Sunday, April 6, 2008
Martian Odyssey, by Stanley G. Weinbaum
Having enjoyed Weinbaum's entry in Damon Knight's anthology Science Fiction of the 30's, I sought out this classic novella. It was as good as I'd been led to expect. Told with good humor and a tolerant outlook on things, it is a particularly enjoyable early sf story.
Our narrator, Jarvis, has survived a harrowing experience. Out on a scouting mission on Mars, his plane crashes. He starts hoofing back to base, but with hundreds of miles before him he suspects it will be a fool's errand. As he's trotting along he stops to help a Martian in distress, one that was being entangled by some sort of black tentacles. The Martian, whom Jarvis comes to call "Tweel," sticks with the pilot and helps him get home. The story consists of Jarvis telling the tale to his co-workers back at the base.
As Tweel and Jarvis travel the landscape, they see many amazing creatures. They learn to communicate, if haltingly. Jarvis gains a lot of respect for Tweel. Using only a few common words he can convey complex ideas, he's got some impressive technology, and he certainly knows his way around the landscape. He saves Jarvis from a nasty end several times.
This story stands up well today, with the exception of the Mars science. Weinbaum has Jarvis at risk from cold and dehydration, and he has the atmosphere be uncomfortably thin, but other than that Jarvis can get around without a space suit. The story stands out compared to other stories from the same time period in its excellent sense of humor. Most stories of the time seemed rather determinedly serious, even the rip-roaring adventures of E. R. Burroughs. Jarvis, as a narrator, has a good sense of humor and it shows. The dialog, while nowhere close to being natural, is at least readable, and isn't as stilted as was typical of the time (and still is, for some short story writers).
However, the best part is how Weinbaum shows contact with aliens based on shared experience and respect. Instead of instantly trying to kill each other, or even attempting to kill each other before coming to an understanding, Jarvis and Tweel respect each other as fellow sentient beings. They do the best they can with limited avenues of communication. Compared to many other tales of the time, this was refreshing. Of course, other aliens had been represented as friendly in sf: John Carter got on quite well with his beautiful Martians, and Stapledon had good and bad aliens almost without number. But showing the everyman hero getting along famously with an alien that I always pictured as flamingo-esque, helping each other out as best they could, that's always good to see. A little more understanding, a little less fear of the Other, all with fun adventures and a good sense of humor. It may not be the apotheosis of sf, but certainly it's nothing to sneeze at.