A Martian Odyssey

A lot of the time when I was a kid, what I read was dictated by what I could find in the small SF section of Muswell Hill library or the books that I could find in the bargain bins. Once I'd outgrown Narnia, I found most books aimed specifically at children rather boring (with a few notable exceptions - Joan Aiken amongst them) and had been put off the so-called classics by having The Mill on the Floss rammed down my throat as an official text upon which I would later be tested. It took me forever to finish I can't remember a thing about it now.

As has been chronicled elsewhere, this exploration of the SF genre meant that I was exposed to a lot of adult themes early - whilst grown-ups may have imagined me to be reading juvenile tales of invasions by robots from Mars I was in fact exploring unexpected worlds of cannibalism, sex with aliens and other taboos. Some of the disturbing ideas from these far out stories have stuck with me ever since.

On other occasions perusal of the bargain bins resulted in the unexpected discovery of great SF of which I'd hitherto been unaware.

I'd read all the Asimov and Clarke I could get my hands on as well as dabbling in Heinlein, Moorcock and Aldiss, but the book I picked out of the metal basket at the Stroud branch of Woolworths during a visit to my grandmother in 1977 was by an author I was unaware of, one Stanley G Weinbaum. The title A Martian Odyssey resonated with Clarke's 2001 and Bradbury's Martian Chronicles, the cover in true 70s SF style depicting a complex looking roving vehicle crossing a Martian landscape clearly inspired by the photographs sent back by the recent Viking landers. This was, I imagined, a modern tale of the exploration of Mars.

I couldn't have been more wrong. What I held in my hand was a collection of short stories that predated Clarke and Bradbury by decades, a collection of short stories about the exploration of the solar system from the golden age of the science fiction pulps. If I'd known this I might not have bought it but then I would never have discovered how brilliant Weinbaum actually was.

Despite the pulp dressing the stories were staggeringly imaginative and way ahead of their time. The eponymous short story A Martian Odyssey was all about the first encounter of Dick Jarvis, an astronaut from Earth with a Martian known as Tweel. One amazing aspect of this tale was the way Weinbaum was able to portray a totally alien intelligence. Jarvis and Tweel were able to communicate up to a point - and as such had an exciting series of adventures as Jarvis made his way across the Martian landscape in an attempt to return to his mothership after a rocket crash - but some of Tweel's thought processes were odd...
Well, we stared at the fire a while and I decided to attempt some sort of communication with the Martian. I pointed at myself and said 'Dick'; he caught the drift immediately, stretched a bony claw at me and repeated 'Tick.' Then I pointed at him, and he gave that whistle I called Tweel; I can't imitate his accent. Things were going smoothly; to emphasize the names, I repeated 'Dick,' and then, pointing at him, 'Tweel.'

There we stuck! He gave some clacks that sounded negative, and said something like 'P-p-p-proot.' And that was just the beginning; I was always 'Tick,' but as for him—part of the time he was 'Tweel,' and part of the time he was 'P-p-p-proot,' and part of the time he was sixteen other noises!

We just couldn't connect. I tried 'rock,' and I tried 'star,' and 'tree,' and 'fire,' and lord knows what else, and try as I would, I couldn't get a single word! Nothing was the same for two successive minutes, and if that's a language, I'm an alchemist!
Tweel wasn't the only peculiar inhabitant of Mars either - other examples of this bizarre menagerie included the anthill community of barrel-like creatures which imitated the sounds they heard ("We are v-v-v-vriends! Ouch!"), a silicon based life form that walled itself into a miniature pyramid using the bricks it "breathed" out (silicon dioxide, see) and the Dream Beast which projected illusions to lure its hapless victims to their death.

Other stories contained creatures just as outlandish. The Slinkers and the Loonies of Io in The Mad Moon, the Triops noctivians, the doughpots and the Jack Ketch trees on Venus in Parasite Planet.

Of course all of these stories having been written in the early 1930s the science was out of whack. In Weinbaum's imagination almost all of the worlds in the solar system had breathable atmospheres and native life - furthermore he had used the now discredited theory that the outer gas giants Jupiter and Saturn emitted heat like miniature suns, making their moons habitable.

But this didn't really matter. The exploration of Weinbaum's solar system by atomic rocket made for stories that were both thoughtful and entertaining in equal measure.

Not all the stories involved space travel; others explored alternative universes (The Worlds of If), virtual reality (Pygmalion's Spectacles) and climate change (Shifting Seas), all quite astonishing subjects for the early thirties (and his 1935 story The Ideal contains the spookily prescient line "sometimes I regret that unfortunate market crash of 2009 that wiped out my own money").

Weinbaum was still a young man when he imagined these extraordinary scenarios and ideas. Who can tell what a shadow he would have cast over 20th century genre fiction had he not died of throat cancer in 1935?

In many of the stories the protagonist is a young man who during the course of the action falls for a young woman - but even these simple characters have a vitality which lives on in the mind long after the end of the story.

Aside from the collection I bought it was difficult to find more Weinbaum and it was only once the Forbidden Planet bookshop had opened in Denmark Street that I found the only novel of his still in print, The New Adam, an altogether bleaker tale than most of his short stories, a tale of the life - and ultimate suicide - of Edmond, the first individual of a new species of double-minded person born into the dark human world of the twentieth century.
"A billion billion centuries, perhaps," he reflected, "before Chance or the more obscure laws that govern it, shall re-assemble the particular molecules that I call Myself, yet this will seem no longer than from this night until tomorrow. Certainly obliteration is a wonderful thing, and the one conqueror of Time." 
His other self responded, "Since in eternity all things that can happen must happen, I depart with assurance; all this will be again, and perhaps in happier fashion. I render my payment therefore without regret."

Weinbaum is now out of copyright and some of his stories can be found of Project Gutenberg


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