Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Michael K. Rose Presents: Classic Science Fiction
#1 "A Martian Odyssey" by Stanley G. Weinbaum


I would like to welcome you to the first installment of Michael K. Rose Presents: Classic Science Fiction. This series of articles originated on my personal blog with a discussion of Daniel Keyes's "Flowers for Algernon," one of my all-time favorite science fiction short stories. I went on to write three more "Classic Science Fiction" posts on my blog before starting SpecFicPick. After mulling over exactly what I wanted this site to be about, I decided that in addition to showcasing current speculative fiction authors, I would also like it to be about speculative fiction in general. To that end, I opened up the site for article submissions. Then I remembered my "Classic Science Fiction" series, sadly neglected. I decided I would re-launch the series on SpecFicPick, but with one important difference: I only wanted to write about stories that are now in the public domain and, as such, are available for free on Project Gutenberg or through Amazon. (Links will be provided at the beginning of each article so you can read it before reading my commentary.) This will limit my selection, of course, but I wanted to do this because I feel that a lot of readers today aren't familiar with the distant roots of the genre; I wanted to be sure that in addition to reading my articles on these stories, readers have a chance to read the stories themselves. So without further ado, I'd like to begin the series with a true visionary classic of science fiction: Stanley G. Weinbaum's "A Martian Odyssey."

Stanley G. Weinbaum
"A Martian Odyssey" by Stanley G. Weinbaum
(Free at Project Gutenberg or Amazon)

Originally published in the July 1934 issue of Wonder Stories, "A Martian Odyssey" was a highly influential work on the then-burgeoning genre. Isaac Asimov considered it to be a work that changed the way all subsequent stories in the genre were written, and the Science Fiction Writers of America (now known as SFWA) chose it to lead off the fantastic anthology The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume One, 1929–1964, which I recommend highly.

So what made "A Martian Odyssey" so remarkable? The story is a fairly straight-forward adventure tale: an astronaut named Dick Jarvis, part of the first manned expedition to Mars, crashes his auxiliary craft and must travel by foot to return to his comrades. A generation earlier, a story like this would have been set in Africa or India. However, aside from the dated technology and language, this story holds up so well because of the unique way in which Weinbaum created his alien landscape. His aliens were, simply put, incredibly alien. We are introduced to a highly intelligent ostrich-like creature named Tweel, a sinister black tentacle monster with psychic powers, a curious silicon-based creature that excretes blocks of silica and builds pyramids of the silica blocks around itself, and barrel-shaped automaton-like creatures that seems only to exist to feed material into a machine at the core of a tunnel network beneath their "city."

These aliens are fanciful enough, but Weinbaum goes a step further and establishes the fact that not only is their morphology completely alien, but even the way they think is different from the thought patterns of humans. Tweel, Jarvis's companion during his journey, seems to possess a language in which words for different objects--rocks, for example--change from moment to moment. The language, therefore, is situational as opposed to being based on the general commonality between objects. Tweel, Jarvis finds, takes great delight in the fact that for Jarvis, a "rock" is always a "rock."

Even the plant life of Weinbaum's Mars is extraordinary. Jarvis notes a bed of grass that parts as he walks through it. Picking up one of the "blades," he finds that each blade possesses two tiny legs.

Weinbaum wrote a sequel to this story called "Valley of Dreams," but unfortunately he died within 18 months of "A Martian Odyssey's" publication, cutting short the life of a man who, despite his already considerable contribution to science fiction, could have become a giant in the genre. But it is a testament to his imagination and accessible style of story-telling that through a single short story, he made such an impact on all science fiction writers who were to follow.

You can download a free copy of "A Martian Odyssey" from Project Gutenberg or Amazon.

Original Classic Science Fiction image: C.E. Space Scene 1 by Gale Titus
Image of Stanley G. Weinbaum courtesy of Wikipedia

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