Rafeeq O.'s Reviews > A Martian Odyssey

A Martian Odyssey by Stanley G. Weinbaum
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A Martian Odyssey by Stanley G. Weinbaum has some of the occasional creakiness to be expected of Golden Age science fiction--conventions of the era, really, rather than actual true authorial failures--but for its period of the mid-1930s this book of five stories does indeed show a great deal of innovative imagination, and of course quite decent storytelling as well.

The title story, the 1934 "A Martian Odyssey," is one of those original "classics" about which the SF reader always hears, such as, say, John W. Campbell's "Who Goes There?" or Robert A. Heinlein's "By His Bootstraps" or Isaac Asimov's "Nightfall." Having read the Weinbaum at last, I confess to considering it perhaps a half-notch below these others, but as Sam Moskowitz reminds us in his introduction, it does indeed bring some subtle and mature thinking into the pulp magazines.

On the one hand, the breezy first-person narrative with the occasional interjections from shipmates with cutesy German or French accents is not exactly James Joyce's Ulysses, and while I like otherness as much as the next fellow, the habit of ostrich-like Martian "Tweel" of jumping high in the air to land literally, cartoon-wise, head-first with his beak in the sand seems just too damned cute as well. But Weinbaum's careful and persistent depiction of the creature as being not just as intelligent and as noble as a human but even more so is well worth the read. Tweel is sometimes comic, and often inscrutable, but he is a true character rather than a cardboard cutout; his riddle may not be solved in this tale, but it suggests that the universe, even the smallish part reachable by Golden Age rocketships, contains both wonder and humbling mystery aplenty. And when the deeply affected narrator, having been saved from death a couple of times by this completely alien thing, shows that he is not simply a "native" to gawk at or look down upon, we find something very modern, worthwhile, and even touching.

The book's second story, "The Adaptive Ultimate" of 1935, has Frankensteinian overtones as a biochemist develops a serum that, presumably by benign genetic mutation, increases an organism's "adaptation" such that disease and injury can be repaired in mammals with the ease of a severed flatworm turning into two creatures. When a young woman almost dead of tuberculosis is injected, she is cured in days, but the adaptation goes farther than ever could have been imagined. The drab and almost penniless young woman becomes, very subtly, beautiful and self-assured and calculating...and uninterested in mere morals that could get in the way of her own survival. She can out-think and out-charm any man--perhaps ensnare is the better word--and because her body now can heal even knife wounds or gunshots instantaneously, she seems unstoppable as she maneuvers politicians toward another world war that somehow will leave her as, essentially, empress of the world. When reduced to these outlines, it may sound silly, but the story is really quite decent indeed.

"The Lotus Eaters" of 1935, which follows the Venusian honeymoon/exploring expedition of a female biologist and a male engineer, is even more dated in terms of planetology and xenobiology than is "A Martian Odyssey," but its creatures are just fine for the era, and the writing is arguably better than that of the title story, too. Again Weinbaum brings in new and unusual, even unsettling, ideas. If a newly discovered yet infinitely weary and almost extinct colony of Venusian plants, for example, is shown to be far superior to humans in intelligence and knowledge...well, how does this affect the mindset of the hairless ape of Sol III as it clambers via rocketship from its own jungles into those other worlds? There is something grandly melancholy in the dying-off of this weird species of semi-mobile plants that have no individuality, no drive, no will for survival, but which, termed godlike by the deeply sobered explorers, know more than ever can be communicated to the newcomers, let alone explained.

"Proteus Island," first published in 1936, returns to the genetic interests of "The Adaptive Ultimate" when a zoologist exploring an isolated Australasian island finds that since the last mariner's visit of just a couple of decades earlier, evolution seems to have run completely and unbelievably wild: of all the strange plants and animals, not a single one is like another--no species has more than one member. Again there is a "girl," and again there is an attraction the protagonist tries to resist, but here the girl ends up being more the solution than the problem. The scientist's high-handed attitude toward his Maori boatmen grates even for the 1930s, but the puzzle is indeed fascinating, and it is solved, at least given the science of the era, fairly believably.

And about the book's final chapter, "The Brink of Infinity" from 1936...really, it is a comparative throwaway, a piece about a mathematician abducted by a crazed chemist who, by using what is basically a "What number am I thinking of?" game, gets back at the profession whose member crippled him with a miscalculation. Now, that is a pulp story. It is not actually even science fiction either, nor would it necessarily be out of place in the mimeographed newsletter of some old high school math club.

Notwithstanding the dully echoing kerplunk of its last story, Stanley G. Weinbaum's A Martian Odyssey remains an interesting four-star read for anyone exploring the Golden Age origins of the mutants, the extraterrestrial landscapes, and the remote and inexplicable alien intelligences that have come down through countless 1950s movies, now-familiar Star Trek episodes, and on into the futures of the present.

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August 16, 2014 – Shelved
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