Remembering Stanley G. Weinbaum
By Brantley Thompson Elkins
"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.”
That’s from “A Martian Odyssey,” by Stanley G. Weinbaum, which first appeared in 1934. Weinbaum was born April 4, 1902, and died Dec. 14, 1935. Although he apparently started writing fiction in the 1920’s, his career as a published science fiction writer lasted only a year and a half. The only upside – for us, the living – of his early death is that his works are now in the public domain.
Several of his sf stories, including “A Martian Odyssey,” have been made available for download at Project Gutenberg. All have been collected in new editions by Leonaur Books, and a French fan – Robert Soubie – has even had his mainstream adventure-romance, The Lady Dances, which was serialized by King Features in 1934, turned into a publish-on-demand book by Lulu (It’s not cheap, at $36, and has a number of uncorrected errors from scanning the text of the newspaper installments, but it’s out there – unless Amazon puts Lulu out of business under a new policy of selling only POD books published by its subsidiary, Booksurge.).
Weinbaum is still admired by science fiction professionals, but little known to today’s readers. He has been praised by any number of authors, including Isaac Asimov, for revolutionizing the portrayal of aliens in science fiction. Before “A Martian Odyssey,” there were two kinds of extraterrestrials in Anglo-American sf: those which looked just like humans and were good; and those which looked like monsters and were bad. There were other kinds in French and even in Russian science fiction, but we didn’t know about them here.
“A Martian Odyssey” is the story of Jarvis, a Terran explorer whose auxiliary rocket crashes on Mars, and the strange being he meets there called – as nearly as he can pronounce it – Tweel. Tweel is being attacked by some sort of monster, and Jarvis saves him – recognizing that he must be intelligent because he has some sort of little black bag around his neck. But that doesn’t mean that he can talk with Tweel: not only do they not share a common language, but their very concepts are alien to each other.
The rest of the Terran explorers are on the main ship, hundreds of miles away, and Jarvis has no choice but to hoof it. But Tweel, from gratitude or curiosity, he knows not which, decides to travel with him. And an odd sort of relationship and understanding develops during their shared journey. It’s hard to explain, but since the story is in the public domain, I can let Weinbaum himself explain it at length:
"There was a line of little pyramids—tiny ones, not more than six inches high, stretching across Xanthus as far as I could see! Little buildings made of pygmy bricks, they were, hollow inside and truncated, or at least broken at the top and empty. I pointed at them and said 'What?' to Tweel, but he gave some negative twitters to indicate, I suppose, that he didn't know. So off we went, following the row of pyramids because they ran north, and I was going north.
"Man, we trailed that line for hours! After a while, I noticed another queer thing: they were getting larger. Same number of bricks in each one, but the bricks were larger.
"By noon they were shoulder high. I looked into a couple—all just the same, broken at the top and empty. I examined a brick or two as well; they were silica, and old as creation itself!"
"How do you know?" asked Leroy.
"They were weathered—edges rounded. Silica doesn't weather easily even on earth, and in this climate—!"
"How old you think?"
"Fifty thousand—a hundred thousand years. How can I tell? The little ones we saw in the morning were older—perhaps ten times as old. Crumbling. How old would that make them? Half a million years? Who knows?" Jarvis paused a moment. "Well," he resumed, "we followed the line. Tweel pointed at them and said 'rock' once or twice, but he'd done that many times before. Besides, he was more or less right about these.
"I tried questioning him. I pointed at a pyramid and asked 'People?' and indicated the two of us. He set up a negative sort of clucking and said, 'No, no, no. No one—one—two. No two—two—four,' meanwhile rubbing his stomach. I just stared at him and he went through the business again. 'No one—one—two. No two—two—four.' I just gaped at him."
"That proves it!" exclaimed Harrison. "Nuts!"
"You think so?" queried Jarvis sardonically. "Well, I figured it out different! 'No one—one—two!' You don't get it, of course, do you?"
"Nope—nor do you!"
"I think I do! Tweel was using the few English words he knew to put over a very complex idea. What, let me ask, does mathematics make you think of?"
"Why—of astronomy. Or—or logic!"
"That's it! 'No one—one—two!' Tweel was telling me that the builders of the pyramids weren't people—or that they weren't intelligent, that they weren't reasoning creatures! Get it?"
"Huh! I'll be damned!"
"You probably will."
"Why," put in Leroy, "he rub his belly?"
"Why? Because, my dear biologist, that's where his brains are! Not in his tiny head—in his middle!"
"Not on Mars, it isn't! This flora and fauna aren't earthly; your biopods prove that!" Jarvis grinned and took up his narrative. "Anyway, we plugged along across Xanthus and in about the middle of the afternoon, something else queer happened. The pyramids ended."
"Yeah; the queer part was that the last one—and now they were ten-footers—was capped! See? Whatever built it was still inside; we'd trailed 'em from their half-million-year-old origin to the present.
"Tweel and I noticed it about the same time. I yanked out my automatic (I had a clip of Boland explosive bullets in it) and Tweel, quick as a sleight-of-hand trick, snapped a queer little glass revolver out of his bag. It was much like our weapons, except that the grip was larger to accommodate his four-taloned hand. And we held our weapons ready while we sneaked up along the lines of empty pyramids.
"Tweel saw the movement first. The top tiers of bricks were heaving, shaking, and suddenly slid down the sides with a thin crash. And then—something—something was coming out!
"A long, silvery-gray arm appeared, dragging after it an armored body. Armored, I mean, with scales, silver-gray and dull-shining. The arm heaved the body out of the hole; the beast crashed to the sand.
"It was a nondescript creature—body like a big gray cask, arm and a sort of mouth-hole at one end; stiff, pointed tail at the other—and that's all. No other limbs, no eyes, ears, nose—nothing! The thing dragged itself a few yards, inserted its pointed tail in the sand, pushed itself upright, and just sat.
"Tweel and I watched it for ten minutes before it moved. Then, with a creaking and rustling like—oh, like crumpling stiff paper—its arm moved to the mouth-hole and out came a brick! The arm placed the brick carefully on the ground, and the thing was still again.
"Another ten minutes—another brick. Just one of Nature's bricklayers. I was about to slip away and move on when Tweel pointed at the thing and said 'rock'! I went 'huh?' and he said it again. Then, to the accompaniment of some of his trilling, he said, 'No—no—' and gave two or three whistling breaths.
"Well, I got his meaning, for a wonder! I said, 'No breathe!' and demonstrated the word. Tweel was ecstatic; he said, 'Yes, yes, yes! No, no, no breet!' Then he gave a leap and sailed out to land on his nose about one pace from the monster!
"I was startled, you can imagine! The arm was going up for a brick, and I expected to see Tweel caught and mangled, but—nothing happened! Tweel pounded on the creature, and the arm took the brick and placed it neatly beside the first. Tweel rapped on its body again, and said 'rock,' and I got up nerve enough to take a look myself.
"Tweel was right again. The creature was rock, and it didn't breathe!"
"How you know?" snapped Leroy, his black eyes blazing interest.
"Because I'm a chemist. The beast was made of silica! There must have been pure silicon in the sand, and it lived on that. Get it? We, and Tweel, and those plants out there, and even the biopods are carbon life; this thing lived by a different set of chemical reactions. It was silicon life!"
Weinbaum was best known for his strange alien stories, three of them – beginning with “Parasite Planet” (1935) featuring Hamilton Hammond and Patricia Burlingame.
Ham and Pat meet on Venus, and don’t hit it off at first – he’s there for the money, collecting raw material for pharmaceuticals and she’s a scientist who considers herself above that sort of thing – and considers him a poacher. But Venus is a very dangerous place, and when they both lose their shelter from a plague of fast-growing native fungi, they have to rely on each other to make it to safety.
This isn’t the kind of story where the heap big hero has to come to the rescue of the helpless heroine; they are both intelligent and competent but not infallible – they take turns rescuing each other from hazards that might otherwise have doomed them.
Along the way, Ham comes to admire Pat – and not just as a beautiful woman:
They trudged on. Patricia was as tireless as Ham himself and was vastly more adept in Hotland lore. Though they spoke but little, he never ceased to wonder at the skill she had in picking the quickest route, and she seemed to sense the thrusts of the Jack Ketch trees without looking. But it was when they halted at last, after a rain had given opportunity for a hasty meal, that he had real cause to thank her.
Their story ends with love and marriage. But marriage isn’t the end of love, for them or for Tim and Diane, a couple marooned on a frigid moon of Saturn in “Flight on Titan.” Even when all seems lost, Diane doesn’t regret their journey: “I’m glad I came with you, then. I’m glad it’s both of us together.” And Tim, in what he fears are his last words, responds: “Good-by, ever valiant. I think you loved me more than I deserved.”
There had been romance in sf before, mostly in the interplanetary adventures of Edgar Rice Burroughs and his imitators. But pulp sf readers and writers of the 1930’s tended to disdain it. Indeed, when John W. Campbell (later to edit Astounding Science Fiction, now called Analog) launched a series modeled on Ham and Pat, he made his protagonists – Penton and Blake – a couple of guys. But beyond the romance in Weinbaum’s stories were the romantic figures – especially the women, like none seen before in science fiction.
In an interview with the twice-widowed Margaret Hawtof Weinbaum Kay in 1995 (She died a year later), Eric Leif Davin was curious about his attitude towards women:
Q: I just wanted to ask why you think Stanley had so many heroines in his stories, which was unusual for that time. In most of the stories of the thirties, especially in the pulp genre, women were clingy and weepy, sort of like Fay Wray in King Kong.
A: No, that wasn’t his idea of a woman! A dame to him was a glamour princess, not a clinging woman. He was a very romantic person. This was a good part of his make-up.
It wasn’t a matter of feminism, which hardly existed at the time. Nobody was going to pin a medal on Weinbaum for creating female heroes. He just thought that strong and intelligent and daring women were sexy. He would doubtless have enjoyed Emma Peel on The Avengers if he’d lived to see that.
In "The Red Peri" (1935), which was intended to be the first story in a series (Weinbaum's death intervened), the Peri is a sexy space pirate out to avenge her father, who was cheated out of an invention that advanced interplanetary travel.
Frank Keene, who has already encountered her when a ship he was on got robbed but doesn't know she's a woman (She was wearing a space suit at the time; you know how that is!), later stumbles onto her base on Pluto while on a Smithsonian expedition. He's captured, and falls madly in love with the Peri. One of the native life forms is a carbon feeder; when one latches onto his foot, she quickly cuts his toe off to save him, but acts as if it's no big deal.
Keene wants her to go straight, and devises a way to escape with her -- the entrance to her lair is an electronic field, not a door. Outside is the airless surface of Pluto, and his own ship. He doesn't have a space suit, but has calculated that for a short distance, he won't need one -- people do not explode in a vacuum (Arthur C. Clarke picked up on this idea decades later, and uses it in 2001). Anyway, he just grabs her, and carries her out the entrance and to his ship, where they can both breathe again and he explains the principle of how he did it.
"I think you're very courageous, Frank," she says. "You're the only man ever to see the Red Peri frightened, and you've seen that -- twice."
"Twice? When was the other time?"
"When -- when I saw the carbon feeders on your foot."
In “Dawn of Flame,” set in a post-holocaust America, Hull Tarvish is drawn to Black Margot, sister of Joaquin Smith -- the man who has discovered the secret of immortality in New Orleans and is creating a new empire by conquering the primitive but free lands of the upper Mississippi. But his loyalty to his own people drives him to take up arms against the invaders. Hull has promised to marry Vail, one of his own people, and yet the allure of the immortal Margot is more than he can resist. She is drawn to him too, for his valor. So she resists for both of them in their final encounter:
She dropped his hands and smiled. "Then listen to me, Hull. You love little Vail with a truer love, and month by month memory fades before reality. After a while there will be nothing left in you of Black Margot, but there will be always Vail. I go now hoping never to see you again, but"—and her eyes chilled to green ice—"before I go I settle my score with you."
She raised her gauntleted hand. "This for your treachery!" she said, and struck him savagely across his right check. Blood spouted, there would be scars, but he stood stolid. "This for your violence!" she said, and the silver gauntlet tore his left check. Then her eyes softened. "And this," she murmured, "for your love!"
Her arms circled him, her body was warm against him, and her exquisite lips burned against his. He felt as if he embraced a flame for a moment, and then she was gone, and a part of his soul went with her. When he heard the hooves of the stallion Eblis pounding beyond the window, he turned and walked slowly out of the house to where Vail still crouched beside her father's body. She clung to him, wiped the blood from his cheeks, and strangely, her words were not of her father, nor of the sparing of Hull's life, but of Black Margot.
"I knew you lied to save me," she murmured. "I knew you never loved her."
And Hull, in whom there was no falsehood, drew her close to him and said nothing.
But Black Margot rode north from Selui through the night. In the sky before her were thin shadows leading phantom armies, Alexander the Great, Attila, Genghis Khan, Tamerlane, Napoleon, and clearer than all, the battle queen Semiramis. All the mighty conquerors of the past, and where were they, where were their empires, and where, even, were their bones? Far in the south were the graves of men who had loved her, all except Old Einar, who tottered like a feeble grey ghost across the world to find his.
At her side Joaquin Smith turned as if to speak, stared, and remained silent. He was not accustomed to the sight of tears in the eyes and on the cheeks of Black Margot.
“Dawn of Flame” led to a novel-length sequel, The Black Flame, in which a resurrected twentieth century man, Thomas Connor, wins the love of Margot in a more distant future where Smith’s empire has conquered the entire world. It is a world in which, among other things, the English language has changed so much that it is practically unintelligible to Connor at first. “Specker” is spectre; that’s what the people who find him call him. “Muvver” has replaced mother, and one of the future men wants to know, “Wassup?” Hey, that word really has entered the language since then!
In “Dawn of Flame,” Weinbaum had already used invented idioms of the post-holocaust future. “To have one’s tongue in a bag,” for example, is to keep silent. And Weinbaum also has fun with myth and reality, as a sage called Old Einar tries to enlighten Hull Tarvish:
"I wonder," [Hull] said to Old Einar, "what the Ancients were like. Were they men like us? Then how could they fly?"
"They were men like us, Hull. As for flying—well, it's my belief that flying is a legend. See here; there was a man supposed to have flown over the cold lands to the north and those to the south, and also across the great sea. But this flying man is called in some accounts Lindbird and in others Bird and surely one can see the origin of such a legend. The migrations of birds, who cross land and seas each year, that is all."
"Or perhaps magic," suggested Hull.
"There is no magic. The Ancients themselves denied it and I have struggled through many a moldy book in a curious, archaic tongue.
There is also some real poetry in the scene where Tarvish and the other Weeds, as the Imperials call the resistance, await Smith’s army:
Their informant rode on toward Ormiston, and the men fell to their quiet waiting. A half hour passed, and then, faintly drifting on the silent air, came the sound of music. Singing; men's voices in song. Hull listened intently, and his skin crept and his hair prickled as he made out the words of the Battle Song of N'Orleans:
"Queen of cities, reigning
Empress, starry pearled
See our arms sustaining
Battle flags unfurled!
Hear our song rise higher,
Fierce as battle fire,
Death our one desire
Or the Empire of the World!"
Hull gripped his bow and set feather to cord. He knew well enough that the plan was to permit the enemy to pass unmolested until his whole line was within the span of the ambush, but the rumble of that distant song was like spark to powder. And now, far down the way beyond the cut, he saw the dust rising. Joaquin Smith was at hand.
A lot of things we take for granted in science fiction today began with Stanley G. Weinbaum. Now that his works are readily available at Amazon and at Project Gutenberg (Gutenberg.net.au has some that aren’t available at the main site), I hope you’ll take the opportunity to discover or rediscover him.