Flash review: A Martian Odyssey by Stanley G. Weinbaum

87 years ago, a remarkably modern short story was published in Weird Stories.  Although sometimes overshadowed by the works of Olaf Stapledon, which were published at around the same time frame, this work has been immensely influential to science fiction, in particular through its novel approach to wrorldbuilding and alien-human relations.  Some may consider the language and structure a bit dated, but I’ve had fun reading the story even today.

In the not so distant future, a spaceship crew explores Mars.  One of the explorers, Jarvis, is left stranded far from the camp, when his rocket experiences an engine malfunction.  He resolves to walk back across Mars.  Along the way, he rescues a bird-like intelligent creature, Tweel, who joins him on the journey.  As they pass from one region to the next, they discover three other samples of large animalistic life on mars.  One is a creature that mindlessly builds an endless array of pyramids.  The second is a being that can read minds and mimic the appearance of the most desirable object, to lure others within its grasp.  The last one is a civilization, which builds city-like structures, but otherwise appears mindless.  That is, until Jarvis steals one of their technologies.  Then they attack, and only the timely arrival of a rescue ship whisks Jarvis back to his crewmates.

Throughout the journey, Tweel stays with Jarvis.  They try to communicate, and even though Tweel picks up some English words, Jarvis isn’t so lucky or smart.  Tweel, on the other hand, is smart enough that even his extremely limited vocabulary allows him to convey fairly complex ideas.  It takes all the intellect Jarvis can muster to comprehend Tweel’s ideas, but they manage to form a mutually useful friendship.  Unfortunately, Tweel is not taken abroad the rescue ship, and instead hops away from the city builders when Jarvis is rescued.

The entire story is told as a dialogue between the crew members.  Jarvis is recounting the story, while the ship captain, Harrison, plays the role of the disbeliever who feels the need to refute all of Jarvis’ assertions.  This lets the author to explain many events in the story to a great detail.  For example, one of the lingering questions is whether Tweel was indeed intelligent or not.  Harrison keeps challenging its intelligence whenever possible, and Jarvis must explain why he thinks Tweel’s actions and speech were premeditated.  At the end, it is clearly established that Tweel was the smarter one of the two.  There are two other participants in the conversation, but they serve only to add a little color the dialogue between the two main protagonists.

Weinbaum’s story is credited with being the first one where aliens have their own agency, and instead of being only objects of curiosity, they show intelligence that may be greater than that of humans.  Moreover, the interaction between Jarvis and Tweel is imperfect, prone to translation errors and misleading assumptions.  Jarvis in this story represents a new way of thinking: he accepts his limits and approaches Tweel with an open mind.  Harrison, on the other hand, represents the old science fiction: he projects his misconceptions on Tweel, whom he sees as nothing more than an animal.

In addition to Tweel and its intelligence, Weinbaum also introduced the concept of aliens who are indifferent to humans.  The pyramid animal and the city builders don’t care about Jarvis at all, until he interacts with them.  The story delves surprisingly deep into the background of those two alien species.  This has no bearing on the overall story, but it is interesting and serves as a refreshing break from the otherwise mundane description of a man and bird crossing the Martian desert.

Finally, Weinbaum is rather advanced in his use of technology.  He describes a plausible atomic propulsion system, a decade before the first controlled nuclear explosion, and several decades until other science fiction authors ceased to write nonsense about atomic power.  He makes very few futuristic predictions, but the one that stands out for me is the description and use of a Ziplock bag, more than 30 years before one was actually invented.

Personally, I appreciated the easy flowing text, conversation that wasn’t as heavy on exposition as other works from that era, and the occasional explanations, when Jarvis had to prove a point to Harrison.  The story also includes a wonderful open question on the origin of Tweel.  Some scenes are hinting at the bird being an outside astronaut who also visited Mars, but the protagonists never pursue this path, leaving the reader to decide whether it’s plausible.

All in all, this story has everything.  It is very well paced, written in a language that is modern even today, with an engaging worldbuilding and plausible technology.  One may complain about the idea of life on Mars, but that can be easily swapped for a planet in a different star system.  The story is free on the Project Gutenberg site, and it’s highly recommended.  Not just for its historical value, but also because it’s simply fun to read, even this deep into the 21st century.

Note: I read this story in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One, 1929-1964.  It placed second overall among the best short stories of the era.  I will be publishing additional flash reviews of other stories from the anthology that I liked.

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