Harry Martinson - a poem of science fiction written by Swedish Nobel laureate. His business as a poet does not include the development of new principles of cosmology or the invention of thought systems but is rather concerned with details which will make credible whatever cosmology or thought systems he adopts

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Harry Martinson, Aniara: An Epic Science Fiction Poem, Trans. by Stephen Klass and Leif Sjöberg, Story Line Press, 1998.
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Aniara (Swedish: Aniara : en revy om människan i tid och rum]) is a poem of science fiction written by Swedish Nobel laureate Harry Martinson in 1956. It was selected a s the second most important book published in Sweden in the 20th century. The poem consists of 103 cantos and relates the tragedy of a space ship (4,750 m (15,580 ft) long and 891 m (2,923 ft) wide) which, originally bound for Mars with a cargo of colonists from the ravaged Earth, after an accident is ejected from the solar system and into an existential struggle. The poem was referenced in Vernor Vinge's hard science fiction novel A Fire Upon the Deep. It was also an influence for Poul Anderson's hard science fiction novel Tau Zero.

"(T)he high seriousness of this theme evaporates in the intense-inane of Mr Martinson's imagination. The treatment will strike even a reader wholly unfamiliar with science-fiction as deficient in imaginative force and originality. (...) (B)etween the giggles are vast expanses of inanity. Nobel Prize material ? Surely not, whatever allowances we make for the translation." - Keith Sagar

"His business as a poet does not include the development of new principles of cosmology or the invention of thought systems but is rather concerned with details which will make credible whatever cosmology or thought systems he adopts. (...) (T)here are passages in which his conception justifies itself and the words radiate a kind of austere but delicate simplicity. (...) (I)t was a bold move to translate this work and it may well prove a seminal volume in the history of English letters." - Burns Singer

"I find it possesses, through the dynamism of its myth, much of the same apocalyptic one endures, rather than enjoys, in The Waste Land. Indeed, Aniara may well be a work of equal power and prophecy. (...) Aniara is more than the sci-fi saga of a spaceship lost in sidereal expanses. Along with C.S.Lewis, Harry Martinson has found that an interplanetary setting, light years removed from mundanity, supplies the esthetic distance necessary for truly profound thought. Reading Aniara unnerves and even cripples one with fearful realization that we may be launched on such a journey." - D. Bruce Lockerbie

Poetry in the science fiction genre is almost uniformly putrid—as if Ogden Nash became an engineer but still wanted to keep up with the muse. And, truth be told, much of the poetry dealing with speculative science from the "literary" side of the tracks (though with notable exceptions such as A. R. Ammons and Albert Goldbarth) comes across as crib notes in the Physics for Liberal Arts classes the non-scientists took as undergrads. Henry Martinson accomplished what many would think impossible—a literate yet accessible epic science fiction poem that warrants close attention by those interested in either the outer reaches of SF writing or the inner reaches of poetry.
What makes Aniara astounding is that the visionary aspects are fully formed in both camps. In no sense is Martinson merely interested in dressing up the "sense of wonder" that has been a perennial hallmark of traditional SF. On the other hand, this is without a doubt a poem with a capital P, not a short story with line breaks. The cadences (rendered in a very able translation from the Swedish by Klass and Sjoberg) in themselves are intriguing. Though the poems usually fall into an a-b-a-b rhyme scheme, the translators are savvy enough not to use formalism as an ironclad rule and are content enough to move to a looser rhythm when the poem calls for it.
Aniara is a spaceship (or "gondoler" as it is called in the poem) gone awry. Originally bound for Mars, the craft is instead launched out of the Solar System, and into an existential struggle that lends itself more to Teilhard de Chardin or Taoism than pulp science fiction. The cast of characters is large, and in the 102 cantos the reader is presented with a bewildering array of sensory detail:

We listen daily to the sonic coins
provided every one of us and played
through the Finger-singer worn on the left hand.
We trade coins of diverse denominations:
and all of them play all that they contain
and though a dyma scarcely weighs one grain
it plays out like a cricket on each hand
blanching here in this distraction-land.
The danger in this kind of project is that word choices like "dyma" and "sonic coins" will pass right by many readers, yet it's the pure audaciousness of such language that satisfies the most. As one follows the path of the Aniara through uncharted space, all familiar symbolic referents begin to fall away, until the reader is left with the rarest of endings in poetry—the Earned Abstraction. Few can get away with using the word Nirvana in the last line of a poem, yet by the end of Martinson's effort one becomes more and more certain of the journey that was just undertaken—that it wasn't quite as bewildering as it looked on first glance.
Aniara was written in 1953, and though the Cold War has since passed, and the Space Age has a bit of wear and tear to it, one can sense that Martinson is both enthralled and frightened by the age of machines. He is not afraid, however, to package those emotions in black humor:
The strangest omens would be seen in space
but, since they were unsuited to the program
of our day, they were promptly forgotten.
Vast, iconic, and highly stylized, Aniara is space opera in the truest, most literal sense of the phrase.
- Alan DeNiro

Aniara is not just a novel-in-verse, it is a work of science fiction, complete with its own futuristic terminology. Written as the Cold War nuclear arms and space races were heating up, it begins with an earth "become unclean / with toxic radiation" and humans being sent to wait out the clean-up on nearby planets. The narrator signs up on the ship 'Aniara' -- "built for large-scale emigration" -- but on the voyage out, bound for Mars, some evasive maneuvers -- first "a swerve to clear the Hondo asteroid", sending it past Mars, then to avoid the fields of Jupiter, then some leonids (meteor showers) -- find it farther and farther adrift. The steering Saba Unit gets: "hit hard by space-stones / and great swarms of space-pebbles", and before they know it: "turning back was possible no longer". The Aniara flies onwards, into the great unknown.
       Presented in 103 cantos, the poem covers a journey that extends for years and then decades (and then, ultimately, what amounts to an eternity). The Aniara, a craft that is sixteen thousand feet long and three thousand wide, carries some eight thousand people when it begins its journey. It also has an artificial intelligence aboard, 'the mima' (sometimes also capitalized, as 'Mima'), which attains a level of self-awareness, its own inventor surprised to find: "the mima had invented half herself". It provides information, entertainment, and distraction -- but it all ends up being too much for this higher intelligence, and she self-destructs in machine-suicide (and, in the process, "many emigrants were stomped to bits"); her final message has her note:
How terror blasts inward,
how horror blasts outward.
How grim it always is, one's detonation.
       The mental stress is great on the humans as well: it's too much for the 'senior astrolabe' for example: "his brain broke down and died, soul-deep afraid".
       Indeed, ultimately:
In the beginning of our twenty-fourth year
thought broke down and fantasy died out.
Overwhelmed by the perpetual enigmas
of star-strewn galaxies without an end.
       Along the way and until that time, people make do in a variety of ways. While the poem is narrated by the Mimarobe, the one closest to the mima, defined by his role ("I have no name. I am of Mima."), some of the cantos present the stories of others aboard the ship. What has been lost -- an earth laid to waste (there are memories of: "the last spring nature was alive"), the beloved city of Dorisburg exploded by a "photoburb" -- is conveyed by and to those aboard the Aniara: even if there were a way to return home, there is no home to return to. They hope -- but from early on: "we're ever rubbing / dream on dream for want of something real". As they plunge onwards in this horizonless, unchanging future they find: "How hard to keep one's faith in life to come".
       As the narrator admits to himself:
I dreamt myself a life, then lived a lie.
I ranged the universe but passed it by --
for captive on Aniara here was I.
       Cults and rival religions form, there are times of sexual frenzy as well as persecution -- the mimarobe imprisoned for a while, for example -- over the many years. Conditions and situations shift -- both suddenly and over extended periods of time. So also:
But many were the changes in the life
we led in the world that had become our own.
The hall of mirrors which for four years running
prolonged our illusion
lay smashed and shattered
and fragments in the hundred thousands covered
in heaping drifts the floor that we had danced on.
       Such journeys have often been the subjects of poetry, and Martinson's leap into the endlessness of the universe is, ultimately, no more radical of fantastical than, say, poetic journeys to heaven or hell. A bit of science-terminology -- mostly invented -- gives it a slightly different feel, but ultimately this is spiritual poetry, the voyage of the individual and of humanity, and what has been left behind, a world ruined by mankind, leaving the survivors adrift in space "where no god heard us in the endless void". As Martinson writes:
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.
       The artificial intelligence is an interesting addition -- and its fate an interesting take -- while the humans behave in generally predictable ways. The dark realization they come to is a familiar one:
There is protection from near everything,
from fire and damages by storm and frost,
oh, add whichever blows may come to mind.
But there is no protection from mankind.
       Aniara isn't a poem of the apocalypse, but in allowing some humans an escape from it yet having them find no redemption or salvation Martinson's poem remains a dark, pessimistic vision of any human future. Escape turns out only to have been an illusion, the vessel: "our immense sarcophagus", drifting on and on .....
       Martinson's poetry is, even leaving made-up terminology aside, often challenging -- compounded by the difficulties of translation, even as Stephen Klass and Leif Sjöberg gamely try to match his rhyming and meters. In a narrative that is often not straightforward either, the story zooming tightly in and then far, far out -- Aniara is not an easy read, and unlike most traditional science-fiction fare. Taken canto by canto, it often impresses, but it doesn't quite have the narrative flow of conventional novels; certainly readers can't approach it with the usual expectations they might have for fiction. Its poetic form here does very much factor into how Aniara reads. Taken on its own (unusual) terms, however, much of it is quite rewarding.
       Aniara is also a product of its times, but even as aspects may no longer seems as current, it holds up well in its bleak vision. Current expectations of man's self-destruction perhaps focus more on climate-change than nuclear destruction, but many of the fundamentals remain depressingly the same. - M.A.Orthofer

The great Swedish writer Harry Martinson published his masterpiece, Aniara, during the height of the Cold War – right after the Soviet Union announced that it had exploded the hydrogen bomb. Aniara is the story of a luxurious space ship, loaded with 8,000 evacuees, fleeing an Earth made uninhabitable by Man’s technological arrogance. A malfunction knocks the craft off course, taking these would-be Mars colonists on an irreversible journey into deep space. Aniara is a book of prophecy, a panoramic view of humanity’s possible fate. It has been translated into seven languages and adapted into a popular avant-garde opera.
Once upon a time, in a far far corner of a nice Irish pub I asked my reader friend to recommend me a good science fiction book (he’s an expert, you see). The response was immediate – Aniara by Harry Martinson –, so much so that at first I thought he making a joke. However, the name stuck in my mind and about a month later I checked the book out from the library. The only copy available in my local library was in Swedish, but I decided that it would have to do. I mean, how hard can it be to read about space travel in Swedish? (Answer: Hard, but so bloody worth it.)
Aniara begins with the launch of one of the gigantic ships that are transporting people from the no longer inhabitable Earth to Mars to begin a new life there. Unfortunately the evacuation flight gets pushed off track by a collision with an asteroid, and due to a technical error it can’t return back to its original course: the ship is lost in space, floating around with no hope of ever reaching its target. However, the technology of the ship allows its 8,000 passengers to continue to live luxuriously for several decades within the spacecraft. With no immediate danger, the people try to return to their normal lives by building their own society within the spaceship. Aniara is an exploration of the psychological side of life in a closed community: the ship’s inhabitants form their own microcosm of class divisions, religion and morality.
The epic of Aniara consist of 103 songs describing mostly the life and thoughts of an engineer running a machine called Mima that relieves the homesickness of the passengers by showing old images of the Earth. As Earth is the only main connection between the huge mass of people in the spacecraft, the machine is thought have mystic powers and its rooms in the ship come to serve as a church of some sort. Aniara show the human need to control fate as well as the horrors born from conflicts between different groups. As the flight of the ship progresses, the reader learns more about the reasons behind the destruction of Earth as well as the horrifying secrets behind the evacuation plan. Aniara is a tragedy and the heartbreakingly beautiful songs give the story a true feeling of a tale passed on from generation to generation.
I fell in love with Aniara from page one. Although the language made me jump through some hoops with the dictionary, the end result was fantastic and mind-blowing. The book’s themes of humanity, societies and international politics tick all the boxes for me and combined with the stunning poetry, it was clear that the book would become one of my favourite reads. Martinson won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1974 “for writings that catch the dewdrop and reflect the cosmos” – although there were some controversy surrounding the process – and in my opinion he has definitely earned it. Unfortunately copies of the English translation are currently almost nonexistent (so I’m told). Some e-copies can, however, be found online, and then there’s always the library. I highly recommend this if you enjoy beautiful and tragic writing about societal issues and human psyche.
Protesting we were innocent, we sought
to reason without learned reference
and in the language most of them were taught
propound the barest modicum of sense.
But this same language, meant to clear up all,
grew murky for us too, a rigmarole
of words avoiding words and playing blind
amid the clarity of cosmic soul.
(trans. Stephen Klass & Leif Sjöberg)

Views From A Tuft Of Grass

Harry Martinson, Views From A Tuft Of Grass, Green Integer, 2006.

Views from a Tuft of Grass, written later in his life, in 1963, continues his observations on nature, but the essays of this volume reflect a maturer and cleaner style and are less philosophically dense than the earlier works—a book translator Lars Nordström describes is a kind of coda that focuses not just on nature but explores the importance of childhood folktales, our way of viewing the world from a history of maps, and a thoughtful meditation on the way a poet ought to write his poems.

The Procession of Memories
Harry Martinson, The Procession of Memories, Trans. by Lars Nordstrom, Wordcraft of Oregon, Bilingual ed., 2009.

The Procession of Memories: Selected Poems 1929-1945 gathers some of Harry Martinson's early poetry, in a slim but pleasant bilingual collection. Martinson had a miserable childhood: his father died when he was six and his mother abandoned him and left to America. Martinson and his siblings moved from foster family to foster family, eventually drifting apart. At the age of sixteen he became a sailor with the intention of one day traveling to America and meet his mother. His attempt failed. For some years he also drifted as a vagabond, and in 1927, after health problems, he abandoned the seafaring life to devoted himself to poetry.

The poems in this collection, autobiographical, depict his fascination with the sea, and its many dangers, and the natural world, the coldness of his childhood, and his experiences as a vagabond.

Fatherless and abandoned by his mother at age six, Nobel Laureate, Harry Martinson, grew up mostly in rural foster homes in the south of Sweden in the early years of the 20th century. He left school at thirteen and became a sailor and vagabond--a global nomad--at sixteen. After permanently leaving the sea in 1927, he began to transform the story of his life into art. He painted, wrote poetry, autobiography, fiction, drama and essays. Using imagery and language that was fresh and striking, readers found his books moving and appealing, and he quickly wrote himself into the hearts of Scandinavian readers. Today, Martinson is still a widely read author in Sweden and new translations of his work continue to find readers around the world. In this bilingual edition (Swedish and English), translator Lars Nordstrom introduces the reader to Martinson's early work as a poet. None of the sixty poems included here have ever been translated into English previously. Martinson's painting, a self-portrait entitled "Portrait of a Stoker", graces the book's cover and inside is a sketch of Martinson by the Swedish artist, Arne Cassell.

Chickweed Wintergreen

Harry Martinson, Chickweed Wintergreen, Trans. by Lars Nordström and Erland Anderson, Bloodaxe Books, 2011.

Harry Martinson (1904-78) sailed the oceans from 1920 to 1927 as an escape from an unhappy childhood in rural southwest Sweden. Returning to his native tracts, he devoted himself to writing and eventually became one of the best-known authors of his time, his books appealing widely both to academics and to the general reader. His election to the Swedish Academy in 1949 was seen as a gesture towards a generation of more or less self-educated working-class writers, and he shared the 1974 Nobel Prize in Literature with novelist Eyvind Johnson. Sections of the Swedish press responded with such vehemence to the way Academicians had rewarded two of their own that Martinson vowed never to publish again, and his last years were darkened by despair and depression as his view of the world became bleaker. His books reflect his upbringing, his travels and his interest in science and social questions. His poetry has many strands but the one most often admired is that which combines close scrutiny of the small events of the natural world with an intense awareness of cosmic distances in time and space.
While his prose books have reached a wide readership in several languages, Martinson's poems have appeared only sporadically in English. Robin Fulton's translations provide the first substantial selection of Harry Martinson's poetry for English-language readers. His edition has an introductory essay by Staffan Soderblom.

'Martinson's writings mirror many of the great issues of the 20th century. These are social injustices and dictatorships, war and peace, commercial culture and the culture of the automobile, nuclear weapons and environmental destruction. Motifs from modern science find their way into his poetry. Martinson's realm of ideas is enriched by scientific theories, and the language of science is evident in his poetry. In this respect, he is an innovator, even in an international perspective' – Ulf Larsson

Winner of the 1974 Nobel Prize for Literature (with fellow Swedish writer Eyvind Johnson), Harry Martinson (1904-1978) was noted for his innovative use of language combined with his keen observations of nature. He wrote various books of poetry, including Nomad (1931), Natur (1934), Passad (1945), Cikada (1953), Gräsen I Thule (1958), Vagnen (1960), and Tuvor (1973). Martinson also wrote fiction, travel books—the most famous of which is the renowned Kap Farväl (Cape Farewell)—and volumes of nature essays, three of which were written in the 1930s, long before such interest in environmental issues became more commonplace.