Archive for April, 2017

I was recently asked about Swedish science fiction, and since my response ended up approximately blog-post length, I figured I’d edit it and put it up here. Also, I’m heading to Sweden for three weeks starting tomorrow, and not sure whether I’ll be posting anything while there–we’ll see. Possibly some vacay photos on Instagram though, and maybe some art, if I can find the time.
As far as science fiction and fantasy goes (or speculative fiction more generally), I would divide the texts I’m aware of into three sets: 1) fantasy/sci-fi/horror in the “mainstream” of Swedish literary history, whether genre authors or “literary” authors “slumming” (I’ve included a couple non-Swedish texts here just to fill out the range a bit more), 2) children’s lit, and 3) the pulp fantasy/sci-fi/horror that is more clearly derivative of/participatory in international fandom–this latter has been growing (English language material has always been popular, but the vernacular element has been increasing a lot), though this outgrowth of fandom/geek culture has been more “pulpy” in Sweden, vs the more literary “Finnish Weird“, which, according to a conversation I had with Johanna Sinisalo, is otherwise very similar in it’s fandom origins.

1) Mainstream

Potuan Maiden by Callego[not Swedish, but–Niels Klim’s Underground Journey by the Norwegian Ludvig Holberg seems like a good book to mention just in terms of the genealogy of otherworldly literature generally. From about the same time as Gulliver’s Travels, and perhaps even more suitable as a sort of predecessor to what we think of as science fiction now–plus Holberg is pretty prominent in Scandinavian literary history. See my previous post on this book here.]

Kallocain, by Karin Boye–this is dystopian literature from the same (general) period as 1984, Brave New World, etc (Boye’s novel came out in 1940 I think? she committed suicide not long after). You should be able to find this in Sweden no prob (I think it is considered a somewhat peripheral classic), and I thought the English translation was fine (click the title for a link to the online version–I believe it is still available in print too though) and had a good introduction to the author and the work. Translations of her poetry are available online as well.

Aniara by Harry Martinson–so yeah, pretty sure this is the only epic poem about a doomed spaceflight written by a Nobel Prize winning author that exists out there. Hard to find an English copy, last I checked (saw some translations going for crazy amounts of money), but shouldn’t be a problem getting Swedish copies over in Sweden, as Martinson is quite central to the canon. There is also an opera version, but I can only find small clips on youtube. 😦  A pretty difficult read, if you are accustomed to more popular sci fi and less experienced with poetry, but I still recommend it.
While I don’t have specific titles in my memory at the moment, Swedish physicist Peter Nilsson is worth looking out for, though I’m not sure how much his titles are still in print (I believe he passed away quite some time ago), and I don’t believe there were ever any English translations made (but of course, if anyone wants to hire me for such a project, I have a free summer…). I have an omnibus of three of his books, and have read the first (a long time ago). For the most part it was like a Carl Sagan book, imaginative and poetic meditations on science, the vastness of the universe, etc (though keep in mind that the science involved is from the 80s, maybe 90s at latest), with a final chapter that turns to straight-up speculation of the hard sci-fi sort. I believe his other work is more of the usual sort of science fiction narrative art, but I will need to find out myself one of these days…
Urminnes Tecken by Kerstin Ekman–another major name in Sw literary history, though this book (I’ve read part but it got pushed out of the way by more urgent reading) is very different from the crime novels she got her start with–a very literary take on the idea of the “small folk”, fairies, underearthers, whatever you want to call them.
[not Swedish, but: Smilla’s Sense of Snow by Peter Høeg is a crime novel that evolves into something with more of a science fictional premise. His novel The Quiet Man is a also interesting, more of a paranormal theme. Haven’t read anything else by him yet, alas.]
Books by John Ajvide Lindqvist, Sweden’s writer of “philosophical horror”. You’ve probably heard of Let the Right One In, either the book or the movie–I’ve only seen the movie (the book is pretty long I believe). I’ve taught his Handling the Undead, a sort of low-key zombie movie (this one probably edges more towards sci-fi, vs LTROI), and he’s got several other books out. I would think of him as a Steven King type, but that is not at all to suggest that he is derivative.
WP_20150909_10_56_31_ProThe Merman (Havsmannen) and The Horrific Sufferings of the Mind-Reading Monster Hercules Barefoot (Den vidunderliga kärlekens historia), by Carl-Johan Vallgren. I haven’t read anything else by him, and am on-pause with the latter book because the next plot point was apparently the rape of a young girl and I am not sure I have the nerve to read that atm (he seems to have pretty intense stuff in his books, so be warned), but as far as literary fiction with science fictional and horror elements, these two books seem to be the most obvious recommendations to me. I thought Havsmannen was really great, essentially sci-fi in that the Merman is the novum, but set in 80s small town Sweden–and involves enough trigger warnings that I’m hesitant to teach it…
And I’m currently reading Alkemistens Dotter (The Alchemist’s Daughter–not to be confused with an English-language novel of the same name) by one of the “Stockholm Surrealists” Carl-Michael Edenborg–really enjoying it. Nominated for the “August Prize” (named for famous Swedish author August Strindberg–and whoops, forgot to mention above that Vallgren won the Augustpriset in 2002 for Den vidunderliga kärlekens historia). Not sure to what degree it is period fiction, fantasy, sci-fi (or “steampunk” with the alchemy?), or horror, and given what else Edenborg has written it could turn into erotica. In any case, it seems very well done so far.
2) Children’s Literature
Astrid Lindgren is the obvious starting point here. Her Pippi books are great of course, but her The Brothers Lionheart, Ronja the Robber’s Daughter, and Mio My Mio (and probably others) will fit well enough with the expectations of fantasy readers. The last I found hard to read because it was so clearly written for very young kids, but TBL is pretty intense, despite some similar “oh my darling brother” moments. TBL deals with topics like premature death, suicide, and war, so, you know, brace yourself…
IMG_2948Tove Jansson’s Moomin/Mumintroll books are great, in case those fit what you are looking for. I used them to help improve my Swedish and found them slightly more difficult than, say Pippi.
Back in the 90s Niklas Krog started writing historical fiction and fantasy for young adults–I think he was sort of a prelude to the stuff we will see in the next section. I’ve read half of his En Krigares Hjärta, generally enjoyed the premise, pretty standard worldbuilding, what I’ve seen of the YA romance part of it is not so much my thing, but I think that has more to do with the fact that I don’t read YA (well, that is changing…). Looks like he has been pretty prolific since I first came across his work–Niklas, if you need a translator, I’m happy to oblige! 🙂

3) The Fantasy/Sci-Fi ghetto–this maybe mostly covers fantasy, which seems more connected to the gamer culture that, from what I’ve seen, drove a lot of the publication of Swedish language speculative fiction in the 2000s–I didn’t start seeing these till mid 2000s, but I think they were building momentum throughout that decade.
http://www.neogames.se/ (NOT .com) is the company I saw behind most of these books–Andreas Roman is a name on a lot of the books I picked up from that time, but… I actually haven’t read them yet (hard to prioritize fantasy reading when it doesn’t have to do with your PhD or teaching…). 😦  I did find an audio short story of his somewhere once–maybe even on amazon. The one book I did read of these (Korset och Tronen) was a fine enough read for a franchise novel–and I think that’s what you have to expect quality-wise for most of these (though it does look like Roman has transcended that pigeonhole a bit). Here are their novels: http://www.neogames.se/se/shopwindow.php?id=45876&shopwindow=8093605   I read “Korset och Tronen” quite a few years ago–I believe the “Cross” bit had a weird backstory in order to be able to bring this Christian symbol into a world that had no Christianity–I think it represented a faction that filled the “Christian” role… So you can kinda see how the worldbuilding is fairly “gaming-centric”, building with categories that will feel familiar to a broad range of folks.
WP_20150909_10_58_10_ProMore recently I picked up a huge tome, first in a series, called Svavelvinter. Seems to be very Game of Thrones/Malazan Book of the Fallen style fantasy. From what I understand it is related to another gaming system (don’t have links at the moment, sorry), and I think the first book originally came out in 2004–anyway, I’ve gotten a good way in and as far as I can tell it’s on par with the usual epic multi-volume fantasies on the market here. Story set-up is taking a while, but I believe that is standard enough for multi-volume fantasy…
So I think the gaming angle is still going strong, but two years ago when I was there I saw that different groups have been putting out collections of short stories. The collection Waiting for the Machines to Fall Asleep is in English, but I’ve been slow to get into it–two or three of the first stories I tried just did not sit well with me quality-wise, but I don’t want to write the whole thing off.
The collection Maskinblod has some sequels, so it seems there is a market for short sci-fi in Sweden. I did feel like there were still some weak stories, and many I’m a bit undecided about quality-wise, but others feel like they would be at home in some of the usual journals I read. Several are prize-winners as well, so worth a look even if you don’t end up liking all the stories…
WP_20150909_10_57_15_ProSimilar mixed feelings for I Varje Ångetag, Swedish “Oscarian” (sim. to Victorian) Steampunk–this one really feels like a franchise publication again, quality wise, and I think it is supposed to feel that way. Not sure to what extent it is a shared world, but it looks as though there are efforts in that direction. It’s fun, but most of the stories feel like a quick dip into an interesting “gee whiz!” world without the stories feeling as developed in their own right as I would like. But I think I may appreciate the stories better now that I know what to expect.
I also picked up a collection by the author KG Johansson, “translator, rock music professor, and prize winning author”, called Fyra Kvinnor Fyra Flickor (I think referencing the main characters in the stories). Seems promising from the little bit I’ve read so far, and Johansson does have an impressive list of awards. Hoping to get through more of Johansson’s work soon.

Final notes–the “big names” in the first set are your best bet if you are primarily interested in literary quality or literary history (though most of these are peripheral to the canon). The children’s books are fun (esp. the Moomin ones)–I don’t know whether you speak Swedish, are a learner, or are a native speaker, but the Moomins are great for an intermediate learner. Krog’s books and the ones in the third section are what you want if you want pulpy, geek-culture fantasy in Swedish (this is not to say you can’t get “literary” quality from this set, but it may be more hit or miss) and are able to get the books from Sweden (both the “Science Fiction Bokhandeln” and “NeoGames” have an online store, but I don’t know whether it is possible to order from outside Sweden).

I am really looking forward to visiting the Science Fiction Bokhandeln in Gamla Stan again in a couple weeks–as usual I can’t just buy out the store (as much as I would like to), but I may try ordering by mail some time (not certain whether this would work–ordering books from Sweden is not always an available option).

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Just some loose thoughts on Earth Day–not a comprehensive overview here, so if you are looking for comparative mythology check elsewhere for today. But you certainly don’t have to look far to find traditional (or non-traditional) personifications of the earth, whether we are thinking of the planet as a whole or, more locally, the ground beneath our feet or before our eyes. Regarding the latter, finding human features in the landscape is common enough, whether we are imagining trolls turned to stone or finding a profile in a cliff, and of course we love to take it a step further and actually shape the earth in our image–or tease the inanimate into more surreal human likenesses, as with my Inktober illustration to the left. The effect can range from the playful to the uncanny–after all, we don’t really want the world to look back, do we? It is an uncomfortable reminder that our visibility is such an essential element of our own existence–that we are as much a part of the world as what we are looking at, as prone to being seen, being used. Yikes, that turned dark quick…

At a bit of a remove from the animated earth we have the earth as “nature” (in opposition to human “culture”) inhabited by our mirror images, the “Hidden Folk,” the “Under-earthers,” “elves,” etc–in Scandinavian folklore of a century or two ago these communities overlap with our own spatially, except that they live under the ground, or in some other invisible manner (and to extend my “mirror images” metaphor, many stories about them feature dramatic inversions–their food is our feces and vice versa, their gold our rubbish). Further away from the human community the bodies of the otherworldly folk may even be inclined to blur a bit with the natural world they represent–the Swedish skogsrå, part temptress part forest sprite, may be recognized as a monster from her backside, which is a hollowed out tree, or at least barky, and of course the trolls one finds in the mountains may also end up part of the mountain, like the three in The Hobbit.

Jord (Earth) and Thor for Earth Day by Callego

My 2014 Earth Day illustration–a very particular interpretation of Thor’s mother, after watching Studio Ghibli’s “Spirited Away” for the upteenth time.

But as for more explicit representations of the earth, I come up with primarily female figures, which seems pretty standard for the Western tradition. The “Mother Earth” figure can be an empowering, perhaps even subversive one (don’t know to what degree this is taken up in ecofeminism, but that would be a place to look), but this gendered association of female/earth brings with it (or has attracted) some patriarchal baggage as well. What is a landscape in Freud’s symbolism? A woman’s body, duh (and a cave represents the female genitals–and who hasn’t been subjected to the tomb/womb equivalence in some poetry class or another? OK, I confess that comment is motivated more out of embarrassment over an early poem of my own…). We don’t have to take Freud’s suggested symbols as somehow rooted in the fabric of reality (if I understand correctly, his understanding of his symbolism edged towards the historically situated later in life), but we can note that the association of women’s bodies with inanimate, if fecund, nature is not strange to us. We speak of “virgin territory,” for example, the metaphorical equivalences at play being the male explorer as virile lover (or rapist, since there is no volition on the side of the explored/ravished in this model) and the unexplored land as virginal–the land is defined in terms of its exploitation, impending or incomplete, just as a “virgin” (ie, a maiden–it is clearly female virginity that is at play here, though changing that around would be an interesting subversion) is thus defined by her impending or incomplete exploitation. While we should be cautious about projecting ideology we’ve inherited from the age of exploration and colonialism onto the medieval past, we do find comparable equivalence in the portrayal of the relationship of the king to the land/kingdom, the control and protection of women mapping onto the control and protection of territory–but I’m afraid I do not remember the reference (I think I’ve got an article by someone on the subject in my computer somewhere…). I will try to remember to note it here when I run across it again. But in any case, we should really not be surprised to find patriarchal ideology in anything to do with medieval kingship…

In Norse mythology there is of course the goddess Jörð (=Earth), whom I posted about for a previous earth day. I don’t think there is much we can hazard regarding her cult significance in the pre-Christian era, unfortunately (but keep in mind I specialize more in the medieval texts the myths were written down in). If we could take a peek at Viking age beliefs, perhaps we would find more developed images of Jörð to counter the more patriarchal frame of the myths as recorded in Christian Iceland (though of course, the “Viking Age” didn’t have any sort of uniform orthodoxy, and we certainly are free to work with Jörð’s character in new and liberating ways now), but in the context of the medieval Icelandic Eddas she is caught up with all the other women in the machinations of the male gods (note how place name evidence suggests a much larger cult significance for the goddesses than the surviving myths seem to indicate). While she is a giantess, she is counted among the gods as one of Óðinn’s many mistresses, a role which itself reinforces the state of negative reciprocity between gods and giants (as I touch on in this far-too-lengthy discussion of the mead of poetry). She is often referenced as mother of Þórr (Thor) (we might also note that Frigg’s largest role in the mythology revolves around her being mother of Baldr). As usual, we find a god in the patriline and a giantess (or sometimes a goddess) in the matriline–when this rule is broken, well, apparently then we get Loki (but we’ll leave that for another time). In Haustlöng, one of the early shield poems, we have Jörð’s role as both mother of Þórr and the earth highlighted in Þórr’s intimidating approach to his duel with the giant Hrungnir–in stanza 14 Þórr, explicitly kenned as Earth’s son, rides through the air with such violence that the skies (the “moon’s path”) resound under him (though keep in mind that he is clattering along in his cart pulled by goats… possibly a reference to how his idol would originally have been carried around for cult purposes, actually), then in stanza 15 this weather-god (thunderer, remember) makes his entry even more dramatic with a hail-storm that tears up the earth so that it was about to split. The kenning used for earth here is “Svölnir’s widow”–Svölnir being Óðinn, Óðinn being known for the fact that he will die (has died?) in Ragnarök. So the sense is “Óðinn’s bereaved.” From the context this must be Jörð (rather than Frigg–or any others of the big guy’s mistresses), since it is the ground that is being pummeled by the hail. Since Jörð is being kenned specifically by her relationship to Óðinn, her status as Þórr’s mother is highlighted here. The essentials are “The son of earth rode through the sky so hard it sounded like it was going to fall apart, and made such a bit hailstorm that his mother’s body was about to split apart.” So we have the body of a giantess, representative of the foundation of the natural world, and whatever her relationship to the men involved, sacrificed (only poetically here, don’t worry) for the sake of the giant killer’s grand entrance. A bit beyond the “step on a crack” rhyme, ain’t it. This is, as said, a pretty early poem, so we can’t blame Snorri here.

The death of Ymir, as imagined by Lorenz Frolich

Alas, violence against the matriline is not unheard of with the gods (though we should note that Icelanders actually reckoned kin bilaterally, including when it came to responsibility for bloodfeuds, so the story we get into now is in fact rather problematic…), and with this we will turn to our final example of a personification of the earth: The original (and originary) Frost Giant Ymir. Check out Prose Edda for a more thorough account in Gylfaginning (or at least Snorri’s version), but the basics are: the world started with a big gap between a world of ice and a world of fire. In the middle the two mingled and became a person (of course). This is Ymir! Ymir (whom we refer to with masculine pronouns, but for reasons about to be revealed this is problematic) lived on the milk of a cow, who in turn lived by licking ice. These were the people in the universe (well, Surtr was apparently off lurking by the realm of fire). How did we get more? Well, before we got to the birds and the bees, there were three ways: The cow licked a person out of the ice; Ymir sweated other giants out of his armpits; and Ymir’s feet had sex with each other and made more giants (OK, some birds and bees there I guess). Then at some point the boy licked out of the ice (or his son, but how did that happen…) married a girl who came out of… well, either an armpit or a foot, I guess, got together and from them the gods were born! Ta da! So Óðinn is non-giant in his patriline, and giant in his matriline (note this is the same as with his own son). And then Óðinn and his brother killed their maternal kinsman Ymir and made the world out of his body. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

The surviving texts suggest to us that this is not the only creation myth in circulation (for example, there also seems to be a typical “land rising out of the ocean, causing a fight between a god of order and demon of chaos” myth, but we can only guess about that one), but this bloody origin of the world is the one we got in the most detail. I do always enjoy recounting the story to the uninitiated, but I think quite apart from all the weirdness Ymir is a fascinating figure, and has a lot of potential for thinking about gender, violence, and our relationship to the environment.

Concluding thoughts: Why personify the earth? What has driven that in the past, and why might we do so now? One possible explanation is it gives us a way to articulate the agency we witness/experience from the environment, whether in positive terms or negative terms–that the world acts on us and reacts to us we cannot deny, but even now the only language we really have for discussing “actors” is that of human agency. Another might be a denial of our participation in earth and environment, setting ourselves in opposition to it by placing our mirror image “over there.” And of course, if we understand our relationship to the environment as a competition, as exploitation, or if we haven’t yet formulated that thought but deep down are a bit uneasy… well, much easier to articulate a relationship of either exploitation or obligation with a “person” than with the vastness that is the “world.” Many other ways to “explain” this of course, and there is no reason to settle on one, once and for all.

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