The 1950s was a decade of tensions. Europe was divided into two separate areas by the Iron Curtain. The Warsaw Pact and NATO were formed, and peace was maintained by the balance of terror. The threat of nuclear war loomed large. At the close of World War II, the first atomic bombings had been conducted by the United States. A few years later, the Soviet Union too demonstrated its ability to produce and detonate nuclear weapons.
At the same time, the 1950s were a decade of oblivion. Hundreds of millions of people were afflicted by memories of World War II, memories they desperately wanted to forget. However, forgetting was difficult; knowledge of the systematic killing that had gone on in the extermination camps became widespread at the end of the war as the news media spread reports of the atrocities that had taken place there across the world.
The 1950s were also the decade that witnessed the beginning of the space race between the two super powers. At first, the Soviet Union took the lead when Sputnik 1 was launched in October 1957, soon followed by Sputnik 2 with the dog Laika on board. A few months later, in January 1958, the American satellite Explorer 1 was successfully launched and was able to transmit data continuously back to earth.
The incidents of the 1940s and 1950s form the background of Harry Martinson’s (1904-1978) verse epic Aniara: A Review of Man in Time and Space, published in 1956 (Martinson 1956). In its 103 poems (or ”songs”, as they were called) Martinson depicts the fate of mankind in a remote future when space travel has become part of everyday life. However, it was just as much a story about the contemporary threat of nuclear war and about the recent past and, in particular, the brutalities of World War II. In spite of being set into space in a distant future, Aniara can be seen as an allegory of contemporary human life and human hubris.
The Verse Epic Aniara
The plot of Aniara is based on the idea that, as a result of nuclear war, the Earth has been contaminated with fallout and has been made uninhabitable. A fleet of spacecraft ferry people to Mars and Venus, where the population of the Earth must be evacuated. Aniara is a spaceship that routinely transports 8,000 emigrants to Mars. Soon after take-off, she is involved in a mid-air collision that renders her steering gear non-functional. Consequently, she veers off course, setting out on a journey into space with no possibility of ever reaching her destination. The reader follows the passengers’ fate during the next 24 years as they try to adapt to life in the space ship. The epic ends with a description of how Aniara continues her 15,000-year journey in the direction of the constellation Lyra.
The verse epic comprises 103 poems or “songs”. In spite of their lyric nature, they form a distinct narrative. The first 29 songs were published in an earlier volume (Cikada, 1953) as a separate poetic sequence entitled “The Song of Doris and Mima” (Martinson 1954). Martinson has described how he received the inspiration for this sequence when, on a clear night in August, 1953, he was able to see the Andromeda Galaxy through an ordinary pair of binoculars. The effect was so overwhelming that he had a vision of being on board a space ship. Between 1953 and 1956, he continued to expand the story of the spaceship Aniara (Wrede 1966: 17-40).
One of the main characters is the Mimarobe. He is a member of the crew on board but also acts as the poem’s narrator. This is how he describes what happens when the space ship, or “goldonder”, Aniara takes off from the Earth, or “Doris”, as Martinson calls it:
Goldonder Aniara’s locked, the siren gives the wail
for field-egress by the old routine,
and then the gyrospin commences towing
the goldonder upwards to the zeth light
where magnetrinos blocking field-intensity
soon signal level-zero and our field-release occurs.
And like a giant pupa without weight,
vibrationless, Aniara gyrates clear
and free of interference out from Earth.
A purely routine start, no misadventures,
A normal gyromatic field-release.
Who could imagine that this very flight
was doomed to be a space-flight, like to none,
which was to sever us from Sun and Earth,
from Mars and Venus and from Dorisvale. (from song 2) 
This example is typical of the new, quasi-scientific language that Martinson developed in order to suggest the space technology of the future. The most salient feature of Martinson’s poetic idiom is the occurrence of neologisms, which through their affinity with established scientific words (often of Greek or Latin origin) have an authentic-sounding ring despite being invented by the poet.
In a story about a spaceship that has gone astray in outer space, the description of space and the effect the monotonous environment has on the passengers is central. As the years pass by, space becomes increasingly terrifying:
The empty sterile space provokes our horror.
Glass-like its stare encircles us
and the systems of stars stand immobile
in the round crystal windows of our ship. (from song 10, p. 21)
Emptiness, darkness, and sameness are words that recur as the Mimarobe tries to describe the infinity of space. Every occasional sign of change outside the ship is noticed with interest:
In our eleventh year we saw a vision,
the leanest and the meagrest of visions:
a spear travelling through the Universe. (from song 53, p. 91)
Another example is the sight of an annihilated supernova:
At the telescope we shrink to see
a coal-black sun extinguished namelessly,
a black-clad sun in space’s burial ground
both blackened corpse and solar funeral mound
which first in firestorms blazed along time’s Cape
and shot flames where the jaws of darkness gape (from song 77, p. 126)
The most elaborate account of Aniara’s situation in space is delivered by the chief astronomer. He gives “a lecture on the depth of outer space”. In an effort to illustrate his reasoning he holds up a bowl of glass.
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 body of the glass, and in a thousand years
the bubble makes a journey in its glass.
Similarly, in an infinite space
a gulf of light years’ depth throws a vault
round bubble Aniara as she goes.
For though the rate she travels at is great
and much more rapid than a rushing planet’s,
her speed as seen against the scale of space
exactly corresponds to that we know
the bubble makes inside this bowl of glass. (from song 13, p. 25-26)
The chief astronomer, who is supposed to be possessed of superior knowledge about space, admits that “the space / we’re travelling in is of a different sort / from what we thought whenever that word ‘space’ / was decked out by our fantasies on Earth” (from song 13, p. 25-26). Instead of giving a scientific explanation of the phenomenon “space”, he refers to metaphysical entities like “God and Death and Mystery”.