Reviews of Aniara (1956) and related work

Aniara (1956Text)

Harry Martinson (writer).

Read in 2019.

Following dozens of world wars, a thousand ferries are bringing eight thousand people at a time from a devastated Earth to the Martian tundras and the Venusian swamps. One ferry evades an asteroid. Already off course, it is hit by other asteroids, disabling its engines entirely. This is narrated by a man from a far-future Karelia, aboard the drifting vessel. He tends to Mima, the ship’s artificial intelligence, on a powerless journey into the void.

Beskriv den människa som i glans
sitt släktes likdräkt sydde
tills Gud och Satan hand i hand
i ett förstört, förgiftat land
kring berg och backar flydde
för människan: askans konung.

This is the kind of science fiction that gets the author a Nobel prize in literature. A powerful meditation on humankind in the age of the hydrogen bomb. The language is beautiful, but why did Martinson use the name Doris for Earth? In mythology, it’s a daughter of an ocean god, and Martinson does use some nautical terminology for space, but I think he picked it mainly because it means “gift”. Alas, the name has fallen dramatically in popularity after a sharp peak in the late 1920s. By the 1950s, in British slang, it could be used to refer to any female significant other. As of 2019 it connotes advanced age, which is probably not what Martinson would have wanted.

The author’s understanding of astrophysics is infused with romanticism. As in “Scanners Live in Vain” (1950), space itself is conceptualized as a positive danger, not merely a void. In chapter 60, a nebula causes an ice age on Earth, apparently by simply occluding the Sun with black particles. Stars are killed by a “photophage” (fotofagen). Chapter 77 is about one such dead star, described not like a real gravitationally lensing black hole but as a mere matt black sphere (“kantskarp likt en kolsvart slant”).

It is a myth that glass is an extremely viscous fluid at room temperature, and therefore a myth that, as the chief astronomer says in this book, a bubble will flow out of the glass that traps it. The desolate mood of the book is excellent, but it is even less compatible with science than was H. P. Lovecraft’s creations.

References here: Star Trek (1966), “The Hunted” (1990), Yokohama Kaidashi Kikō (1994).

text poetry fiction

Aniara (1986Moving picture, 61 minutes)

Seen in 2019.

A live performance filmed for TV, broadcast 1986-08-27. Apparently a co-production for Swedish and Norwegian television directed by Vilhelm M. Seyffarth, music by Ketil Bjørnstad with Lill Lindfors as one of the soloists.

moving picture adaptation fiction

Aniara (2018Moving picture, 100 minutes)

Seen in 2019.

Seen at GIFF 2019, but at Draken (the Swedish premiere), not in a gimmicky sarcophagus.

In this version, Aniara is effectively a shopping mall in space and Mima does not seem to do anything except mimetic biophilic reminiscences of Earth. This inward-looking Mima is the opposite of how the machine works in the original, where it is outward-looking and therefore a pleasing distraction. In the movie, Mima is not apparently responsible for communications or other computing tasks and does not take its imagery from far away. The images of nature come from the minds of its audience.

The ship has at least one radio telescope that can be operated without Mima, but the crew does not use it as an antenna. In the book, the mysterious “spear” that seems to be sent from Earth, as if to rescue Aniara, is not caught. In the movie, the crew uses the telescope to spot the object and the crew catches it, but it turns out to be made of an impenetrable novel material. Eventually, the ship reaches an Earth-like planet, whereas in the book’s 24th chapter, it is speculatively predicted to eventually hit a star.

In the book, the main character is a man called the “mimarobe” (also mimaskötare, “handler of mima”) but formally nameless. In fact, his name was erased at his final exam, according to chapter 34. In this adaptation, the character is still called a mimarobe but also (gender-swapped and) given the personal name “MR”, transparently from her occupational title. The word “yurg” is preserved in a chapter title without explaining that it refers to a dance, but the majority of Martinson’s other neologisms are dropped.

A largely prosaic live-action drama. Fragments of Martinson’s poetry are used in the script. The main emphasis is on the personal drama, which is weak. Rather than a thinker, the movie version of MR is an extrovert with a complicated and uninteresting bisexual love life. She initially treats Mima as an amusement park attraction, albeit one to which she herself is addicted. She merely instructs people in how to use its telepathic interface. Paradoxically, she still teaches mathematics and physics (“tensorlära”) at a later stage.

A secondary emphasis is on materialism, including the material living conditions of the passengers. Both cabin space and food production were totally ignored in the book, where the officers have a large, real, living garden but no source of food is ever mentioned. Alas the filmmakers have the entire renewable food supply based on algae in apparently ordinary plastic bags full of stagnant water that menial workers must occasionally replace. This choice might have something to do with oxygen or waste, but surely the ship ought to have farms of fresh hydroponic/aeroponic vegetables even for normal journeys. I got the impression that algae are picked just to force some improbable monotony on the characters.

Having a small budget, the film production used real environments, particularly shopping malls and a ferry between Sweden and Finland. This choice is good for the sub-theme of consumerism. In particular, it’s a good idea for a production that couldn’t afford sets, but it shows that the intradiegetic economy is still materially intensive (“healthy”). This implies that there would be other ships and vested financial interests in Aniara. In the light of this choice, the failure to contact or rescue Aniara becomes all the more mysterious. This is a plot hole, preserved from the book, where Aniara is explicitly just one of a thousand ships her size.

The whole choice to make a drama about the evils of capitalism would have been better with some in-universe reason for why there is no rescue in this functioning economy. The question is not even asked, while the circumstances, including a headless space elevator on Earth, strongly imply a tech level that would make rescue easy. The elevator car looks a lot like the Ares on Don Dixon’s cover for Red Mars (1992), but nothing in this movie works as hard science fiction.

Martinson’s hypertechnological “Saba-aggregat” is implemented as a mere fission reactor, which prompts the question how the ship can produce power by unspecified other means for decades yet fails to generate any thrust whatsoever. The book’s asteroid is replaced by a piece of space junk, further reinforcing the critique of consumerism, but a piece of junk that big would be tracked as space junk is tracked in the real world. It would not likely require an evasive action so much more abrupt than those in the book. Likewise, the reactor would be shielded against the screw that hits it; it’s not the mere shuttle of the otherwise similar opening to Planetes (2003).

Martinson’s book states, rather biblically, that randomness and miracles share their source (“slump och underverk har samma källa”). A sudden, fatal collision with anything well beyond the elevator’s geo-stationary orbit is highly improbable. In the movie (but not in the book), the torpedo-like “spear” from Earth is hypothesized to be another coincidence, which would also be highly improbable. The arrival of Aniara around an Earth-like planet, perhaps even in orbit around it, is again highly improbable. All of these massive coincidences are either exaggerated in comparison with the book, or made up for the movie, suggesting they are intended to be read as miracles. Either way they are typical of poor writing.

The emphasis on personal drama and materialism comes at the cost of Martinson’s main themes, but his mellow H-bomb existentialism is not directly contradicted. In fact, several characters look burned and one quotes the book’s description of a superweapon (“stenarna glaserades”). However, Mima’s breakdown in the movie is caused by an overload from its audience’s negative emotions. In the book, the same breakdown is caused by the outright nuclear apocalypse of the 26th chapter, something that doesn’t seem to happen in the movie, despite the vision of ashes and the dying Mima quoting chapter 29.

The choice to skip the war and make Mima inward-looking in this version suggests that a sense of guilt over climate change and similar environmental problems was intended to replace Martinson’s fear of war as the chief reason to doubt our collective virtue. That’s fine with me. The choice of images projected into space around the ship suggests the same thing. They are also biophilic, whereas in the book, the images are more varied and actually include a victorious army on the march.

The shift toward modern environmental concerns is well intentioned, but half-hearted and poorly implemented, like so much else in this adaptation. It’s watchable, but very nearly a turkey.

References here: Stowaway (2021).

moving picture adaptation fiction