Young People Read Old SFF

Omnilingual

H. Beam Piper

H. Beam Piper’s career was cut short when, believing himself a failure and his career effectively over, he shot himself1. One of John W. Campbell’s stable of writers, he stands out as one of the few in that crowd willing to give women agency, even if he did not often feature one as a protagonist. Omnilingual is one of the few Piper stories with a woman lead, something I hope will distract from Piper’s stylistic quirks—the cocktail parties, the endless smoking—that tie the story’s creation to the early sixties. Presumably the people who suggested it had similar hopes. But what did my Young People think?

Much of Piper’s oeuvre, including Omnilingual, has fallen into the public domain. It is available on Project Gutenberg.

1: See John F. Carr’s biography of Piper for more details.

Cocktails, photostats...usually I like things with a retro and vintage appeal, but it just seems like this author's version of the future was stuck in his own time. It's odd that the most futuristic thing he could seem to imagine was escalators in a university building. Piper's story is about a group of researchers and archaeologists who are excavating buildings on Mars which, again, seems to look a lot like Earth to his imagination. Dr. Martha Dane is attempting to translate the Martian language, much to the chagrin of some of her male colleagues. I did appreciate that when she succeeds in the end those who doubted her apologize and say she should be lauded for her efforts. Usually stories with mundane details like this one don't bother me, but I found this story almost unbearably boring. It was kind of a slog to get through. Wikipedia states that "the story builds tension from the skepticism of the rest of the team," but I didn't feel a sense of that at all.

—Claire

I was pleasantly surprised by this story. I kept expecting some very strange solution to present itself like actual martian ghosts or for the mysterious illness to deposit information in the sufferer. The actual solution to reading martian makes a lot of sense, at least for getting a list of nouns. Though my experience with technical papers says that there would be a lot of abbreviations and loanwords to contend with if they try to translate a language based on university texts. Also I wouldn't expect the grammar to be conversational at all. English scientific papers have some weird idiosyncrasies like aversion to the first-person.

There were several things that dated this story. Everyone smoking was a big one. Especially everyone smoking in artificial atmospheres. Did they all want to die fiery deaths? Were they not concerned with burning what they were studying, or at least adding greasy smoke stains? The other big thing was that one of the characters was stated to have been born in 1921. The treatment of women was indeed refreshing for a science fiction story. Treating them as normal human beings who make up roughly half the population must have been revolutionary back then. 

I suppose this story subscribes to the Star Trek theory of sentient race evolution, which is that regardless of planet of origin every sentient race looks and functions the same. It was background, but there was definitely something going on that people were not excited enough about: If there were mammals and birds on Mars that looked the same as those on Earth, there must have been interchange between the planets. Nothing else really explains it, unless the Star Trek theory is more powerful than I thought and life has only one way to go.

Generally a pleasant read and I was rooting for Dr. Dane throughout. 

—Jamie

H. Beam Piper, you almost convinced me that exploring Mars is one of the most boring things we could do as humans.

This story felt … long … ponderously long, even. Not much was happening with the plot ... or with the development of characters ... or with anything really. It almost reads like an account written by a scientist or an archaeologist describing the steps leading up to a discovery, but as written for historical purposes. In fact, it might have been more interesting if it had actually been written more disjointedly through field notes, journal entries and in other forms.

The one thing that did strike a chord with me was the jockeying about politics and academic/employment positions. I relate to Martha who doesn’t really care about it and wants to focus on the work and accomplishing something that matters for its own sake, not because she wants prestige or accolades. (Young people these days are generally underemployed, and I’m part of that demographic who always has to job search.)

I was reminded of A Rose for Ecclesiastes, except that Martha Dane isn’t full of herself - it’s the overly self-promoting Tony Lattimer who is the almost-protagonist.

As a little side note, it is amusing that there’s a reference to the supposed Orson Welles scare, which places the setting to be around the late 1990s. Considering current efforts and difficulties in reaching Mars, casually sending an expedition of 500 people seems almost comical.

I am predominantly an emotional person, and this story was disappointing in that it was simply a story where x happened, then y, then z - all without suspense or difficulty. Perhaps I’ve gotten used to the ridiculous melodrama of previous stories, but I was starting to fall asleep while reading and had to take a couple breaks.

This story was merely ‘meh’ to me.

—Mel

I’m going with the theory that since archeology is supposed to be long and tedious and slow, this story is long and tedious and slow to reflect its subject matter.

I was very happy to see that there were several female characters who are presented as both knowledgeable and competent. The actions of Tony Lattimer to undermine the women working with him also felt realistic. The idea that he was dismissing her work and simultaneously willing to claim the credit would not be out of place in a story set in the present. None of this lessened my annoyance at the women being called girls throughout the story.

I admit I don’t know much about archeology, and maybe this isn’t actually problem, but the idea of pumping oxygen into an environment that’s been preserved in vacuum and expecting things to be ok bothered me. There were places where observations about Mars were clearly dated, but I was able to ignore them in the context of this story, since they really weren’t the point.

The story handles characterization far better than many of the other stories we have read for this project, but other than a few significant characters I felt like they were just interchangeable names, and didn’t remember who they were from one appearance to the next. I felt like the story expected me to remember all the random names and characters though, which was frustrating.

I feel like I would have enjoyed this story far more if it had been significantly shorter. I appreciated the ending and the way the other archaeologists supported Martha and the ideas of how archeology would be handled on Mars but I probably wouldn’t have finished this if I wasn’t reading for a review.

—Mikayla

I’m sure in it’s time this was a literary masterpiece, but like the world it’s portraying, it has lost its charm over the years. The book introduces too many characters, and it gets confusing managing who's who. The book doesn’t really throw any twists or turns, and it’s somewhat engaging at best, but more often then not, it’s quite predictable. The scenes set in the tower were the most engaging parts of the book, offering glimpses into the Martian culture and language. However, before and after that, it was somewhat boring, and felt like it dragged on. Overall, it’s not bad, but it’s not particularly good either.

—Noah

Omnilingual was an extremely in-depth look at a group of scientists learning a dead language. The story was very dense and definitely dull at times. I appreciated many things about the story, though, including:

  • A female character motivated intrinsically to carry on her unglamorous work, even after her thunder is stolen by an extrinsically-motivated and

  • kind of douchey colleague

  • -An unbiased mentor who encourages the female character and is also motivated intrinsically

  • Cocktails on Mars

  • A notion that science is not just global, but universal, and that the laws of physics are the key to unlocking mysteries

  • A setting of 1997 (or so), which probably seemed WAY far in the future when the story was originally published, but seems quaintly antiquated as I read the story (from my boring house on earth) in 2017.*

  • Multiple complaints from the archaeologists about how they don't know math or science, and are very confused by it all.

Something else that was pleasant about this story (even though the level of detail felt basically excruciating at times) was that the technology of the day was basically glossed over/not explained at all. For example, it's just assumed that living on Mars for extended periods of time while you study it is something that this expedition can do. There are no explanations of how/why. Personally, that suits me just fine - especially because an explanation of the technologies probably would have turned this long short story into a full-length novel.

All in all, Omnilingual contained a lot of things that I enjoyed. I just wish it could have been a bit more brief.

*I especially want to call out the point about the story being set in 1996, when it's easy to pick up/drop off people on Mars, live there for extended periods of time without any concern for safety, and ship messages back and forth to/from Earth without any difficulty. Incidents like this make me think of the Jetsons, which was probably my first exposure to Science Fiction ever.

—Lisa

Comments

  • Andrew Porter

    Jaime's idea of "the Star Trek theory of sentient race evolution" is actually because in a weekly TV show it's far easier to slap a bunch of makeup on someone to make them alien than create an actual alien which has to have a person inside it to operate it. Also, Star Trek was a 1960s TV show; this story was from the 1940s.

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  • James Davis Nicoll

    I believe Omnilingual is from 1957. At least, that looks like 1957 on the cover art.

  • Peter Meilinger

    Been a long time since I've read Omnilingual, but I can't really argue with any of the reviews. Especially the popularity of cocktails and smoking.

    I'd have recommended Little Fuzzy if you wanted to have a Piper story, but sticking with short stories makes a lot more sense. Speaking of sci fi stories that are decided by exciting legal action, though, any chance you're going to throw Lloyd Biggle's "Monument" at the young 'uns?

  • Kay Shapero

    Not lly germaine since it's not mentioned in the story proper, but Piper's universe was one in which humans originated on Mars and had to scarper for Earth in a hurry when the climate went south, hence the similarity. This does turn up in the Paratime stories, where some timelines had societies that actually remembered Mars, others had died out altogether, while the majority were still human but had lost any records of not living on Earth. I'd already read some of these before I discovered Omnilingual, also as a young reader way back in the Old Stone Age. :) Glad to hear the old story holds up so well, even if some of the complaints (no action, just people learning things) were a lot of what I liked about it. Archaeologists being archaeologists, what a concept...