A Martian Odyssey
Stanley G. Weinbaum
G. Weinbaum's 1934 debut, “A Martian Odyssey,” is the second of
the two short stories I have selected to represent the science
fiction of the 1930s.
is one of the earliest hard SF writers, someone whose stories were
shaped by what was then known (or guessed) of the other worlds of our
solar system. .Weinbaum's stories are little known and little read
these days, in part because his career was so short: eighteen months
from the publication of his first science fiction story to his death.
may have forgotten Weinbaum, but his influence lingers. “A Martian
Odyssey” was one of the first stories to try to imagine a truly
alien alien. It was an inspiration to later writers.
"A Martian Odyssey" and other Stanley G. Weinbaum stories can be read for free here. As well, Leonaur has four Weinbaum collections, Interplanetary Odysseys, Other Earths, Strange Genius and The Black Heart.
Right off the bat, I was
immediately confused about where the characters were, why they were
there, how to keep track of them, and what was unique about each of
them. I spent more time than I probably should have reminding myself
that Jarvis is the chemist, Putz is the engineer, Leroy is the
biologist, and Harrison is the astronomer. In fact, I didn't manage
to get their personas straightened out at all when I first started
reading. Eventually, I just gave up and read on, having faith that
the continued narrative would straighten everything out for me. (It
did-- I should have let the story do the work for me instead of
Once I let the story do the
work for me, I started to enjoy Weinbaum's creations. I was extremely
impressed with the ability to flip the concept of life as I know it
on its head – introducing us to Tweel, an intelligent life form
that (probably) had a brain where humans would have a stomach, as
well as a (presumably) silicon-based life form. All of these
discoveries were filtered through the crew of the Ares, so we got a
human interpretation of what was going on. I was also relieved that
all of the questions I had while reading through the story were
eventually answered. I even got a small glimpse into Jarvis and his
life back on Earth, which tied into another fascinating and
horrifying creature that he met on his journey. As a non-sci-fi
reader, I'm not used to having faith that things will make sense
later... things usually make sense right away, or at least take place
in a world I understand. Weinbaum's Mars is absolutely not something
I understand, and I imagine this is something I'll continue to find
as I continue to read.
I also enjoyed the ending,
which brought forth questions about whether we should continue to
explore in spaces that are not rightfully ours, and how we should
behave once we're there. ...leave it to the humans to be the biggest
jerk interplanetary ambassadors around.
It's the little things that bring you out of the story. Archaic units like gills, and watches that don't tell you what day it is. Maybe even just people wearing watches.
This story seems a lot like making up a fantasy world and then making it SF by claiming it's one of the planets in the solar system. Though this story spends more time fawning over the world building at the expense of plot than fantasy stories would be allowed. The setting is clearly the "old solar system" that I've heard about, before robotic exploration ruined everything for authors by showing what the planets were really like.
What quaint ideas about "atomic blasts" and the medicinal benefits of hard radiation. Writers of SF in the deep past were much more free to be optimistic about new scientific discoveries. Nowadays every new advance is going to cause at least as many problems as it solves, and the unexpected downsides are what drive the plots. This story is just happy to be exploring a crazy new planet and all it's crazy improbable life forms, held down by only the lightest of plots. Old fashioned optimism about progress, I suppose.
the start, this story was more interesting and in a more readable
style than Who Goes There,
even though both stories were published in the same decade. The story
within a story structure meant it was full of dialogue, so I decided
to read this one aloud. The dialogue reminded me of the early days of
TV and radio when people had that peculiar cadence so that the audio
recording would be crisp and clear.
story is especially interesting now because of the real possibility
of launching a few pioneering astronauts to Mars. Immediately, many
of the details of Mars leapt out at me as amusing fictions, similar
to the ridiculous Great
Moon Hoax of 1835. (I learned about The Great Moon Hoax from 2
episodes of the excellent podcast Stuff
You Missed in History Class. Also, do a google image search of
“Great Moon Hoax”. It’s a cross between Wizard of Oz and early
paintings of The New World.)
story began with a thin (but breathable) atmosphere and
plant-animals, so my brain immediately put this in the category of
‘alternate reality’. Today, pop science publications would be
over the moon to discover such definitive proof of life on Mars.
jarring points in the story:
noticed a little black bag or case hung about the neck of the
bird-thing! It was intelligent! That or tame, I assumed.” – Why
would you assume this creature is intelligent first,
and tame second?
Maybe it’s wishful thinking on the character’s part since it
turns out the creature is intelligent.
than zippers.” –This seemed dated and made me wonder how long it
took for zippers to catch on in real life.
pointed to myself and then to the earth itself shining bright
green…”—Brain: No. Wrong colour. Also, how close are Earth and
Mars to each other in this story?
Negritoes, for instance, who haven’t any generic words…They’re
too primitive to understand that rain water and sea water are just
different aspects of the same thing.” –Ouch.
ending with the barrel creatures triggered a distant memory of
randomly reading The Time Machine as a tween.
I quite liked this story. Whenever I finish a story and immediately
go back to read bits of it again, I know it’s a good story.
I have absolutely no idea what the general level of scientific
understanding was of Mars in the 1930s, but for me this story was so
much beyond my ability to suspend disbelief. The idea of sentient
beings, significant vegetation, or a breathable atmosphere on Mars
just doesn’t work for me. And even if I pretend this is some other
planet, I can’t accept the idea that we wouldn’t have noticed all
the things the narrator found long before people got there. I mean,
just look at the pictures we’re getting back from Pluto!
I can see how this was trying to parallel the Odyssey, but the pacing
bothered me. I felt like I often do watching old TV. Please, just get
on with the story already. Probably partially due to my suspense of
disbelief being thoroughly shattered, I just wanted him to get to the
point of his story. The magical radiation medical machine wasn’t
really worth the wait.
Speaking of radiation, the characters in this story were entirely too
comfortable using “atomic blasts” to get around on this
apparently living world. I wouldn’t want to be them, or anyone
underneath their vehicles.
The casual racism in this was disappointing, but not particularly
unexpected. Our narrator could cope with the idea of an intelligent
other species that could think of things in different ways, but if it
is a different human culture, of course that’s a sign that they’re
terribly primitive and not up to civilized standards. [eye roll]
Despite the time since this was written, the all male crew and their
attitudes still rings true today, if my experience on industrial
sites is any indication.
I noticed the wording used in the story much more than I usually do.
I found some of the language and descriptions to be …...different
from what I’d expect today. Phrases like “stared sympathetically”
and “blinked attentively” just seemed odd, while using the word
“ejaculated” to describe someone speaking with excitement is
Overall, I found
this story slow, and I never really bought into the premise. Any
tension that might have been there is diffused since the narrator
obviously lived so he could tell this story to us.