Judged by standards of household or pulpit familiarity, Harry Edmund Martinson and Eyvind Johnson are scarcely in a class with Alexander Solzhenitsyn, T. S. Eliot, and Ernest Hemingway. But these two Swedish writers shared the 1974 Nobel Prize in Literature and so ascended to stand with Solzhenitsyn and the rest as Nobel laureates.

For the person who does not read Swedish, assessing these writers is difficult. The only work to be found in English is Martinson’s epic poem Aniara, published in 1956 and translated in 1963. But this small work makes the search worthwhile. Aniara tells the story of a sorrowladen interplanetary vehicle, a refugee ship from stricken Earth to Mars, lost forever in the galactic gloom. The poem is of particular interest to the Christian reader because it depicts with unusual clarity the terrified state of mind of secular man when he is without hope and without God.

The plot is simple. Poisoned by repeated warfare, Earth has been rendered uninhabitable. To escape, survivors of World War Thirty-Two emigrate to Mars on huge spaceships called “goldondas.” “Aniara” is one of these spaceships, measuring three miles long and half a mile wide and carrying 8,000 passengers. The poem is a first-hand record of that voyage, narrated by an engineer responsible for a godlike computer called the Mima. Among the Mima’s divine attributes are omniscience and compassion; its purpose is to entertain Earth’s orphans as they journey to Mars, looking toward the licentious freedoms that await them in the new Paradise.

But disaster overtakes “Aniara” when a near-collision with an asteroid causes the ship to swerve out of its course. Missing the orbit of Mars Aniara then attempts to steer toward some other refuge known to our ...

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