Monday, 2 May 2011

Review: A Martian Odyssey

"A Martian Odyssey" by Stanley G Weinbaum (1934)

If you want to mark a turning point in science fiction, then the publication of "A Martian Odyssey" in the July 1934 issue of Wonder Stories is most definitely it.  With his first story, Stanley G Weinbaum was immediately hailed as the greatest living science fiction writer in the world and nobody argued the point.  This one story changed science fiction forever and vastly aided the genre as it evolved away from its penny-a-word pulp potboiler roots. 

So why isn't Weinbaum's name as well known to the general public as Asimov or Clarke or Heinlein?  Why is it that even science fiction readers who don't care for the "old stuff" probably never heard of him?  That's because Weinbaum was a true literary meteor.  having burst on the scene in 1934, he produced 13 short stories and four novels only to die of lung cancer 18 months after "A Martian Odyssey's" appearance.

"A Martian Odyssey" is actually a light parody of science fiction stories of the time.  It's told by Dick Jarvis, chemist with the Ares, the first ship to reach Mars, who's just been rescued after his scout rocket crashed hundreds of miles from base.  He tells of his accident, his decision to walk the hundreds of miles back to the ship, the strange lifeforms that he encounters, and most especially of Tweel, the Martian who befriends him on his journey. 

Tweel is the real turning point here.  For the first time, an alien is depicted in science fiction who is not only a full-blown sympathetic character, but one possessed of a possibly superhuman intelligence that is so alien in its thinking that its only the friendship between man and Martian that allows them to understand one another at all.  Tweel vaguely resembles a plucked ostrich with hands and a flexible beak and a little head that makes him look like a bird until you realise that his brain is in his torso.  Jarvis sees that Tweel is obviously intelligent because he carries a bag filled with sophisticated weapons and devices, but he has incredible difficulty communicating with him because the Martian language never seems to mean the same thing twice in a row.  Even Tweel's name is one that Javis just picks because he can't remember the dozen other ways that the Martian refers to himself as.  Despite his alien qualities, Tweel and Jarvis soon become fast friends as they trek back to the Ares.  Along the way they encounter wonders such as a silicon animal that has spent millions of years building little pyramids across the desert, a mind-reading predator, and a civilisation (for want of a better word) made out of drum-shaped inmates of an insane asylum. 

Weinbaum's style is light, breezy and confident as he breaks up the plot with banter between the international crew of the Ares.  Jarvis is well enough developed to stand as a character in his own right, but is left two-dimensional enough that he fulfills his main purpose as our guide through a world of wonders.  And, of course Tweel is a genius of creation who is funny and noble at the same time.  He is the first true embodiment of John W Campbell Jr's command to his writers:
Write me a creature who thinks as well as a man, or better than a man, but not like a man.
Small wonder everyone in the field immediately dusted off their typewriters and started imitating Weinbaum's style.

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