Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Review: Omnilingual

"Omnilingual" by H Beam Piper (1957)

The year is 1996 and the first expedition to Mars discovers a highly advanced technological civilisation.  The only problem is, the Martians have been dead for half a million years and all that is left are their crumbling cities buried under hundreds of feet of ever-settling dust.  Martha Dane, is one of the expedition's tiny archaeology team and she's in trouble with her ambitious superior because she's spending too much time trying to decipher the Martian language.  Though many books have been found, it isn't an easy task because, unlike on Earth, there's no common third language with the Martians that can act as a guide.  Without a Martian Rosetta Stone, all she can read are the numbers and perhaps a couple of words.  Her fellow archaeologists and the reporters in the expedition may not regard her work as important, but Martha knows that without being able to read the books of the Martians, archaeology will always be an also-ran in exploring Mars.

"Omnilingual" is one of those sci-fi stories that archaeologists love.  It's even used as a text in courses at various universities.  In lesser hands, the "idea" behind the story would have been a ham-fisted "so what?", but Piper sets it in the context of a larger story as we're taken on a short tour of a world as it died.  Mars wasn't a planet that succumbed to a sudden catastrophe.  Instead it was a history of succeeding civilisations; each one withdrawing a bit more like the shrinking seas receding on their beds.  We follow Martha and her colleagues as they explore a city that was systematically stripped as it reached its end with empty building after empty building looted by the last generations or crushed beneath the ever-deepening dust.  It's an odd mix of lamentation, a melancholy reflected in the words of the eldest archaeologist who sees himself at the end of his useful life, and intrigue as we see the explorers come across new discoveries that open new possibilities that end in Martha's final vindication.

Piper did his homework for "Omnilingual" and for the trained archaeologist it often reads like a potted account of popular archaeology of the 1950s, but it's a nice little dollop of knowledge for the general reader mixed in with a thoroughly satisfactory plot.

1 comment:

  1. Prof. Steven Dutch, U Wisconsin- Green Bay, relates a conversation on his blog he recently had with a "progressive" PoliSci prof. Said prof stated that Dane's Rosetta Stone was a "Western, patriarchal construct" that would be replaced by a more multicultural one in the future, and that science would be the better for it.

    Dutch (an historian specializing in the history of the physical sciences) replied that he, as an historian, could conceive of a world in which the Axis won WW2, and as such Marxism would be an equally dead letter, being such a "Western, patriarchal construct". The PoliSci prof bristled at this, saying that there was no possible comparison, as Marxism was based on "immutable facts".

    I'm not sure what this indicates, other than the profound ignorance of the hard sciences in those who teach the "soft" ones. But I would hope that some attention to Dane's Martian Rosetta Stone is paid even in basic college prep today.

    As they say in "Highlander", "There can be only one".