“Omnilingual” by H. Beam Piper

Omnilingual-web

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.

Omnilingual-illo-1

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.

JWH

 

 

“Time and Time Again” by H. Beam Piper

Time-and-Time-Again-by-H.-Beam-Piper

Have you ever thought of an idea for a science fiction story, but before you could use it discovered the idea has already been used in another story? Last night I read “Time and Time Again” by H. Beam Piper and it uses an idea I’ve already tried in several story attempts. The idea is not really science fiction, but a fantasy version of “if I knew then what I know now,” but Piper throws in some pseudo-science gobbledygook and tries to pass it off as science fiction. Of course, in 1947, science fiction writers were ramping up for the 1950s, the SF Decade of Psi-Powers.

“Time and Time Again” originally appeared in the April 1947 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. It was reprinted in the classic retrospective anthology, A Treasury of Science Fiction edited by Groff Conklin in 1948. In 1956 it was made into an episode of X-Minus One radio show. I read just it in The Great SF Stories 9 (1947) edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg. The story is also available at Project Gutenberg. This was H. Beam Piper’s first published story.

I’m taking a short break from reading 21st-century SF to jump back to 1940s science fiction. I’ve discovered yet another way of classifying science fiction short stories. Sometimes I read SF magazines. Sometimes I read best-of-the-year annuals. Sometimes I read retrospective anthologies that claim to culled the very best short stories of the genre. They can be new or old magazines, annuals, or anthologies. This gives me three levels of quality and from past and current perspectives.

Reading science fiction magazines reveals that most stories aren’t that good. They’re good enough to get published, but most won’t make it into the best-of-last-year anthologies the following year. I’m reading a best-of-1947 volume, which contains these stories:

  • “Little Lost Robot” by Isaac Asimov
  • “Tomorrow’s Children” by Poul Anderson
  • “Child’s Play” by William Tenn
  • “Time and Time Again” by H. Beam Piper
  • “Tiny and the Monster” by Theodore Sturgeon
  • “E for Effort” by T. L. Sherred
  • “Letter to Ellen” by Chan Davis
  • “The Figure” by Edward Grendon
  • “With Folded Hands…” by Jack Williamson
  • “The Fires Within” by Arthur C. Clarke
  • “Zero Hour” by Ray Bradbury
  • “Hobbyist” by Eric Frank Russell
  • “Exit the Professor” by Lewis Padgett
  • “Thunder and Roses” by Theodore Sturgeon

Time has not been kind of science fiction. Only the very well-read in science fiction will know any of these titles. “E for Effort” and “With Folded Hands…” made it into volume 2 of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame. “Little Lost Robot” became part of I, Robot. And “Thunder and Roses” is one of Theodore Sturgeon’s most famous tales. I doubt many science fiction fans born after 1990 will know these stories.

“Time and Time Again” uses an idea that’s a daydreaming fantasy of mine and one that I’ve tried to work into a story several times. (I did use a variation of it for my blog, “I Wish I Had A Time Machine To Save My Dad.”) Allan Hartley, age 43, dies and wakes back up in his 13-year-old body, but remembers everything that will happen to him for the next thirty years. Replay (1986) by Ken Grimwood was the first work I read that used this idea of reincarnating into one’s own life.

Is “Time and Time Again” a good story? In the July 1947 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, “Time and Time Again” came in 1st in The Analytical Laboratory with a score of 3.11 out of 5 stories. Readers rank stories so a score of 1.0 would have meant every reader would have placed it first on their list. A score of 3.11 means it wasn’t a standout. “Time and Time Again” was good enough to get into Conklin’s big anthology, get produced as a radio show, and to be picked as one of the best SF stories of 1947 by Asimov and Greenberg. But on the whole, it’s not that good. Well, yes and no. If you have a fondness for 1940s science fiction, it has its charms, but if you read with a critical eye, the story is not that polished.

“Time and Time Again” did excite me, but only because it uses my pet idea. Have you ever fantasized about reincarnating into your younger self so you could relive your life knowing what you know now? Sometimes a far-out idea is all a story needs to make it likable. However, Piper really didn’t use the idea effectively, essentially throwing it away on a clunky plot. That’s one of the big faults of science fiction. Writers come up with a cool concept, but often cobble together any old plot to showcase their spiffy insight.

“Time and Time Again” is the earliest version of this theme that I know, and H. Beam Piper does come up with many of the same consequences that later writers have:

  1. Am I crazy?
  2. Can I pull off acting like a kid?
  3. Do I have to repeat what I’ve done before?
  4. Can I tell anyone?
  5. How can I make my own money?

Ken Grimwood covers all of this in the first replay of Jeff Winston’s life. Strangely, Winston dies at 43 too. Could that have been a homage to Piper? Actually, Piper’s ending does have other parallels to Replay. Where Grimwood gets brilliant is when he has Winston relive his life over and over again, each time feeling the need to do something different. Knowing the other possibilities that Grimwood explores made me feel less impressed with Piper’s story. And I guess that’s not fair – it might be the first to use this idea.

I wish someone would create an anthology of stories using this theme. I don’t know of any short stories that use this specific idea, but I bet they’re out there. If you know of any, please leave a comment.

Piper starts the story off by showing what happens to Allan, but eventually, he just has Allan lecturing and speculating. It’s a shame he couldn’t have come up with a fully dramatized plot.

Within “Time and Time Again” Allan mentions a 1923 fantasy novel, The High Place, by James Branch Campbell, and says the idea was also in Jurgen by the same author. But I don’t know what the specific idea he’s referring to. Allan also says Dunne’s Experiment With Time explores precognition. So I don’t know if Piper is more concerned with precognition and less with reincarnation into one’s own life. Piper could have used Allan Hartley wake up in his 13-year-old body just to give us a reason for his precognition, and not as a life do-over tale.

This story was written just after Hiroshima, and already science fiction is attributing magical events to atomic explosions. In the years to come, A-bombs would produce countless mutants with superpowers and portals to other dimensions.

Hartley wants to change history. That seems egotistical to me. It also seems comic bookish and juvenile too. Why would the universe give us a chance to relive our life? At a spiritual level, taking it beyond science and science fiction, wouldn’t such an opportunity be telling us to do a better job this time around and change ourselves, not the world? One common trend in science fiction from this era is the power fantasy, where one hero can save the world, solar, system, galaxy or universe. I think H. Beam Piper matured as a writer by the time he wrote his masterpiece, Little Fuzzy.

James Wallace Harris, March 13, 2019

 

 

“Tin Marsh” by Michael Swanwick

Venus

When is it appropriate to call bullshit on the science fiction in science fiction? Michael Swanick’s story, “Tin Marsh” is set on Venus. It’s about a woman and man who team up to prospect for metal on Venus but who come to intensely hate each other. The story is a compelling read that makes turning the pages easy, but its setup is completely unbelievable to me.

Since we’re reviewing the stories in The Very Best of the Best, an anthology of science fiction first published between 2002 and 2017, I think the title challenges us to ask: What is great science fiction and are these stories the very best examples of the art.

The basic formula for writing science fiction is to think up a far-out idea and then contrive a plot to embed that idea into a story. The very best science fiction will push the limits of our imagination by speculating on just what might be possible. The very best science fiction is in the box with Schroedinger’s cat. Science fiction has to wait for science to open the box.

Early science fiction wondered if humans could go to the Moon or Mars in a time when we knew little about the solar system. In what I call Pre-NASA Science Fiction, writers imagined Venus and Mars to be habitable worlds that often included intelligent life. Post-NASA science fiction has had to live with what its space probes discovered. Modern science fiction still tries to imagine us living on almost any piece of real estate in the solar system, but is that realistic? I believe science fiction should be judged on scientific realism, and readers need to call bullshit when they see it.

“Tin Marsh” has us believing humans could work on Venus and make a profit. Swanwick has his characters living in power suits that withstand the heat, pressure, and corrosive atmosphere of Venus. I call bullshit on this idea for two reasons. I don’t believe such suits could ever be engineered, nor will mining metal on Venus ever be profitable. No one will invest trillions to earn billions.

Now the plot of “Tin Marsh” is more believable. Two people working closely come to hate each other. Simple enough. Happens all the time. “Tin Marsh” first appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction in 2006. 20th-century science fiction has been much criticized for the lack of female characters, so in this 21st-century story, gender is balanced with one male (MacArthur) and one female (Patang). The trouble is the gender equality ends there. Patang has driven MacArthur to murder.

The story has MacArthur chasing Patang across the surface of Venus to kill her slowly. MacArthur wants to torture Patang as much as possible before she dies. He hates her that much. And the reasons why MacArthur hates Patang are all the clichéd reasons men hate women. Of course, the reverse is also true. Is the story about Patang trying to survive being murdered, or is it really about why working with women on Venus would drive a man crazy? Because we’re told the story from Patang’s POV, we feel it’s about violence against women. But some male readers are going to identify with MacArthur. And what does the ending say about who is right?

Relying on violence as a plot driver is the core problem of this story, the same as the last story I reviewed, “Dead Men Walking” by Paul McAuley. McAuley’s story also featured a female character in a role that would have been previously given to a male. In both cases, the female role is contrived and connected with violence. In the McAuley story, the woman is given the equal opportunity to play a sadistic Jack-the-Ripper type killer, while Patang is just a sharped tongue woman who ends up torturing her partner in madness.

Is this story the very best of the best? It depends on the rules of judgment. Is it well-written and readable by SF standards? Yes. Is it full of action? Yes. Is it set in an exotic locale? Yes. Will it push emotional buttons? Yes. Does it stand out against its competition? Yes.

Is it scientific? No. Does it offer any ideas about how humans could actually work on Venus? No? Does it expand the frontiers of science fiction? No. Does it say anything about the heart in conflict with itself? Not really. Is it politically correct? You decide.

I have to wonder if Gardner Dozois assumes the very best of science fiction only requires certain writing features but not others? Although science fiction is hugely popular in our society, it’s not a popular reading category, especially for short stories. Writers have to produce a product that editors will buy, and editors have to buy stories that readers will read. For decades science fiction short stories were a product mostly consumed by adolescent males, but that’s changing. Is this 2006 story already PC dated in 2019? Doesn’t society change faster than science fiction imagines it?

Short stories also have to compete with novels, television shows, video games, movies and other kinds of modern entertainment. Short stories were at their peak of popularity before 1950, and they’ve been in decline ever since. Gardner Dozois was the most successful editor of short science fiction since John W. Campbell Jr. He should have the pulse of readers of short science fiction.

I have to assume Dozois knew his market. But I’m not sure if I’m in that market. Science fiction means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. The psychological common denominator of science fiction’s appeal is hope and fears about the future. But do we evaluate our possible futures with science fiction, or just use the genre to escape the present? That’s something I have to ask while reviewing these stories.

Believing humans will ever work on Venus is a fantasy. It makes me wonder if science fiction even tries to be realistic anymore? Are writers of science fiction merely using highly imaginative but contrived ideas to sell stories?

I believe we have to ask if our science fiction writers are Baron Munchausen or H. G. Wells?

James Wallace Harris, March 4, 2019

 

Fantastic Universe (1953-1960)

FANTUNIVAPR1955

I think it’s time we recognize some other science fiction magazines besides Astounding Science Fiction. So I’ve picked Fantastic Universe on a whim. Below, I’m going to list all the issues of Fantastic Universe available to read online at the Internet Archive, but before that, I thought I might explain why. If this column works out, I might do additional magazines.

I’ve recently read four books about Astounding Science Fiction and its editor John W. Campbell, Jr. (Requiem for Astounding by Alva Rogers, The World Beyond the Hill by Alexei and Cory Panshin, Astounding Days by Arthur C. Clarke, and Astounding by Alec Nevala-Lee). Quite often when I read the history of science fiction magazines Hugo Gernsback gets credit for starting Amazing Stories, and John W. Campbell seemingly gets credit for almost everything else. Of course, that’s not true. Time and time again, writers want to write about Campbell and Astounding. I’d like to know about the other editors and their magazines.

fantastic_universe_195310-11Most historians of the science fiction magazines do admit that Campbell’s influence waned in the 1950s as The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and Galaxy Science Fiction came on the scene. David L. Roshelm did write Galaxy Magazine: The Dark and the Light Years (1986), but as far as I know, no one has written a history of F&SF. There have been dozens of other science fiction magazines published in the 20th-century, and I have to wonder if their editors didn’t discover new writers, give new artists a gallery on their covers, provide letter columns for fans fighting their tempests in a teacup, and book reviewers a place to begin publishing.

I collect anthologies of science fiction short stories. Most of the stories anthologized from the 1930s and 1940s have come from Astounding Science Fiction. And Astounding, F&SF, and Galaxy seem to dominate when looking at stories collected from the 1950s. Of course, these markets paid more, so their editors got the first look at work from the top writers. Yet, I’ve got to wonder about all those forgotten science fiction magazines, editors, and writers. Did their editors discover new writers? Have anthologists missed story gems from those forgotten magazines?

FANTUNIVNOV1955The four books about Astounding break into two kinds. Rogers and Clarke were fans from the start and go back and review old issues story-by-story they fondly remember. The Panshins and Nevala-Lee were too young to have read Astounding growing up. The Panshins focused on analyzing the impact of stories, while Nevala-Lee focused on the biographies Campbell and his famous writers: Heinlein, Asimov, and Hubbard.

Thus, historians of magazines can choose to write about the stories, writers, or editors, an sometimes about the cover artists, interior illustrators, and book reviewers. Alva Rogers had a collection of Astounding to work with, and Clarke was given a microfilm set of Astounding. Nevala-Lee had digital scans. Having access to old magazines makes writing about them easier.

Because of sites like the Internet Archive, researchers can now read many more old science fiction magazines. It’s a great time for genre scholars to pour through long forgotten issues looking for undiscovered discoveries regarding SF in the 1950s. Fantastic Universe got the reputation for supporting the UFO craze. Whether it’s editor and writers believed in flying saucers, or were trying to make a buck of the craze, is another issue.  Ray Palmer at Amazing Stories and John W. Campbell, Jr. at Astounding both have piles of embarrassing editorials to defend too. And if you lived through the 1950s you’ll know people believed a lot of crazy ideas back then. Just read Confessions of a Crap Artist by Philip K. Dick, which I think is PKD’s best novel.

FANTUNIVAUG1957I thought it would be fun to research a lesser known science fiction magazine and picked Fantastic Universe, which ran from 1953-1960. I did find Leo Margulies: Giant of the Pulps (2017) by Philip Sherman. Supposedly, in the 1930s Leo Margulies edited 46 different pulp titles, but he’s most famous among SF fans for editing Startling Stories and Thrilling Wonder Stories. Sam Merwin, Jr. also worked on those two pulps and others, but I could not find a biography devoted to him. Hans Stefan Santesson seems to have gotten his start with Fantastic Universe and then went on to edit The Saint Mystery Magazine from 1959-1967.

Issue Lists (69)

Volume/Number links to ISFDB to see table of contents.

[IA] links to Internet Archive to read a scanned copy

1953Sam Merwin, Jr.

1954 – editor Beatrice Jones

1954 – editor Leo Margulies

1955 – editor Leo Margulies

1956 – editor Leo Margulies

1956 – editor Hans Stefan Santesson

1957 – editor Hans Stefan Santesson

1958 – editor Hans Stefan Santesson

1959 – editor Hans Stefan Santesson

1960 – editor Hans Stefan Santesson

The Internet Archive is becoming the Library of Congress for the web. It’s only missing 12 of the 69 issues of Fantastic Universe, and I’m pretty sure those issues will show up soon. I used to work in a periodicals department at a university and one of my jobs was tracking down and ordering missing issues. This was back in the 1980s and I had to snail-mail publishers all over the world. As our library ran out of space, we sometimes discarded whole runs of magazines, including a complete bound run of F&SF. That really killed my soul. I wanted them, but state law forbade the library from giving them to people, so they were shipped off to state surplus.

Now that libraries routinely discard items that seldom get used, it’s great that the Internet Archive is collecting everything it can as digital scans. Old pulp and digest magazines are aging badly, disintegrating and disappearing. So, scanning saves them for the future. And by being on the internet, people from all over the world can use them to write about the history of science fiction.

In the future, I’m hoping to see more books like Astounding by Alec Nevala-Lee about other areas of science fiction history. I was surprised by how many prominent general interest magazines reviewed it. I assume there are many more old fans like me who want to read about the evolution of science in magazines.

Additional Reading:

James Wallace Harris, 2/1/19

FantUnivNov54