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Peter Nilson (1937-1998)


Swedish writer and astronomer, whose work moved between poetry and science, modern cosmological theories and fiction. Nilson became first known as a popularizer of science, but he also wrote novels following the tradition of magic realism. "The great, cosmic story is different from all the tales we can make up on the earth," Nilson has said. "We do not know anything about its end, we cannot even imagine how it is going to end. A tragedy, comedy? or perhaps something else." Nilson's books have been translated into some 13 languages.

"Musiken är som stjärnhimlen: den lockar oss att fantisera över oerhörda ting och spana ut över den jordiska tillvarons gränser." (from Ljuden från kosmos, 2000)

Peter Nilson was born in Näsby, Småland, but at the age of ten his family moved to Möcklehut, where he grew up. His father Herman worked as a miller, carpenter and farmer. After finishing elementary school Nilson helped at the farm, but at the same time had dreams of becoming an astronomer and a writer. He undertook correspondence courses and graduted in 1959 from a secondary school. After doing his military service, he entered the University of Uppsala, where he studied astronomy, physics, mathematics, esthetics, and history of learning. From 1964 Nilson worked at Astronomiska Observatoriet, where he wrote his doctoral thesis, General Catalogue of Galaxies (1973), was a classification of 12 921 galaxies.

In 1969 Nilson married Margareta Gustafsson; they had one daughter. After a successful career as a scientist and researcher, Nilson devoted himself from 1977 entirely to literature. He published historical and science fiction novels, columns, and essays, which gained a wide audience from the 1980s. He also contributed to newspapers and magazines, including Göteborgs-Posten and Metro. Besides popularizing astronomy, he posed the questions of why we are here, who we really are, and what are the limits of our knowledge. In radio he introduced the world of the stars to the general public in the program Svar i dag. Nilson was awarded the Harry Martinson Prize in 1986, and in 1993 he was elected member of The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. Peter Nilson died of cerebral haemorrhage on March 8, 1998. Before his death, Nilson completed the essay Ljuden från kosmos (2000), in which he examined the ancient analogy between music and cosmos.

Uupptäcken av universum (1975), Nilson's first collection of essays, dealt among others Johannes Kepler, Goethe's theory of colors, and Hermann Hesse's The Glass Bead Game, which inspired Nilson to approach reality as if there were a conscious coordination behind everything. In 1982 Nilson published his first science fiction novel, Arken: berättelsen on en färd till tidens ände (The Ark: The Story of a Journey to the End of Time), a visionary history from the birth of earth to the end of the universe. The protagonist is Benjamin, a man who cannot die. During a nap in the madhouse, he is swallowed by an artifical fish. Benjamin wanders through counties and centuries, eventually heading for stars. In Avgrundsboken (The Book of the Abyss) Nilson combined legend and religion with science fiction, when the improbable main character, Queen of Sheba, is followed in her journeys through space and time. Nilson had already started to compose the story, a large novel, in his teens.

Usually, the central characters in Nilson's stories are drifters, who are too restless to settle down. Trollkarlen (1979), set in the late Middle Ages, was inspired by Albrecht Dürer's drawings. The protagonist is an adventurer and magician, Bernward Bienewitz, who is drawn into a game of evil powers which he is not able to control. In the character of Bernward, and his unsatiable appetite for knowledge, Nilson has also described himself. "I hans vidlyftiga själ rörde sig tankar om allt mellan jordens medelpunkt och primum mobile, allt mellan argumentum ontologicum and statskonstens principer, allt mellan biets flykt och ekvinoktiernas omlopp. ... Han var en av dessa oemotståndliga människor som blir upprymda och lyckliga över att tala on outgrundliga tid."

Guldspiken (1985), set in the 19th-century, was partly based on lives of real people. The protagonist, Elias, is an orphan and a misfit, plagued by religious visions. He works at a mill, drinks, and finally escapes to the sea. Back in Sweden he decides to start a new life, and moves to America. After years of wandering he finds gold with the help of ghosts and returns to home as a rich man. On the other level the novel is a story of rebel against God  all of Elias's journeys are just a way fight against his fate to become a preacher.

Nilson often set his tales of individual aspirations and fates against his large cosmic visions. His later works include Rymdväktaren (1995, The Space Guardian), which the author himself regarded as a music novel disguised as a science fiction novel, and its sequel Nyaga (1996), a blend of science fiction story and philosophical essay. In the story unknown cosmic powers revealed by young scientists, Danny and Ninni. After a series of earth-shattering catastrophes alien createrus give people a glimpse of the secrets of the universe: the evolution of humankind to another level and the creation of a cosmic quantum computer. 

In several works Nilson examined how myths and science together have influenced our world view. The approach drew from the notion that there exist myths that have preserved the memory of celestion phenomena from prehistorical times. Stjärnvägar (1991), about how the modern world view sees the universe, was based on texts published earlier in the magazines Dagens Industri och Sköna Hem. Nilson returned to its themes in Rymdljus (1992, Space light) and Solvindar (1993, Solar Winds). Together with Stjärnvägar they formed a trilogy of the worldpicture of out times. Solvindar was nominated for the August Prize in the category of nonfiction. In Den gamla byn (1997) Nilson focused on his birth region in Småland and its history. Most of his books Nilson wrote in Tierps, Uppland, where he lived with his family in an old parsonage from the 18th century.

For further reading: På jakt efter verkligheten by Erik Hjalmar Linder (1986); 'I litteraturkrisens spår' by Peter Luthersson, in Den Svenska Litteraturen, Vol. VI (1990); Författaren själv. ett biografiskt lexikon av och om 1189 samtida svenska författare, ed. by Bo Heurling (1993); Hur jag blev författare, pub. by Norstedts förlag (1997); Svenska samtidsförfattare 1, pub. by Bibliotekstjänst (1997); 'Till minnet av Peter Nilson' by Gunnar Welin, in Astronomisk tidsskrift 2 (1998); Vem är vem i svensk litteratur by Agneta and Lars-Erik Blomqvist (1999) 

Selected works:

  • Lysande stjärnor: Bonniers självlysande stjärnkarta 1970 (drawings by  Carl-Eric Diurson, Rudolf Schmidtberger)
  • Uppsala General Catalogue of Galaxies, 1973
  • Catalogue of Selected Non-UGC Galaxies, 1974
  • On the Orientation of Galaxies in Space, 1974
  • Upptäcken av universum: essäer om människor och världsbilder, 1975
  • Himlavalvets sällsamheter: en resa genom myter och historia, 1977
  • Främmande världar: liv i kosmos, 1980
  • Trollkarlen, 1979
  • Arken: berättelsen om en färd till tidens ände, 1982
  • Mitt i labyrinten: essäer och fantasier, 1983
  • Guldspiken, 1985
    - Naulatkin kultaa (suom. Eila Pennanen, 1987)
  • Avgrundsbok, 1987
  • Äventyret, 1989
  • Messias med träbenet och andra berättelser, 1990
  • Stjärnvägar: en bok om kosmos, 1991
  • Rymdljus: en bok om katastrofer och underverk, 1992
  • Solvindar: en bok om rymd och människor, 1993
  • Hem till jorden, 1994
  • Rymdväktaren, 1995
  • Nyaga, 1996
  • Den gamla byn: en berättelse om mark och människor, 1997 (illustrated by Björn Gidstam)
  • Project Nyaga, 1997 (2 vols., contains Rymdväktaren; Nyaga)
  • Ljuden från kosmos, 2000 (edited by Bengt Emil Johnson)

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