In 1956, Swedish author (and later Nobel Laureate in Literature) Harry Martinson wrote a book-length science fiction poem called Aniara, about a spaceship taking refugees from a dying Earth to Mars. There’s an accident, and the Aniara is pushed off course, losing all steering ability and dooming its population to an eternal trip through space. The community aboard the ship fragments and self-destructs; they have sustainable resources enough to keep themselves alive, but lack the ability to keep themselves sane. It’s a fascinating story, and one I’ve written on before (in an academic paper in Scandinavica journal), so when the film adaptation (directed by Pella Kågerman and Hugo Lilja) came out I knew I had to see it.
It’s no surprise to anyone that adaptations are exactly that – they adapt source material, changing it to suit both the new medium, and the potentially new perspectives of the people adapting it. That’s certainly the case here, and I think it’s particularly interesting to take a closer look at the two main narrative changes that have occurred in this particular adaptation. (All subsequent book quotes come from the 1963 Hugh MacDiarmid and Elspeth Harley Schubert translation of Aniara.)
The first of these changes concerns the Mima. An artificial intelligence designed to provide leisure activities to the passengers of Aniara, the Mima’s capacities are markedly different in the film than in the book. I’m not entirely certain that these changes are for the better, however, as the Mima’s descent into profound grief and then suicide is one of the most significant turning points in both texts, and these changes alter the causes of her decline.
The film re-imagines the Mima as a form of meditative tool. Passengers enter an empty room and are provided with a pillow. They then lie face down on the floor, and the Mima has the capacity to alter their brain waves to induce a state of meditation. Each passenger then experiences their own, individualised form of virtual reality. They feel themselves to be transported into a calm and tranquil natural environment; one that is tailored to their particular preferences. This allows the individual to experience some of the lost beauty of the planet they are leaving, a planet which has become a burning apocalyptic wasteland, and one which has left many passengers with visible scars. Notable here is the personalised experience of the natural. Only one of these environments is actually depicted in the film, and the audience observes the Mimarobe, the primary caretaker of the Mima, walking through a beautiful forest, and swimming in a clean and isolated lake, but it is clear that each passenger experiences the Mima differently. The effect is primarily restorative, and as the strain of the voyage continues, the respite the Mima provides becomes more and more addictive. Notable, too, is that this respite is associated with the physical movement of looking down, of burying the face in the provided pillow and blocking off the reality of the outside world.
The Mima of the source material is initially different. It is concerned with looking rather than looking away, providing a focused and detailed view of the world outside the spaceship. “Pictures appear, / fragments of landscapes and we catch / snatches of language spoken somewhere. / But where?” (p. 6). The culture of observation that grows up around the Mima is an anchor for the dislocated, untethered group of passengers, and this shared experience bonds them together, providing a communal path through trauma. Notable here is that these images are not especially curated, in that the Mima cannot adapt them to the preferences of the passengers. She is incapable of deception. The Mima “is incorruptible and cannot lie” (p. 7), and thus becomes perceived by the passengers as being superior both in physical and moral sight. She is able to see further than they can, and she is able to see more clearly as well. The Mimarobe comments that this realisation prompts the passengers to treat the Mima almost as if she were divine: “they prostrate themselves as before an altar, / and I have often heard them whisper, / ‘Imagine – if only one were like the Mima!’” (p. 7).
While there are small indications that the poem’s Mima comforts the passengers in a similar way that the film version does – “the Mima, / like a friend in need, to everyone’s relief / threw open her treasury of visions” (p. 11) which “come from hidden worlds” (p. 21) – the final scenes shown by the Mima are again those of outward rather than inward looking. Specifically, they concern the destruction of the world left behind. Earth, known by the name of Douris, is dying, and “Mima shows it all, uncompromising, / transmits to the last picture, fire and slaughter” (p. 30). The consequences of this universal transmission, this shared and outward seeing, are incalculable. It’s worth quoting in their entirety here the two verses of her suicide:
She bade me tell the Leaders here that she
for sometimes past had felt as guilty as the very stones
for she had heard them crying out
as stones will do, on distant Douris’ plains
and she had seen the hot white tears of granite
when stones and ores are vaporized,
it wrung her heart to hear those stones lament.
Her cell-works dimmed and damaged by the cruelty
which in his evil only man can show,
she came, as might be expected, to the point
where she at last, as even Mimas must, broke down.
The indifferent third veben’s tacis
sees a thousand things no human eye can see.
Now, in the name of these, the Mima
craved for surcease. She will not speak again. (p. 33)
The suicide of the Mima is therefore treated very differently in film and poem. In the original text, the unblinking observation and acceptance of what humanity has done, ruining their planet and themselves, is so affecting that even artificial intelligence is moved to grief and suicide. In the absence of this rational, objective influence the population of the Aniara turns more and more to fracture and insanity. The film, in what is really an interesting choice considering the current conversations about climate change, biodiversity loss, and ecological damage, almost entirely removes this continued act of confrontation. The film version of the Mima is overwhelmed entirely by the emotions of the passengers, and shuts down because she can no longer cope. The film Mima, crucially, is also nearly voiceless. She has little opportunity to verbalise her grief at what she’s seen, and in that she is a reflection of the population of the ship, who have been forced to observe the destruction of their planet alongside her. The focus has changed, and subsequently the film is firmly set around the grief that comes from dislocation, not that which comes from the determined practice of destruction.
Science fiction has a long tradition of exploring the concept of colony ships, and the psychologies and communities that develop inside them. Clearly these populations and their mindsets will be influenced by a number of factors. The film joins with the poem in a genuinely effective exploration of what loss and dislocation does to an isolated population, but the film has, I think, far less to say about responsibility. That in itself contributes a further sense of disjunction to the resulting text, but I’m not sure that effect is a deliberate one. The amount of passengers with burn scars, for instance, indicates an escape from catastrophe, but there’s really very little acknowledgement, in the film – certainly explicit acknowledgement – that these injuries result from an environment that was, in its way, absolutely fashioned by humanity. The capacity for destruction, for environmental devastation, is – in the absence of natural environment – sublimated into the desire to destroy social rather than ecological communities. Yet the absence of the natural, and the reason for its absence, is a significant gap in the film’s narrative... And it’s a gap characterised by the capacity for sight.
The Mima exists as a sop. She is a means for traumatised people to cope with what accident has made of their lives – an eternity of homelessness, and the loss of hope and connection. Colony ship narratives often focus on the construction of a new community, of transitional loyalties and the adoption of new value systems. This is a way to keep such a ship sustainable, of course – when there’s no possibility of escape, a contained population must find a way to rub along together or die. But many of these colony ship narratives have populations that share something beyond accident and destruction. They might be leaving Earth to explore the galaxy and settle on another planet, but rarely do they do it because they’ve a hand in actively destroying the planet they already have. Here, the only reason the film passengers are on Aniara is because their planet has, through war and exploitation, been made deliberately uninhabitable by them.
That is a shared experience, a shared responsibility, which must be genuinely crippling to any sense of subsequent social responsibility. Yet it’s papered over, and I find that unfortunate.
What it has done, however, is to allow the film to focus entirely on the emotional response of a community to hopelessness. It’s not just the immediate loss that’s affecting these people – the disbelieving response of the mother who had promised to be on Mars by her small son’s birthday, and now faces the certainty of never seeing him again – it’s the aimlessness, the loss of purpose, that this eternal journey brings with it.
There’s just no prospect, no realistic prospect, of this journey ever ending. The Aniara’s captain does his best to string people along with hopes of rescue and recovery, but he’s lying to himself as well as his passengers and quickly crumbles under the weight of knowledge and responsibility. Neither is there the prospect of the journey ending in a generation, or even two. People can have hope for their children when they have none for themselves, but it’s difficult to live for descendants tens of thousands of years in the future, if at all. (Look at how difficult it is for most of us to take steps to leave a habitable world for those born a hundred years from now.) That far-distant possibility is not enough to hang a functioning society on. No wonder they all crumble to insanity under all that endless bleakness.
Oh, there are efforts to get a school going, to find sufficient work and leisure for everyone aboard so that they have structure and purpose to their days, but the loss of the Mima removes the main source of respite and comfort (in the film) and respite and responsibility (in the poem). If there’s nothing to keep alive for, what’s even the point?
Both texts are very clear that children won’t do it. The poem has a minor character called Chebaba, who kills her newborn to spare it a life of pointlessness and insecurity: “Chebaba sat in her most fruitful year / in deepest bliss beside a tiny bier / where lay the little rosy bud / that she had saved from growing up / in Aniara’s realm” (p. 53). And it’s horrifying, but the poem is filled with small and horrifying scenes. Infanticide, it must be said, is far more effectively exploited as an emotional hook in the film, where it’s explored so thoroughly it turns from example and into genuine tragedy.
The Mimarobe develops a relationship with the pilot Isagel and together the two women have a son. For a year they play at happy families, although Isagel is clearly suffering from a hideous combination of PTSD and post-partum depression. Finally the inevitable happens, and the Mimarobe returns to their quarters to find the toddler drowned, the mother having hung herself. It’s awful. The most affecting scene in the film, and all the more effective because of the truly excellent decision the directors make to have all violence off screen. (An extremely explicit full frontal nudity orgy is fine, by comparison. I imagine this choice might have been reversed in other countries.)
There’s nothing of “bliss” about Isagel’s choice. Both she and Chebaba want to spare their children, but Chebaba takes pleasure in the ability to destroy what she has created – or if not pleasure, at least pride and acceptance. Isagel cannot, and it’s no coincidence, I think, that Chebaba’s reaction comes from a narrative that is unflinching about humanity’s choice to destroy their planet, and Isagel’s comes from a narrative that prioritises loss of hope over loss of home.
Look, this isn’t a happy film. There is no happy ending. There’s not even a happy beginning, because Aniara, in any medium, is not a story about happiness. It’s a story about crumbling in the total absence of hope; a story where a population becomes so degraded it not only destroys its original home, but any possibility of subsequent ones. But it is relentlessly thoughtful, beautifully filmed, and the performances of the actors are fantastic. Emelie Jonsson as the Mimarobe, Bianca Cruzeiro as Isagel, Arvin Kananian as the increasingly unstable and authoritarian captain, and Anneli Martini as the drunken, cynical astronomer are genuinely outstanding.
Go and see it, if you can. But once you have, go back out into the world and make sure that you choose to keep it... because destruction, like creation, is a choice.