Monday, September 26, 2011

Pulp Fantasy Library: A Martian Odyssey

One of the intriguingly unexplored areas of D&D's prehistory is the extent to which science fiction ideas influenced the imaginations of both Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax. Certainly we can all point to the presence of spaceships in Blackmoor and Greyhawk as evidence that SF had an influence, but were there any specific stories or authors whose influence is noteworthy. In the case of Gary Gygax, one such author was undoubtedly Stanley Weinbaum.

Gygax includes Weinbaum in Appendix N (and its equivalent in Mythus) and regularly mentioned him in the various Q&A threads as an author "very key to my thinking." That's probably because of Weinbaum's posthumously published novel, The Black Flame, which mixed science and magic in a post-apocalyptic setting. But Weinbaum made his name with his short story, "A Martian Odyssey," which first appeared in the July 1934 issue of Wonder Stories. The story was incredibly influential and often anthologized, so it seems likely that Gary would have read it. Even if he didn't, I suspect another founding father of the hobby did, as I shall discuss shortly.

"A Martian Odyssey" tells the story of a chemist by the name of Dick Jarvis, who, in the 21st century is one of four crew members aboard a rocket ship called the Ares. The vessel is, as its moniker suggests, sent to explore Mars, landing in the Mare Cimmerium (I can't help but wonder if the selection of this locale was a nod to Robert E. Howard or merely coincidental). Alone, Jarvis uses an auxiliary rocket to explore the region to the south of the landing site. When his rocket suffers a malfunction, Jarvis crash lands and decides to hike his way back to the Ares rather than wait for rescue. While on his trek northward, he encounters a strange bird-like creature being attacked by another tentacled beast:
"I wasn't going to interfere, naturally; if both creatures were dangerous, I'd have one less to worry about. 
"But the bird-like thing was putting up a good battle, dealing vicious blows with an eighteen-inch beak, between screeches. And besides, I caught a glimpse or two of what was on the end of those arms!" Jarvis shuddered. "But the clincher was when I noticed a little black bag or case hung about the neck of the bird-thing! It was intelligent! That or tame, I assumed. Anyway, it clinched my decision. I pulled out my automatic and fired into what I could see of its antagonist.
"There was a flurry of tentacles and a spurt of black corruption, and then the thing, with a disgusting sucking noise, pulled itself and its arms into a hole in the ground. The other let out a series of clacks, staggered around on legs about as thick as golf sticks, and turned suddenly to face me. I held my weapon ready, and the two of us stared at each other.
"The Martian wasn't a bird, really. It wasn't even bird-like, except just at first glance. It had a beak all right, and a few feathery appendages, but the beak wasn't really a beak. It was somewhat flexible; I could see the tip bend slowly from side to side; it was almost like a cross between a beak and a trunk. It had four-toed feet, and four fingered things—hands, you'd have to call them, and a little roundish body, and a long neck ending in a tiny head—and that beak. It stood an inch or so taller than I, and—well, Putz saw it!"
The engineer nodded. "Ja! I saw!"
Jarvis continued. "So—we stared at each other. Finally the creature went into a series of clackings and twitterings and held out its hands toward me, empty. I took that as a gesture of friendship."
"Perhaps," suggested Harrison, "it looked at that nose of yours and thought you were its brother!"
As Jarvis soon discovered, the bird-like creature is in fact an intelligent being named Tweel -- "At least, Tweel is as near as I can pronounce it without sputtering. He called it something like 'Trrrweerrlll.'" Tweel chooses to accompany Jarvis on his journey toward the Ares, along the way picking up just enough English to converse:
"Then, for variety, Tweel would display his smattering of English words. He'd point to an outcropping and say 'rock,' and point to a pebble and say it again; or he'd touch my arm and say 'Tick,' and then repeat it. He seemed terrifically amused that the same word meant the same thing twice in succession, or that the same word could apply to two different objects. It set me wondering if perhaps his language wasn't like the primitive speech of some earth people—you know, Captain, like the Negritoes, for instance, who haven't any generic words. No word for food or water or man—words for good food and bad food, or rain water and sea water, or strong man and weak man—but no names for general classes. They're too primitive to understand that rain water and sea water are just different aspects of the same thing. But that wasn't the case with Tweel; it was just that we were somehow mysteriously different—our minds were alien to each other. And yet—we liked each other!"
"Looney, that's all," remarked Harrison. "That's why you two were so fond of each other."
"Well, I like you!" countered Jarvis wickedly. "Anyway," he resumed, "don't get the idea that there was anything screwy about Tweel. In fact, I'm not so sure but that he couldn't teach our highly praised human intelligence a trick or two. Oh, he wasn't an intellectual superman, I guess; but don't overlook the point that he managed to understand a little of my mental workings, and I never even got a glimmering of his."
Part of Weinbaum's appeal, then and now, was that his aliens were both, well, alien and sympathetic. They're weren't just bug-eyed monsters lusting after our women. They were intelligent, thoughtful, and peculiar in their thought processes. In this respect, they were more real than most of their contemporaries or predecessors and, while such depth is commonplace nowadays, it wasn't in 1934. In short, Weinbaum was a pioneer in creating believable, unusual alien beings.

The remainder of "A Martian Odyssey" consists of the journeys of Jarvis and Tweel and the friendship that is forged between these inhabitants of two worlds. I won't say any more about what happens to them or what they encounter, because it'd spoil a good story well told. However, I will mention that, at one point in their journeys, the duo encounter another set of alien beings described thusly:
"Man, talk about fantastic beings! It looked rather like a barrel trotting along on four legs with four other arms or tentacles. It had no head, just body and members and a row of eyes completely around it. The top end of the barrel-body was a diaphragm stretched as tight as a drum head, and that was all.
Does that not sound more than a little like the Ahoggyá of Tékumel? Perhaps I am reading too much into this description; if so, it wouldn't be the first time. But given how heavily involved Professor Barker was in early SF fandom (publishing a fanzine in 1950, for example), I don't think it's a stretch to think that he might have been influenced by a classic of the genre when it came time to imagine one of the weirder alien beings of his own SF setting. Regardless, "A Martian Odyssey" is a fun read and well worth tracking down if you've never read it before.


  1. Really, A Martian Odyssey was one of my first readings - I learned to read (books, I mean) with I Robot, when I was five, with my grandmother guiding me word by word. You can say sci-fi was a literary passion born from the cradle. Anyway, it could surely be understood as influential, since it was included (at least the version I read) in one of Asimov's famous short story selections.

  2. His writings are available on Project Gutenberg:

  3. Now imagine the guy saying hellow to the alien and being stricken to rub his nose at the same time. While the martian cant say the word 'hello' it comes to associate rubbing it's nose as an acceptable form of thegreeting...all future contact is therefor dominated by this weird bird thing (and the rest of the species) rubbing its nose at you.

  4. I was also a big Weinbaum fan who thought there were parallels to/insipration for MAR Barker. According to an introductory essay (IIRC) Weinbaum presaged the Joseph Campbell dictum to "write an alien that thinks as well as a man, but not like a man." That is the nonhumans of Tekumel in a nutshell.

  5. I'm not going to judge Weinbaum's masterpiece outside its 1934 context, but man, that bit about the "Negritoes" language was so blantantly racist and false that reading it caused me physical pain.

  6. "A Martain Odyssey" is quite deservedly the very first story in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume One, 1929–1964. And every other story in that collection is just as great, too.

  7. "I'm not going to judge Weinbaum's masterpiece outside its 1934 context, but man, that bit about the "Negritoes" language was so blantantly racist and false that reading it caused me physical pain."

    That's silly. Negrito is well-known ethnic class in Southeast Asia. Weinbaum's description of their culture and its interactions with others could have come straight from Wikipedia.

    You need to be less niggardly and more generous in your reading habits. ;-)