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The fairy tale character Askeladden as imagined by the painter Theodore Kittelsen.

What the evolution of the hero in Norwegian fabulations can tell us about ourselves

SHARE YOUR SCIENCE: How has the Norwegian fantastic hero changed over time, and what can this tell us about ourselves?

On a warm summer day by a twinkling fjord, three young brothers are passing through. The last of them, wiry, blond and blue-eyed, stops to feel the breeze on his face. Then, he spots something on the path in front of him. What could it be? Could it be useful? He opens his cherry lips wide and bellows: “Brothers! I’ve found something!”

Heroes change over time

The boy’s name is “Askeladden”, the underdog-hero of a great number of Norwegian fairytales. With wit, charm and cunning he outsmarts his brothers, kings and even trolls, and always wins. But heroes change over time, also in speculative fiction.

Speculative fiction is a term that has become popular recently, perhaps because it is so inclusive. It means texts that begin with the question “what if…”, an umbrella genre, including weird stories, eutopias and dystopias, magical realism, horror, some fantasy and more. Such texts can, among other things, allow us to think outside of the box, especially when it comes to understanding ideals and imagined futures. In one way or another, imaginaries of the future lie near the heart of change in human societies. How has the hero of Norwegian speculations changed over time and what can this tell us?

The engineer/inventor-hero

There has of course been an element of the fantastic in storytelling as long as there have been people in the north. Yet, when it comes to written speculative fiction, Norway was somewhat “belated”. Norway cannot boast of those elaborate written excursions into the fantastic such as the French Voyages imaginaries (1787). However, at the beginning of the 20th century there begins a steady trickle of popular science fiction written by Norwegian authors. A unique figure emerges, that of the lone engineer/inventor-hero.

For instance, the fantastic “Sumo” appears in the 1944 adventure-novel Sumo griper inn; en fantastisk roman fra år 2045 (Sumo takes matters in hand: a fantastic novel from the year 2045 [my own translation]) Set in the city of Atlantia, world-famous engineer/inventor Sumo has created a secret anti-fighter-jet weapon to protect the population.

Sumo can solve any problem with the use of logic, rationality, mechanics and gadgets (The engineer-hero arguably continues to exist, for example in the form of our beloved Reodor Felgen from Flåklypa Grandprix). These texts are techno-positive in the extreme, perhaps inspired by the American Science Fiction publications of Gernsback and Campbell. Industrialization and war, techno-optimism and pre-occupation with gadgets and weaponry go into the creation of such heroes, and an imposing self-assurance. The enemies are recognizable and the heroes pillars of modernity and progress. The next hero in line has greater horizons.

The radical space-cadette

Her name is Gaia, biologist on the starship Marco Polo. Together with her mixed gender (and extremely equally paid) crew she sails around the universe and has psychedelic adventures.

Gaia is a heroine created as part of the first major “boom” marking Norwegian science fiction in the last hundred years. It began roughly in the middle of the 1960’s and lasted till the beginning of the 1990’s. Norwegians happily avoided the worst of the “science fiction pulp ghetto”. In international context this coincides with the “new wave” movement, where more emphasis was placed on the social, political and psychological aspects of change. This is arguably reflected in Norwegian texts of the period, including in those of the two so-called godfathers– Bing & Bringsværd. They created the Marco Polo, and generally did a massive job in creating an audience for science fiction in Norway, also through relatively new media.

Space had become the new frontier, now in real life not just science fiction, following the moon-landing. Norwegian imaginations were further inflamed by new international impulses, technological advances and concerns about automation and infrastructural developments. Grand global power-games were being played, in which Norway (and the starship Marco polo) suddenly seemed very small.

Yet, Gaia is brave and self-possessed. Her triumphs come as a result of a collaborative effort, not one characters ability to have sweet one-liner-comebacks and gadgets up their sleeve. The moral dilemmas Gaia and crew get caught up in reflect a preoccupation with social issues which were also central to the time: civil rights, consumerism and waste, encounters with others who are somehow alien. They win by being brave and doing what is right. But they also win by learning and adapting coolly to new circumstances and technologies, unfamiliar impulses and cultures, much as the Norwegian populace arguably would have liked itself to be perceived as doing at the time.

The petrified hero: stories for the end of the Anthropocene

The next hero is Brandon. He has left his boyfriend in the city for a quiet life in a cabin he buys on a whim, after having an affair with a professor. His new neighbours in the mountains are attempting to grow crops on the highland moor, taking advantage of the increased temperatures. Brandon gets swept along with their enthusiasm, while simultaneously applying to a new astronaut training program. However, he learns that some changes—internal, external—are irreversible. Thus, he hides out in his cabin, goes for really long runs with expensive equipment, and spends a lot of time sitting on the floor of his cabin.

Brandon lives in a near-future text (written in English) called Not Dark Yet by Berit Ellingsen. The text is part of the second boom in Norwegian speculative fiction began in the 1990’s and is arguably still happening, if it can still be called a boom. The number of publications has been on the rise, as a number of established authors have “dipped their toes” into the speculative (including Karl Ove Knausgård in his latest two novels).

Introspective supernatural elements

A few observations on contemporary texts. First, most have less of a clear plotline, compared to what went before. The focus is on creating an atmosphere, the large visuals, both in film, graphics and written text.

Second, the texts often have an element of science fiction or something supernatural, yet the focus is more introspective (like Von Trier’s film Thelma). The speculative element emerges as extrapolation of the tension that already exists within or between the characters.

For instance, in Bår Stenvik’s Informasjonen Sven the social control-freak ends up living through an Avatar where he can perfect every single aspect of human interaction. Or in Mathias Faldbakken’s Vi er Fem, where the sentient electric blob emerges out of a rural family’s discontent and need for connection. This is a distinction from “main stream” science fiction, where traditionally the novum (not-yet-existent piece of technology) acts upon the characters and the characters react, not vice versa.

Additionally, focus on the psychological is very much in line with for instance Nordic Noir in crime texts, Norwegian introspective jazz or the current fad for semi-autobiographical realism.

The petrified hero facing climate change

Third, there are a few recurring themes, including “climate-changed futures”. The majority of these are dystopic or post-apocalyptic scenarios, like in the atomic winter film Morgenrøde. Texts are often written in a tone of solastalgia, meaning a sense of loss and grief for what has been lost in the climate crisis, a narrative where everything was better before.

Which brings us back to Brandon. This hero does not go to space, though he thinks about it. In fact, he does not go anywhere. He is overwhelmed by the state of the world, the floods and droughts coming at him through the screen. He feels a kind of mental paralysis, an inability to take action though he knows some sort of action is called for.

The petrified hero may reflect the sense of powerlessness and inertia many contemporary Norwegians feel, faced with climate change and other global calamities of the day. He yearns for a past when things were better, cleaner. At the same time he is introspective and going nowhere, in every sense of the term. It is a norwegian “opting out” that characterizes this hero, one that is reminiscent of Ibsen’s Peer Gynt (“Gå utenom, Peer”). The text emphasizes processes of change, yet Brandon is not a driver in any of these processes. His powerlessness is combined with a privilege, and a remoteness from the real issues. We feel Brandon’s paralysis, guilt, his privileged inertia, as he continues to shamefacedly go for expensive runs and sit on bespoke cabin floors.

We need a hero

Our four heroes, Askeladden, Sumo, Gaia and Brandon, show us that speculative fiction can reveal something of the dominant concerns, ideals and hopes of a certain time and place. Sumo the engineer-hero reflects techno-optimism and a preoccupation with gadgets and warfare. In Gaia we find a true 70’s hero, occupied with morality, sites of struggle and adapting to new impulses. The hero of 2021, does not really seem like a hero at all. Yet, it is Brandon we see in the speculative mirror.

Hopefully, the next hero will have found their feet again. Found some sense of purpose, some belief in their ability and capacity to rise to the occasion. Perhaps it will be a new Askeladden, Askeladden the blond and blue-eyed sentient bioship, exploring the farthest fringes of the known universe.

With resolution and hope in their many eyes, Askeladden sails through the dark nothing. Then, Askeladden halts. They have spotted something. A moving mass in the distance, flickering shapes and impossible colours. What could it be? Could it be useful? Barely able to contain their excitement, Askeladden reports back to earth over the telepathic intercom: “Brothers! I’ve found something!”

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