Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Spaceship Urff #1 -- Spaceship Urff Classics #1: Stanley G. Weinbaum's "A Martian Odyssey"

Originally published in the July 1934 issue of Wonder Stories, "A Martian Odyssey" was a highly influential work on the then-burgeoning genre of science fiction. It's easy to see why. Isaac Asimov considered this visionary story to be a work that changed the way all subsequent stories in the genre were written, and the Science Fiction Writers of America (now known as SFWA) chose it to lead off the fantastic anthology The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume One, 1929–1964, which I recommend highly.

So what made "A Martian Odyssey" so remarkable? The story is a fairly straight-forward adventure tale: an astronaut named Dick Jarvis, part of the first manned expedition to Mars, crashes his auxiliary craft and must travel by foot to return to his comrades. A generation earlier, a story like this would have been set in Africa or India. However, aside from the dated technology and language, this story holds up so well because of the unique way in which Weinbaum created his alien landscape. His aliens were, simply put, incredibly alien. We are introduced to a highly intelligent ostrich-like creature named Tweel, a sinister black tentacle monster with psychic powers, a curious silicon-based creature that excretes blocks of silica and uses them to build pyramids around itself, and barrel-shaped automaton-like creatures that seem only to exist to feed material into a machine at the core of a tunnel network beneath their "city."

These aliens are fanciful enough, but Weinbaum goes a step further and establishes the fact that not only is their morphology completely alien, but even the way they think is different from the thought patterns of humans. Tweel, Jarvis's companion during his journey, seems to possess a language in which words for different objects--rocks, for example--change from moment to moment. The language, therefore, is situational as opposed to being based on the general commonality between objects. Tweel, Jarvis finds, takes great delight in the fact that for Jarvis, a "rock" is always a "rock."

Even the plant life of Weinbaum's Mars is extraordinary. Jarvis notes a bed of grass that parts as he walks through it. Picking up one of the "blades," he finds that it possesses two tiny legs.

Weinbaum wrote a sequel to "A Martian Odyssey" called "Valley of Dreams" as well as several other stories, but  he unfortunately died within 18 months of this story's publication, cutting short the life of a man who, despite his already considerable contribution to science fiction, could have become a giant in the genre. But it is a testament to his imagination and accessible style of story-telling that through a single work, he made such an impact on all science fiction writers who were to follow.

You can download a free copy of "A Martian Odyssey" from Project Gutenberg or Amazon.


Image of Stanley G. Weinbaum courtesy of Wikipedia

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