The Science Fiction Book Club on Facebook is discussing “Omnilingual” by H. Beam Piper this week. I had never read this classic novelette before and enjoyed it immensely. It’s my kind of science fiction. “Omnilingual” was first published in the February 1957 issue of Astounding Science Fiction but has often been reprinted. You can read it online or listen to it here.
“Omnilingual” is what I now call Pre-NASA Science Fiction because it’s about anthropologists on Mars excavating the ruins of a Martian civilization that had died out 50,000 years ago. In the 1940s and 1950s, science fiction often assumed we weren’t the only intelligent beings in the solar system, usually imagining jungle civilizations on Venus, and cold desert civilizations on Mars. Of course, NASA space probes in the 1960s destroyed those assumptions. “Omnilingual” fits in nicely between Ray Bradbury’s Martian stories of the 1940s, and Roger Zelazny’s dazzling “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” from 1963. I’ve always felt Zelazny’s story was an ode to Pre-NASA Science Fiction.
“Omnilingual” is impressive for several reasons. First, the main character is female, and the explorers from Earth includes women scientists in their crew. That wasn’t common back then. Remember the all-male crew in the 1956 film Forbidden Planet? That how most science fiction imagined space exploration before Star Trek.
Piper presents the problems of translating unknown ancient Earth languages to give his science fiction story the feel of scientific authenticity. One of my favorite themes in science fiction is the archeology of dead alien civilizations. And, there’s one aspect to this story I can’t reveal because it would be a major spoiler, but I think Piper makes an original observation about how to translate dead alien languages without a Rosetta Stone. I’d really like to know if Piper’s idea was original with him.
Every science fiction story that explores ideas about alien civilizations speculates how other intelligent beings would be like us and could be different. Piper assumes the Martians were a whole lot like us. Would that be true? For example, the researchers find what they think is a scientific journal. Is a periodical that publishes scientific research a logical feature for any advanced civilization? I’m not sure if that’s true, but it’s hard to imagine how scientific knowledge could be collected, stored, and transmitted in another way.
It’s really sad that Mars and Venus didn’t have intelligent life on them. Can you imagine what our world would be like if they did? Not science fiction imagining, but really what it would be like? Picture modern television with the extra diversity of Martians and Venusians. I think the popularity of Star Wars shows there’s a deep desire for living in a reality filled with many intelligent life forms and robots. We don’t want to be alone. This could also explain why many SF fans prefer classic mid-century science fiction stories.
I believe Piper’s goal in writing this story was to present his idea for finding a Rosetta Stone for translating alien languages. “Omnilingual” was written just before modern SETI began with the 1959 paper by Philip Morrison and Giuseppe Cocconi suggested frequencies for listening to alien signals and Frank Drake’s 1960 Project Ozma. I feel Piper had been reading histories of the pioneers who translating Earth’s dead languages and got the inspiration to think about dead alien languages. He also threw in some observations about rivalries between scientists and their academic ambitions.
Ultimately, the appeal of “Omnilingual” today is for modern science fiction readers to find nostalgic solace in a disappearing era of science fiction. That desire is reflected in two recent anthologies edited by George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois, Old Mars and Old Venus.
When I was a kid I would have given anything to grow up and been a part of the scientific crew in “Omnilingual.” I guess its a kind of psychological ailment I suffer as an older person wishing I had lived an alternate life history.