A spacecraft floating above earth in a scene from the film Aniara

Magnet Releasing

A scene from Pella Kågerman and Hugo Lilja’s film Aniara

An immense and well-stocked spaceship sets out on what should be a routine voyage: shuttling eight thousand refugees to resettlement on Mars after Earth’s environment has been poisoned by a succession of nuclear wars. Early in the flight, the ship is bumped slightly off course after a near collision with an asteroid; its navigational equipment is damaged, and it will be unable to change direction. The passengers must resign themselves to years of continued existence as the ship proceeds inexorably into the empty regions beyond the solar system, heading for a destination they will not live to reach, the constellation Lyra:

Thus it was when the solar system closed
its gateway of purest crystal and cut off
the space ship Aniara from all
the associations and promises of the Sun.

Such is the narrative gist of the Swedish poet Harry Martinson’s book-length serial poem Aniara: A Review of Man in Time and Space, begun in 1953 and published in its entirety in 1956, eighteen years before Martinson won the Nobel Prize for Literature (which he shared with the novelist Eyvind Johnson). In Sweden, where Martinson was already a prominent figure, the poem was an immediate best seller and has continued to work its way into the culture, giving rise to an opera (later televised), pop and electronic musical adaptations (including a somewhat harrowing “blackened death metal” version by Necrosavant), planetarium shows, a graphic novel, and now the film adaptation that opened in the US this spring.

There have also been numerous foreign-language translations, but although Aniara has twice been rendered into English, both versions have gone out of print. The work’s reputation in the English-speaking world has remained fairly subterranean and has owed more to readers of science fiction than of poetry. Lately it has been getting increased attention. The US release of the film is one such harbinger; others are the artist Fia Backström’s recent multimedia installation A Vaudeville on Mankind in Space and Time, in which Aniara’s themes were connected with complex photographic images fusing microscopic and global perspectives,1 and a fresh musical incarnation: a choral theatrical work, Aniara: Fragments of Time and Space, composed by Robert Maggio in collaboration with the Helsinki-based Klockriketeatern, which was performed in Philadelphia in June by the Crossing, a chamber choir. It is easy enough to situate Aniara as the product of its historical moment, but it carries a quantum of unease that keeps it from settling into the past. It persists on its trajectory like the spaceship proceeding unstoppably toward nothingness.

It was in operatic form that Aniara first came to America. In 1960 the market for a Swedish opera incorporating twelve-tone serialism and electronic tape collages might have appeared limited, yet Columbia Masterworks gambled on a major release for Karl-Birger Blomdahl’s Aniara (which had premiered in Stockholm a year earlier), billing it as “An Epic of Space Flight in 2038 AD” and adorning its cover with the eyepopping multicolored geometrics that at the time connoted the edgiest in stereophonic sounds. Since I had not yet been exposed to Wozzeck, Moses und Aron, or any similar trailblazing twentieth-century works, Blomdahl provided a point of entry into modernist opera—or rather into “space opera,” of which this seemed the only example. It would take years and a lot more listening, to Blomdahl and much else, before I could grasp more than the most obviously outré elements of a score that the New Yorker music critic Alex Ross has praised as “wildly inventive, at times prophetically psychedelic.”

My hope at the time was simply for what was strange: sounds that might somehow provide a foretaste of the future. I kept listening, undeterred by the somber a cappella opening chorus of earthly refugees mourning the transformation of their planet into “a desolate, poisoned land.” I recall being jolted by the fragments of futuristic dance band music played in the ship’s lounge where everybody is doing “the yurg”—tantalizing hints of an angular, robotic sort of future pop—in the moments before the fatal encounter with the asteroid. It is the last fleeting suggestion of anything like festivity. With a prolonged doom-laden orchestral incursion marking the shock of disaster, the party is over before it properly began.

The final dividing line is the opera’s most futuristic feature: a sequence of multilayered tape “arias” representing the voice of the Mima, the spaceship’s feminized computer, an omniscient entity whose bulletins from Earth provide respite for the passengers who cluster around her worshipfully in the Mima Hall. These tapes, an operatic innovation, were made with rudimentary radio equipment and stock sound effects, and their beeps, oscillations, flutters, and rumbles are not far removed from some of the eerie outer space noises of science-fiction films of the era, but when interwoven with human voices such as chants, arguments, authoritarian exhortations, choral laments, and a baby crying, they make a character—the central character of both the opera and the poem—out of a mass of wiring.2 The Mima’s tapes are in fact her swan song, as a laconic stage direction indicates: “A lightning-blue flash from Mima (the Earth is blown up). Panic in the Mima Hall.” The computer has died of grief at channeling the fate of Earth. What follows is a deeper voyage into terminal galactic chill. It could hardly be otherwise in a drama whose end has been determined at the outset. There can be no suspense, no plausible hope, nothing but mere continuing.


The opera’s libretto compresses the 103 songs of Martinson’s poem into seven episodes, but even in this form the central notion of endless vacant duration was more insidiously disturbing than many more visceral horrors. The potential terrors of the cosmos were a familiar childhood fantasy. Images of planetary peril abounded in movies and comic books, whether the peril was caused by nuclear devastation, alien invasion, or an interplanetary mishap. At that time, however, it was still the general custom for Earth to be saved, even if it might take some doing to emerge from the rubble—or at least, as in When Worlds Collide (1951), some carefully chosen group would survive to start civilization over on another planet, or else, as in World Without End (1956), in a distant future to which a time warp had teleported them. The spectator could somehow count on being among the saved, and the possibility of escaping and colonizing other worlds provided an undercurrent of eager expectancy.

Aniara’s libretto recalled those fantasies, but its mood excluded any buoyancy beyond the curdled fun of the yurg dancers. Everything here was about catastrophe’s aftermath: the spaceship’s diversion from its course was only the last in a chain of disasters, starting with memories of the wars that had poisoned Earth in the first place, the emigration to outer planets where colonists had followed familiar patterns of destruction and cruelty, and finally—when the spaceship was already off course—the obliteration of the home planet in the final war. It was not simply that the passengers couldn’t go home; there was no home to go back to. Past and future alike were sealed off, while the blank present persisted in a fusion of sorrow and claustrophobia. The opera’s mournful continuum was only slightly jarred by the grating and parodistic music given to a newly established regime of callous technocrats whose only agenda was to keep panic barely under control.

Abstract and stylized though it was, the opera effectively prodded the nagging sense of danger that pervaded that cold war era, the dread of an apocalypse made by humans for humans. The Cuban missile crisis was only two years away, and in the meantime the notion that the world might no longer have a future was hard to avoid: in Stanley Kramer’s On the Beach (1959), for instance, with its all-star cast (Ava Gardner, Gregory Peck, Fred Astaire) trying to figure out how to pass the weeks before a radioactive cloud drifts in to obliterate them, or the Twilight Zone episode “Time Enough at Last” (1959), in which a bookworm bank clerk reveled for a moment in the post-nuclear world in which he would finally be able to read to his heart’s content, before the unfortunate smashing of his thick-lensed glasses.

Aniara pushed this question of what to do while waiting for the world to end to another level. The home planet was already incinerated, and outer space offered no escape, only the prolongation of consciousness with no hope of finding another habitat. When Martinson’s poem became available in English, it could be seen as an epic in which subject matter itself has been incinerated. It enlisted poetic splendor—calling up lost stores of sensuous association—to describe an environment devoid of any possibility of splendor, where there is nothing left to do or talk about, or rather where anything done or spoken can only be an ersatz placeholder for what will not return:

And one hears scattered voices singing songs
whose nature shows they are still sung
with some mystic hope seeking immunity
in the vacancy of space or through the Mima’s visions.

Martinson located the origin of Aniara in a late summer night—not long after the Soviet Union conducted its first H-bomb test—when, peering through his home telescope, he obtained a preternaturally clear sighting of the Andromeda Galaxy. He said he experienced, in the days that followed, sensations of being on board a spaceship, and over the course of two weeks in October dictated to his wife the first twenty-nine songs, which appeared in 1953 in the collection Cicada. The process seems to have been something of an oracular outpouring (“I am not making up this poem, it just reveals itself for me”), and the poem is filled with analogous communications, whether from the computer Mima, the various witnesses to earthly destruction whose accounts are transmitted, or the Blind Poetess who emerges among the passengers in the spaceship’s dying days.


A scene from the opera Aniara

Malin Arnesson/Malmö Opera

A scene from the Malmö Opera’s production of Aniara, 2017

When I first encountered Aniara in the original translation by Hugh MacDiarmid and Elspeth Harley Schubert (1963), its propulsive urgency carried me along in an uninterrupted reading. The effect is musical even if the translators did not attempt to replicate the various meters and rhyme schemes deployed by Martinson,3 and there is an echo in its voicings of cosmic emptiness of MacDiarmid’s stark evocations of rock and sea in such poems as “On a Raised Beach” and “Island Funeral,” as well as his devotion to incorporating scientific and technical vocabulary into his poetry. In 1968, the year it appeared as a science-fiction paperback—oracular song smuggled into mass distribution—Aniara seemed a model for further attempts at epic in its fusing of concepts from astrophysics, the trappings of pulp fantasy, the contemporary science fiction of A.E. van Vogt and Ray Bradbury (writers Martinson greatly admired), the memories of wartime trauma, the fear of future weaponry, and the deep well of myth and ancient history. The theme was claustrophobic but the form was exhilarating, open to all manner of variations and tonal shifts.

Binding it together is the swirl of neologisms around whose repetitions the poem’s rhythm constructs itself: the Mima and her priestly guardian, the Mimarobe; Douris (Earth); goldonda (spaceship); phototurb (weapon of future destruction); the abandoned lands of Rind and Xinombra and Upper Gond. Pleasure-seeking passengers are nostalgic for the lost slang of Dourisburg: “Come rockasway and shimble…. Droom dazily, come hillo in my billows.” All this vocabulary is not clutter but a fluid element, offering momentary respite from the oppressiveness of strict definition, a last stand of playfulness even when the subject is annihilation. Of “Aniara,” the name of the spaceship and the most haunting coinage of all, Martinson said, “The name Aniara doesn’t signify anything. I made it up. I wanted to have a beautiful name.” A glossary to the MacDiarmid-Schubert translation describes it as

a combination of letters, rich in vowels, which represents the space in which the atoms move. The adjective aniaros (fem. aniara) in ancient Greek means sorrowful. Thus, Aniara = the ship of sorrow.

When sung by a chorus in Blomdahl’s opera, “Aniara” becomes a wail of lamentation.

The poem moves with the narrative urgency of a chronicler without much time to spare, while progressively subtracting the possibilities for any further narrative development. In true epic tradition, its matter acquires authenticity through the persuasive force of its utterance, even the parts manifestly pasted together from old space adventure magazines. The figure of the Mima in particular takes on mythic weight: the supercomputer that is the storehouse and conduit for all stories and images, the screen to which the passengers turn as the only antidote to “the immitigable glare of nothingness,” until she is “worshipped/as a holy being.” She evolves into an entity exceeding human comprehension, whose inventor must acknowledge that “half the Mima…/lay beyond analysis and had been/invented in fact by the Mima herself!”

Kubrick’s HAL was soon to come; in the Mima, Martinson created a more archaic image, not bothering with technological plausibilities. Her death, as she finally breaks down from grief at seeing “a thousand things no human eye can see”—expressed in images drawing on recent accounts of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—becomes the indelible sign of an authentically tragic mystery, a cataclysm on which the rest of the poem is an extended meditation. In Aniara, computer technology becomes indistinguishable from mystery religion. Archaic and futuristic merge and mutate, and after the Mima’s death the passengers enact a recapitulation of ancient orgies and blood sacrifices, and submit to omens and prophecies.

Aniara is an epic of extinction, conceived at a moment when extinction had begun to seem not only possible but perhaps imminent. More precisely it is an anti-epic: heroic connotations are inappropriate for a work better described as an elegiac song cycle working variations on the disappearance of the human species, a premonitory mourning ritual for Earth, “the only planet where Life has found/a land of milk and honey.” Its underlying mood is grief-stricken. In repeated near-ecstatic passages, Martinson insists on the incapacity of the human mind to grasp cosmic scale—“the vastnesses/into which Aniara has been plunged”—passages whose sublime calm is battered by inconsolable sorrow. In essence it is a protest poem, a cry of despair not against the emptiness of the cosmos but against the human malevolence that has forced humans into exile from their only home, and the human denial and submissiveness that allowed it to happen: “For space can never be more cruel than man.” It is punctuated by bitter outbursts against those who brought it about: “The men responsible? All dead!/The instigators in oblivion!”

Martinson’s sense of homelessness came naturally. One of his early collections was called Nomad. Born in 1904 to a rural shopkeeper, his family life was obliterated in a series of disasters. His father, a violent and difficult man, fled to America as a fugitive from justice when Martinson was one year old, and died a year after returning to Sweden in 1909. His mother in short order likewise went to America, abandoning her seven children. Martinson became a charity case sent to work as a child laborer on a series of farms. He received only the most rudimentary education. At sixteen he signed on as a stoker and spent the next seven years sailing the world on a series of ships. Returning to Sweden with tuberculosis and more or less penniless in 1927, within a few years he succeeded in establishing himself as an important young poet. In the title poem of his first book, Ghost Ships (1929), can be found these lines:

Look, a thousand ships have lost their course
and drifted off in the fog and a thousand
men have foundered while praying to the stars.

The marine realms of Martinson’s early poetry forecast Aniara’s vision of cold infinite space. On the one hand it feels like a poem of the future, on the other like a distillation not only of his own experience but of the awe and foreboding that pervades a long line of works of the previous century—Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Poe’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, Wagner’s Flying Dutchman, Melville’s Moby-Dick—in which incommensurable oceanic vastness is tied to intimations of wrongdoing and fatality. But there is a more modern aspect to Martinson’s sea poems, a ferocious clarity about the monstrousness of the industrialism that the great ships embody, their capacity to crush all obstacles indifferently. In the 1930s he would give himself over to prose tracts decrying modern man’s alienation from the natural world and making utopian appeals, under the rubric of what he called “geosophy,” for a return to life in harmony with nature. His nightmarish perception of modern technology was compounded by his experiences as a volunteer in Finland during the 1940 war against Soviet forces. At a meeting with Niels Bohr during this period, he expressed misgivings about the possible uses of the cyclotron particle accelerator for the development of advanced weaponry.

After the publication of Aniara, Martinson’s work moved in a different direction, more microscopic than telescopic. It was as if he were making a record of the earthly environment whose loss was mourned by his doomed space voyagers, close-ups of natural life like those transmitted by the Mima. In his contemplation of the minutiae of vegetation and temperature change and animal movement—bats and black snails and tussocks and ice jams—Martinson summons up a distinctive landscape of quagmires, moors, stands of spruce and alder. He returns repeatedly to images of human habitations abandoned to wilderness, spaces where humans no longer are. In “Late-born swarms…,” a poem evoking the swarms of insect life that fill the air in late summer and then are blown into oblivion in autumn, he writes:

If each one of them could be called a word,
then a life’s language blows away on the wind…
Uncounted and numberless most of what we see whirls
always away, a ceaseless scattering.

His own end was gloomy. Depressed after receiving the Nobel Prize—apparently at least in part because of public accusations that as a member of the Swedish Academy he had gotten it improperly—he committed suicide in 1978.

It was probably inevitable that a movie would be made of a poem bearing such kinship to cinematic visions of its own era and later. Aniara, directed by Pella Kågerman and Hugo Lilja, is an ambitious attempt at a marketable genre movie that remains faithful to Martinson. The result, while fascinating, is only partly successful, which was perhaps also inevitable. Martinson’s poem was a prophetic myth of the future, reveling in invented terminology while constantly, with elastic associative freedom, suggesting ancient parallels. The film, on the other hand, employs the visual language of the present, translating Martinson’s archaic-futuristic mode of expression into the language of news broadcasts and game apps and genre movies. Its future is the world we already inhabit.

We know it by the decor. The spaceship’s interiors are those of a tackily luxurious ferry, with high-end boutiques and arcade games to pass the time. The Mima is an advanced virtual reality installation, and the Mimarobe combines the roles of tour guide and therapist. The Mima’s breakdown elicits a memorial wall like those that went up after September 11. The implication that there is nothing new to see, that our safety belts are fastened and we are well past the point where disaster could be averted, is dispiriting in a way that the poem is not. Martinson in the mid-twentieth century wrote as a Cassandra whose prophecies were yet to be realized and might still be countermanded. The film seems to signal that in the interim a very different mentality has taken hold, a reluctant acknowledgment that the citadel is already irrevocably lost. The shock of apocalypse has worn off.

Martinson’s poem does not really have characters—there are multiple recurring figures who express themselves at times in long soliloquies, but never in anything resembling naturalistic dialogue. They are figures of dream or allegory, ideogrammatic embodiments that can change their form or aspect as the poem evolves, in a fluidity of movement that counteracts the deadening immobility of the passengers’ plight. Language, at least, can move. The filmmakers have had to invent dramatic personages and situations analogous to Martinson’s abstractions: an alcoholic scientist, a birth on shipboard, an ultimately tragic lesbian love affair. They succeed at many junctures in distilling moods of panic and misery and catatonic estrangement.

If there is not much of the poem’s constant insistence on the “intolerable void” of interstellar emptiness, the film effectively simulates the condition of being trapped in outer space in a floating shopping mall under dictatorial rule. One of the best scenes presents the dismal banquet as the ship’s commander attempts to celebrate the tenth year of Aniara’s voyage, to obligatory but tepid applause. Less successful is the handling of the various ascetic, orgiastic, or mystical cults that come and go within the ship. The more literally such scenes are represented, the more they tend to look like something that would happen in a movie. Martinson had the advantage of relying on the suggestive blur that in poetry can be sharper than the literal.

The devastation of the home planet, in which the poem is rooted, recedes into the background along with any strong sense that the passengers were already traumatized when they boarded the craft. The worst in fact has already happened. What remains is the drama of the lost spaceship and its passengers trying to retain some measure of selfhood in the face of silent infinite spaces. The film comes nearest to the original’s poetic force in its final scene, in which the image of Aniara as galactic sarcophagus is fully realized, all life within extinguished, still light-years distant from Lyra. The constellation of the lyre was certainly the most apt destination for a poem that itself can be imagined as the spaceship, the last-ditch vessel in which life can be preserved, provisionally and vulnerably, after everything else has gone under.