the best, but I can at least recommend Klass and Sjoberg’s as worth your time.

1: No, I have not read any of Doris Lessing’s SF. I am an uncultured clod.

2: Because the second Poul Anderson I reviewed was Tau Zero and not After Doomsday. Tau Zero is relevant to this review. but, actually, so is After Doomsday. Thematically relevant, because an epic poem plays a significant role in that work’s plot.

3: About 30 km/s in some parts, much faster in others; it’s about as consistent in this as Space 1999. When I say I was able to suppress the urge to e.g. work out how fast the Aniara was going,” it might be more accurate to say I was unable to work out how fast the Aniara was going.”

4: Although neither the initial set-up nor its conclusion are as tragic as they are in Martinson’s poem, despite which — for reasons I cannot articulate — Martinson strikes me as less intrinsically glum than Anderson. That is interesting, because the poet led a much more challenging life than Anderson did. Martinson was orphaned and placed in a foster family that treated him as slave labor, He ran away, went to sea, and found himself a homeless vagrant when he returned to Sweden. There’s more; it’s sad; trigger warning.

I freely admit that having reasons that cannot be articulated are pretty much the same thing as having no reasons at all.