Over the holidays I visited a favorite used book store just north of the downtown. Nearly always I can find something to rescue from the hazardously overfilled shelves and precarious stacks. The proprietor makes it a point memorize the interests of his regular customers. (A fan of old school, classic science fiction, he named his son after Isaac Asimov.) During my visit I was delighted to obtain an old collection of Stanley Weinbaum’s science fiction stories, originally published in the mid-1930s. Weinbaum is one of the authors the owner has been recommending to me lately, along with David Keller and Murray Leinster, two others I have yet to become acquainted with.
The Weinbaum collection, edited by Sam Moskowitz, was a Lancer Science Fiction Library “Limited Edition” that came out in 1962. A Martian Odyssey and Other Classics of Science Fiction by Stanley G. Weinbaum contains five short stories, (a couple are novellas), including one of his best known, A Martian Odyssey (1934). I began reading this classic for the second time in my life, having originally read it in my early teens, over forty years ago.
I was amazed that there were passages—images and scenes really—that were still quite familiar and vivid, as if I had just read them yesterday. The leaping, ostrich like Tweel, who may be more intelligent than his human companion. The constant bantering of international shipmates on board the spaceship Ares, not unlike the later and more famous polyglot crew on the bridge of the U.S.S. Enterprise. The miniature Martian vegetation that parts to allow wanderers through. The odd, robot-like silicon creature that constructs ever enlarging pyramids across the Martian desert. And of course the treacherous “dream beast”, who appears twice.
As the title suggests, A Martian Odyssey is an adventure story, but only superficially. Jarvis, the narrator, tells his incredulous shipmates about his various adventures and misadventures during a trek across Mars. His only companion is the unusual but benevolent creature named Tweel. But the story is also a vehicle for Weinbaum to consider a number of ideas that were quite inventive at the time: that space exploration will be an international effort; that extraterrestrials may have radically different physiologies and psychologies, and that radioactive materials may have potential as a cure for human diseases, to mention a few.
Weinbaum’s mastery of character, dialogue, setting and concept made him a superior writer among his peers at the time—even earning H.P. Lovecraft’s praise. A strength that Weinbaum shares with Lovecraft is the ability to conceive of completely nonhuman aliens. Neither relied on the hackneyed conception of extraterrestrials that resemble anthropomorphized insects, reptiles or marine creatures, with recognizable human motives and weaknesses. Moskowitz quotes H.P. Lovecraft’s praise for Weinbaum in his prefatory note to the collection:
“Somehow he had the imagination to envisage wholly alien situations and psychologies and entities, to devise consistent events from wholly alien motives and to refrain from cheap dramatics in which almost all adventure-pulpists wallow.”
Weinbaum’s style is a breath of fresh air compared to the dense, dark, adjectival prose of H.P. Lovecraft or Clark Ashton Smith. The final episode involving the incomprehensible cart pushing barrel creatures is an effective blend of humor, mystery and menace. Dialogue among his characters is wry, snappy, and modern in tone. Remarkably, A Martian Odyssey was the first science fiction story Weinbaum published. It should be considered mandatory reading.