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Nilsson, Peter

Entry updated 31 August 2018. Tagged: Author.

(1937-1998) Swedish astronomer and author. Nilsson grew up on a small farm in Möcklehult, a small rural community where the family moved in 1948. His father was a miller, carpenter and farmer, and after elementary school Nilsson started working, but had also begun reading widely and dreamt of becoming a writer and of studying the stars. He began taking correspondence courses and in 1959 graduated from secondary school. After military service, he enrolled at Uppsala University, where he studied astronomy, physics, mathematics, aesthetics and the history of ideas. In 1964, he secured a position at the Astronomical Observatory, where he wrote his doctoral thesis, a classification of 12,921 galaxies published as Uppsala General Catalogue of Galaxies (1973). In the 1970s, Nilsson gradually came to view writing as his primary calling. His first collection of essays, Upptäckten av universum: essäer om människor och världsbilder ["The Discovery of the Universe: Essays on Humans and Images of the World"] (coll 1975) dealt with Johannes Kepler, Goethe's theory of colours and not least Herman Hesse's novel Das Glasperlenspiel (1943 2vols; trans as Magister Ludi 1949; trans as The Glass Bead Game 1969), a book that inspired Nilsson to approach reality as consciously coordinated (see below). Later books of nonfiction followed: Stjärnvägar ["Star Ways"] (coll 1991) collected essays on how mythology and science have jointly formed our interpretations of the universe, a theme also addressed in Rymdljus ["Space Light"] (coll 1992) and Solvindar ["Solar Winds"] (coll 1993). Nilsson's approach builds in part on his conviction that human myths are often based on observations of celestial phenomena, and that consequently our Perceptions of the universe have helped form our beliefs and our interpretation of our selves.

These notions are very much in evidence in Nilsson's sf. His first sf novel, Arken: berättelsen om en färd till tidens ände ["The Ark: The Story of A Journey to the End of Time"] (1982) is at heart an imaginative history spanning the period from the formation of the earth to the end of the universe. The protagonist, called Benjamin, is an immortal (see Immortality), wandering continents and millennia until advances in Technology allow him to journey to the Stars, where he can finally observe oblivion. In the text, Benjamin is repeatedly revealed as a Forerunner figure and the source of myths central to Western man, not least that of Jonah and the great fish. Avgrundsbok ["Book of the Abyss"] (coll of linked stories 1987), follows a similar pattern as, perhaps absurdly, the Queen of Sheba journeys through space and time; the published stories are revised scenes from a very long but never published novel Nilsson had worked on already in his teens. Again, the interplay between religious and mythical tropes and modern science is stressed.

Äventyret ["The Adventure"] (1989) even more obviously mixes religious tropes with a purportedly historical narrative; Caspar Staibner, whose family since time immemorial has guarded seeds from the Tree of Knowledge, due to an episode involving Charlemagne manages to find Sambation, the river which in a Jewish legend is the beginning and end of all, and by its bank plants his seed which takes root and makes it possible for Caspar, or mankind, to eat its fruit.

Nilsson's major and final work, the two related novels Rymdväktaren ["The Space Guardian"] (1995) and Nyaga (1996), is in parts almost essayistic; here Nilsson returns to the notions both a music as a parallel to, and in part interpretation of the universe, and to the trope of immensely superior Alien beings who by imparting some of their secrets help humanity to evolve to a higher level where a cosmic Quantum Computer can be created to solve the final riddles of existence.

In Glaspärlespelaren ["The Glass Bead Player: New Worlds, Ethics and Androcentrism in Peter Nilsson's Science Fiction Novels"] (2013), Britt Johanne Farstad illuminatingly traces the central theme of Nilsson's work to the wish to combine science and the humanities envisioned in Herman Hesse's novel, and so views Nilsson as in a sense one of the glass-bead players. She notes that the future or Alternate Worlds created by Nilsson are in fact driven by religious myths and archaic narrative structures, and so become infused with both ancient and obsolete superstitious notions and hierarchical social and gender models. A striking point in Farstad's thesis is that while modern sf tends towards an "aleatoric" view – in which humans alone are responsible for the consequences of their actions, Nilsson's sf instead expresses a "teleological" view, where superior, god-like Alien beings guide humanity and where humans are absolved from responsibility. This view, then, in an important sense counteracts the rationalistic and scientific underpinnings of the Nilsson's narratives, as only his recurring protagonist – a male "wizard", often immortal, always a Scientist, mathematician and author – can achieve that divine consciousness which is able to interpret the universe.

Nilsson, then, is in fact a deeply conservative writer utilizing technological and scientific tropes and models to restore a pre-scientific perception of reality. But in Sweden, his authority as a prominent scientist – he was a member of the International Astronomical Union and elected to the Royal Academy of Science – clearly influenced the reception of his novels, which were uniformly hailed by critics generally ignorant of science fiction; Arken also became a bestseller.

At the same time, Nilsson was also a writer of considerable talent and depth, and by both his example and his own respect for sf as a literary field had a clear influence on how the form is viewed in Sweden. His standing as a modern classic ensures that sf can no longer be dismissed with impunity, as was the case earlier. It is not insignificant that Farstad's thesis on Nilsson, noted above, was the first doctoral work explicitly concerned with sf to be accepted by the department of Literature at a Swedish university, the very few earlier theses concerned with sf having been relegated to the subset of studies in the sociology of literature. [J-HH]

Nils Peter Herman Nilsson

born Näsby, Sweden: 17 October 1937

died Skärplinge, Sweden: 8 March 1998

works (selected)


  • Avgrundsbok ["Book of the Abyss"] (Stockholm, Sweden: Norstedt, 1987) [coll of linked stories: hb/]
  • Messias med träbenet ["Messias with a Wooden Leg"] (Stockholm, Sweden: Norstedt, 1990) [coll: some sf only: hb/]



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