Aniara by Martinson, Harry, trans. by Stephen Klass & Leif Sjoberg, 1956

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First, let's start off with an apology and a little explanation. I am not a great fan of poetry. The sum total of my knowledge of it comes from dimly recalled lessons from my high school days, which are now further behind me in time then I care to recall. So when I get into today's review of a SF poem called Aniara by Swedish poet Harry E. Martinson, it's pretty much as a pretender that I do so. So when I screw up, please note that it's not for lack of research (I did plenty for this review, trust me), but probably due to my discomfort with the form.

When it comes to SF, I will freely admit that I am a bit of a snob, and there are sub-categories of speculative literature that I turn my nose up at all the time. Erotica is one. Until very recently another was SF poetry. I have never really been that enthusiastic about poetry in the first place. I like to think that I have a vivid imagination, but when it comes to reading someone else's personal emotions and feelings channeled through an artificially metered and rhymed form of writing . . . Well, let's just say that it’s often lost on someone like me. Now, that is not to say that I dislike poetry. I can recall a poem that Jimmy Stewart wrote about his dying golden retriever. I heard him read it one evening on Carson as I stroked the furry ears of my own golden retriever as he lay upon me, dying of cancer. I was moved to tears. I also remember reading a poem in high school about the observations of some vaguely described person as he or she watched dots of light move around against a dark background. Only after finishing the poem did it occur to me that it was from the point of view of an alien in a spacecraft as he watched rush hour traffic from high above. I wish I could remember the name of that poem. I also enjoyed The Divine Comedy. I can’t wait to read that one to my son when he gets older. So no, not by a long-shot do I dislike poetry. But I tend to be very literal – it’s something I get from my mother, and yes, I am working on it – so much of the impact of the words kind of goes over my head, unless the poet is of the mind to stay out of the recesses of his or her own brain, and writes something that has some common meaning in it or uses symbols that I can understand without having to extrapolate meaning from context alone.

With those requirements one would assume that SF poetry would be perfect for me, but as it turns out, that is really not the case. I think that the fear of SF poets have to overcome is that the rationality of SF will cancel or be canceled out by the lyrical and metaphorical qualities of the poetic form; what common ground could the logician and the lyricist really have? As it turns out they have quite a bit. The term “Science Fiction” – which I personally have a great fondness for but am realizing more and more as the days go by that it is a wholly inadequate descriptor for what it is we are doing in the SF genre – seems on its own speak to situations, characters and settings that poetry would be inadequate to describe, when in fact what it is that SF writers actually do is use all the tools of the poet in prose form. Tools from the poet's kit such as metaphor, allusion, and simile may be deployed equally by the SF author and the SF poet. It’s actually an analysis of these things that partly drives the SF book review process. The days of pure scientific speculation and the effect alone of technology on civilization are long gone and good riddance, I say. Today’s SF is punctuated, nay, driven by psychological, sociological, and all other kinds of soft science speculation. Much of the time the SF story elements are really nothing more then elements of setting, and bear little upon the outcome or the purpose of SF prose writing. True, there is a category of pure-adventure SF that still survives, but what many SF authors are trying to do today, and actually for the past few decades, is examine the human condition through the lens of fantastic or speculative fiction. And besides, when was the poetic form ever inadequate to the task of describing adventure or romance. The poem is uniquely suited to this form of examination.

To be sure, a poem such as this probably could not have been written before the 1950’s. Although its topic is a space voyage gone horribly wrong, its genesis probably arose out of cold war global annihilation fears, and those fears did not materialize until after the Soviet Union started its own atomic tests. This work is in the modern vein of scientific failures, and plays on all the technological fears that plagued us then and plague us now. In examining these facets of the human condition – death, annihilation, sex, lust, depravity, hopelessness, rage, fear and others - Martinson used the tools of the modern science fiction writer – physics, STL drives, WMD, psi-powers, starships, artificial intelligence, robots, and orbital mechanics.

The issuance of Aniara was a watershed moment in the history of SF poetry publishing. Certainly the history of SF poetry publishing goes back further then the original 1956 publication date of this one poem (1963 for the first English edition). But the importance of this one work cannot be understated. In fact, rumors abound that this single work was what convinced the Nobel Committee to bestow the Prize in Literature upon Martinson in 1974. Aniara is a disaster tale about a starship lost in space turned by circumstance not into a generational starship, but instead a tomb. Following a series of nuclear wars on Earth the powers that be decided to colonize the worlds of Mars and Venus. When it became obvious that the rigors of Martian and Venusian colonization were so extreme that a system of indentured slavery was the only way a life could be eked from those worlds, they turned their attention to extra-solar planets. A number of colony ships were built for the purpose of transporting the colonists from the solar planets. Aniara was one of those ships. 8,000 men and women were loaded into Aniara, and it set off to the stars. But along the way the ship encountered an uncatalogued meteor called Hondo that threatened to impact Aniara. Her astrogator moved Aniara out of the way in time, but the flotsam of small stones that followed Hondo struck Aniara in multiple places, destroying the maneuvering mechanisms. With her anti-gravity engines open fully, Aniara was stuck on its course to the constellation Lyra.

The 103 cantos of the poem tell the story of the passengers and crew of Aniara. Throughout their journey they only had three things to wile away the days. First, they had the ship itself, which was Spartan in most quarters, but luxurious in others. Second they had themselves, and all of the social structures that people make and all of the interpersonal games that people play with each other. But they also had the mima, which was an artificially intelligent computer that could reach across great distances and make contact with the minds of aliens and other humans. The mima accessed the sensory data of minds it so touched, then made that data available to others on Aniara. In doing so it could make crew members think that they were experiencing first hand whatever the aliens were doing, and that made ship board life just barely tolerable. Eventually the mima came to be worshiped; people could not live without it.

And then this ballroom in infinitude
fills with whimperings and human dreams
and open weeping none hides anymore.
Then the dancing stops, the music dies,
the hall is emptied, all move to the mima.
and for a while she can relieve the strain
and rout the memories from the shores of Doris.
For frequently the world that Mima shows us
blots out the world remembered and abandoned.
If not, the mima never would have drawn us
and not been worshiped as a holy being,
and no ecstatic women would have stroked
in trembling bliss the dais of the deity.

(Doris is the personification of planetary life, with "Doriswold" and "Dorisburg" standing in for the Earth).

Shocked and saddened by their inability to go home the passengers went through the typical bipolar ups and downs of advanced depression; sometimes panicked and hopeless, and peaceful and content at others. They at first put all of their hopes on the crew to devise a remedy. The mima helped by distracting them, but despite the psychological bolstering of the mima they eventually begin to lose faith in the crew. They become more deeply depressed and give up on the hope of technology, then stopped thinking for themselves, and engaged in orgies just to pass the time.

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.

Aniara lacks nothing when it comes to scientific speculation but the language Martinson devised to describe the science fictional settings and situations is innovative and beautiful. Consider this long passage from thirteenth canto. It occurred at a place in the poem where the passengers had been told what was happening, and after a few minor tribulations they came through the worst of their first bout of depression. They were trying to get their heads around the fact that at a mere 30,000 km per second their voyage to Lyra would never, ever end.

We’re slowly coming to suspect that the space
we’re traveling through is of a different kind
from what we thought whenever the word “space”
was decked out by our fantasies on Earth.
We’re coming to suspect now that our drift
is even deeper than we first believed,
that knowledge is a blue naivete
which with the insight needed to the propose
assumed by the Mystery to have a structure.
We now suspect that what we say is space
and glassy-clear around Aniara’s hull
is spirit, everlasting and impalpable,
that we are lost in spiritual seas.

Martinson used the color blue to significant bad things. For example, "blue naivete" from above. Also the radiation that blew across the Earth glowed blue. A dictator that rose on Aniara later wore a blue robe. The crew had blue clothes. The blue-black color of space around Lyra.

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 glazen form, and in a thousand years
the bubble’s made a voyage in its glass.

Similarly, in a boundless space
a gulf the depth of light-years throws its arch
round bubble Aniara on her march.
For though the rate she travels at is great
and much more rapid than the swiftest planet,
her speed as measured by the scale of space
exactly corresponds to that we know
the bubble makes inside this bowl of glass.

It’s striking, isn’t it, how a simple allusion to a bubble in a hand-blown glass can bring into perspective the voyage of a ship through space. Even at a breakneck clip the enormity of distance between remote parts of the galaxy makes the comparison a valid one, full of meaning.

But If that sounds too straight, Martinson is given to flights of fancy described with make-up words and filled with passion, insight and life. Consider this passage, from one of the orgy scenes:

And when we dance the yurg it’s evident
that everything called yurg’s magnificent
when Daisy Doody wriggles in a yurg
and chatters in the slang of Dorisburg

You’re gamming out and getting yile and snowzy.
But do like me, I never sit and frowzy.

I’m no sleeping Chadwick, Daisy pouts,
My pipes are working, I am flamm and gondel,
My date’s a gander and my fate’s a rondel
and wrathed in taris, gland in delt and yondel.

And lusty swings the yurg, I’m tempest-tossed –
the grief I’m nursing threatens to be lost
upon this womanchild who, filled with yurg,
slings at Death’s void the slang of Dorisburg.

That really does not say too much in any recognizable form of English, but I’ll be damned if Daisy does not come off as a saucy wench who wants as much as the narrator to yell “never!” in the face of the devil. But for all of the life that the passengers of Aniara seek to snatch, the story is one of entropy where the people know in their hearts that they are dead already, and that nothing of them will ever reach Lyra or any part of it. The poem is full of death imagery, and in the context of a Scandinavian poem about a long journey, Aniara is truly an Epic poem in the truest sense of the word.

In thousands or in myriads of years
a distant sun shall capture and enfold
a moth that flies toward it as toward the lamp
when it was harvest time in Doriswold.
Then we shall end our journey through these regions
then deep asleep shall lie Aniara’s legions
and all be swiftly changed in Mima’s hold.

No one denied that the Aniara was a death ship, but it took a little time for everyone to realize the truth of it all. As that knowledge spread the crew withdrew to their quarters and sealed off areas of the ship. The passengers were left to their own devices. Eventually the mima broke, and a dictator, Chefone, arose. Chefone blamed the narrator and a few others for the destruction of the mima, and sealed them in the bottom levels of the ship. Even that anger though could not last long in the bored and resigned minds of the passengers. Swayed first by the images of the mima, then the brutality of Chefone, then by the mind control abilities of the pilot of Aniara, Ysagel, and finally by their own waning passions and will to live, the Aniara and its thousands drifted into death, their losses lamented but eventually forgotten by those left behind on the colonies.

Putting aside Aniara’s importance in the subgenre, it is a beautiful work that I personally found invigorating. I really cannot remember reading something that excited me about SF the way that this work did, and I really cannot wait to find more. In this one poem Martinson puts the reader through everything and more that is to be encountered in a novel; in fact, despite its poetic form it really is a novel-like work. The new translation of this work (by Stephen Klass and Leif Sjoberg) is now available in paperback form from Story Line Press. Do yourself a favor and waste no time getting it.

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 5 star(s)


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