Saturday, April 18, 2015

A Philosophy of Vegetable Existence

In some respects, Stanley G. Weinbaum’s The Lotus Eaters (1935) is similar to his first published science fiction story, A Martian Odyssey (1934).  However, the later story shows increasing sophistication in terms of alien biology, planetary setting and characterization.  Conceivably, The Lotus Eaters could have been called “A Venusian Odyssey”, though the author’s intent is more ambitious than in the earlier adventure.  This is a story of big ideas as well as interesting characters, two important qualities in the best science fiction. 

The Lotus Eaters was originally published in the April 1935 issue of Wonder Stories, which also included work by Frank Belknap Long, John W. Campbell, Jr., Donald Wandrei and Paul Ernst.  To put this in a Lovecraftian context, Weinbaum’s story was published the same year as Lovecraft’s dreadful The Quest of Iranon and his interesting contribution to the “round robin” tale The Challenge from Beyond, (see also Help, I’m a Centipede!)  It was also around this time that Lovecraft completed a draft of one of his best stories, The Shadow Out of Time.

In The Lotus Eaters, a husband and wife team set out to investigate Venusian life forms just beyond the habitable “twilight zone” of the planet, which separates its fiery sunlit side from the frozen region eternally shrouded in darkness.  In terms of geo-psychology, the duo’s exploration of the dark half of Venus, (of love?) dimly illumined by the light of their flickering head lamps, seems to depict on a planetary scale the exploration of the conscious and the unconscious mind.  (Freudian ideas about consciousness were popular in Weinbaum’s time.)

The author describes the planet Venus as having an orbit and rotational pattern similar to that of Mercury: one side of the planet always facing the sun while the other half remains in shadow.  It is now known that Venus does rotate on its axis, though very slowly, completing one revolution in about 240 Earth days.  Its orbit and rotation are synchronized with the Earth’s in such a way that when their respective positions are closest, Venus always presents the same face to Earth. 

Weinbaum imagines that the atmosphere is breathable and that temperatures are tolerable in the narrow twilight zone separating dark and light halves.  Though Venus and Earth are similar in size, composition, and gravitational force, the air pressure on Venus is actually comparable to being about one mile beneath a terrestrial ocean, and surface temperatures exceed 870 degrees Fahrenheit.  Of course, if the author had used only the facts as we now know them, The Lotus Eaters would not be as interesting a story, nor as long.

The notion of a habitable zone on an otherwise climatically hostile planet is common in science fiction.  It seems to represent the supernatural equivalent of a “thin place”, a transitional zone where unknown and unexplained phenomena can occur within an arm’s reach of what is perceived as familiar and stable.

“Ham” Hammond and his wife Patricia Burlingame venture out into the Venusian dark side, and soon encounter its exotic ecology.  Along the way they speculate about the evolution of Venusian life forms and their adaptation to this cold dark environment.  What is interesting about their relationship—at least for the times—is that Burlingame is clearly the leader, a brilliant biologist and courageous to a fault.  Hammond, who apparently has married well above his social class, is essentially a follower, mostly useful in getting the two out of occasional scrapes with the more aggressive fauna.

This is a recurring image in Weinbaum’s fiction, that of an empowered, intelligent and ambitious woman.  This depiction of competent and independent women sets Weinbaum’s stories apart from the work of his colleagues.  (See also Maladaptations).

The couple discover a race of creatures “…like inverted bushel baskets, about the size and contour, veined, flabby and featureless save for a complete circle of eye spots.”  Burlingame speculates that the creatures are actually warm-blooded plants, capable of mobility, and imbued with a strange but powerful intelligence. 

A conversation begins with one of the creatures the couple has named “Oscar”.  The creature is highly echolalic, repeating portions of what Hammond and Burlingame say.  However, it is not merely imitating them.  Oscar is rapidly acquiring their vocabulary so that it can communicate its thoughts to the Earthlings.  Weinbaum is invoking the Whorfian Hypothesis here—the notion that language structures thought, that words and linguistic categories must first exist before certain ideas or thoughts can occur.  He plays with this idea in several of his stories.

Other interesting notions are considered.  What sort of intelligence or psychology would evolve in an advanced form of vegetation?  What would motivate a highly intelligent plant?  Burlingame hypothesizes that vegetable life is motivated by necessity whereas animal life is motivated by desire.  Awareness and individuality are shared by Oscar and his kind, (“We are all Oscar.”), who reproduce asexually via aerial spores. 

Tragically, Oscar and his kind are doomed by their passivity to extinction at the hands of the local predator, Triops noctivivans, a kind of three eyed hyena-like creature that hates light.  These monsters circle the two humans just outside the glare of their headlamps, getting ready to attack them as well. They provide the element of suspense.

Besides the presence of a strong female character, other images and themes that recur in Weinbaum’s work are present in The Lotus Eaters.  Oscar’s physique and habit of repeating human speech calls to mind the incomprehensible drum shaped creatures in A Martian Odyssey as well as “Oliver” the echolalic parcat who is Grant Calthorpe’s annoying pet in The Mad Moon.  One of the pleasures of reading a horror or science fiction author in some depth is to see how favorite ideas are developed over time.  For example, in H.P. Lovecraft’s fiction, the entity known has Nyarlathotep evolves in interesting ways across such stories as Nyarlathotep (1920), The Haunter of the Dark (1936) and The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath (1943).

Some form of narcosis, hypnosis or hallucination is often present in Weinbaum’s work.  Readers familiar with A Martian Odyssey will recall the “dream beast” that nearly eats the narrator.  In The Mad Moon, the indigenous blancha fever causes reality bending hallucinations in its victims.  In The Lotus Eaters, the soporific clouds of spores that Oscar and his kind are constantly ejecting produce both physical and philosophical resignation, the principle Venusian hazard for Hammond and Burlingame.   (Hallucinogenic imagery also appears often in the work of Clark Ashton Smith.)

There is no reference to hopeful remedies for human illnesses in this story—a preoccupation of the author, who may have realized at the time that he was dying of cancer.  Does Oscar’s intellectual acquiescence to certain doom reflect his creator’s?  At one point there is this grim discussion of how Oscar and his kind reproduce:

“Yes.  The spores lodge against our bodies and there is a—” Again the voice died.
“A fertilization?” suggested the girl.
“Well, a—I know! An irritation!”
“That causes a tumorous growth?”
“Yes. When the growth is complete, we split.”
“Ugh!” Snorted Ham.  “A tumor!”
“Shut up!” snapped the girl.  “That’s all a baby is—a normal tumor.”

In his short career, Stanley Weinbaum was enormously influential as a science fiction author, both for the quality of his writing and his provocative ideas.  He should be more widely read, if only to appreciate his enduring contributions to the field.

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