Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Martian Ambiguity

Writers have ways to link the patterns of a story to make it cohesive, but they can also break the patterns and end up with a story that seems fragmented or ill-considered. In "A Martian Odyssey," Stanley G. Weinbaum does both.

Because I had loved "A Martian Odyssey" when I was nine years old, I hesitated for decades to try it again -- so many things from childhood can disappoint us, and American magazine stories from 1934 can disappoint us absolutely. But my reading it a few days ago showed me a story with many strengths to compensate for a few weaknesses.

For one thing, the style is chatty and excitable in ways that might seem dated. The crew of the first Earth ship on Mars have brought a full cargo of exclamation points -- and these people use them! They lob words at each other as Martians hurl darts! They mock each other with friendly gibes! They roar, exult, snap, shrill, ejaculate, growl, shout! And as I read, I wanted them to stop.

On the other hand, there is energy in the prose, and the story moves rapidly. Compared to many American pulp science fiction tales from the 1930s, "A Martian Odyssey" is light on its feet.

And although its noisy space-crew might hover on the verge of becoming national stereotypes, their separate languages, and their frequent inability to understand each other, represent one of the patterns that makes the story fit together: communication is hard enough between people, but harder still between people and Martians.

Weinbaum uses the ambiguity of language to make his Martians vivid. Nothing on Mars can be defined in human terms with precision. Biopods look like plants but move like animals. The silicon creature is mindless, but can build structures with Egyptian skill. The dream beast is whatever its prey wants it to be. The barrel beings are a technological species, but seem limited in both intellect and behaviour.

Tweel himself, the most human-like Martian encountered, is nothing but ambiguous. He looks like a bird, but only at first glance. He seems adapted to local conditions like a native, but one sequence implies that he, or his ancestors, might have landed on Mars from beyond the solar system. Even the name by which he calls himself seems to vary from one context to another.

Yet of all the characters in the story, Tweel seems most at ease with language, and the most adept at its use. The narrator, Jarvis, fails to pick up a single word of Tweel's vocabulary, but Tweel can use a few English words to convey complex ideas. And so, he can describe  the silicon creature ("No one-one-two. No two-two-four."), the dream beast ("You one-one-two, he one-one-two."), and the barrel people ("One-one-two -- yes! Two-two-four -- no!"), in ways that Jarvis can grasp, and that leave him convinced of Tweel's more-than-human intelligence.

Weinbaum links these patterns of communication and ambiguous definition throughout "A Martian Odyssey," and in doing so, implies a stronger sense of story cohesion and subtext than most SF writers of the 1930s could manage. This makes me regret all the more the story's ending, which seems like an O. Henry twist grafted onto a narrative that does not need it. The ending adds nothing to the story's ideas or themes, and seems out of character for Jarvis, who, despite his constant yelling and gibing, is too thoughtful a person to do anything so stupid.

Endings matter, because they allow writers to give the patterns of a story a final coherence. Weinbaum seems to have understood this need for cohesion; I wish he had applied this understanding at the story's end. But narrative strengths also matter, and "A Martian Odyssey" has more than enough to keep its reputation high.

Illustration by Frank R. Paul, from Wonder Stories, July 1934.

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