“A Martian Odyssey” by Stanley Weinbaum

First up in the SFWA SF Hall of Fame is this 1934 classic by Stanley Weinbaum, the first published SF story by a young prolific writer who must have also been a chain smoker as he died of lung cancer in his early thirties. A Martian Odyssey is one of the stories more famous for where it lies in the history of the field, often cited as the first story to feature aliens that weren’t just monsters or exotic humanoids but actual aliens with unique biologies and even personalities suited to their environment.

Asimov’s series of anthologies presenting the great SF stories starts with 1939, the earliest year that can amass a book’s worth of stories that hold up to modern SF standards. But those stories had to have antecedents and there were any number of examples as the original pulp magazines and writers started to separate by genre and science fiction became a separate thing. In the pre-Golden Age 1930’s, there was already a fraternity of pulp SF writers who were reading much of the published work and corresponding with and stealing ideas from one another. From the current vantage point it’s then hard to imagine that it took so long to get to the first proto-Campbellian alien contact story, but if you think about how these stories were selected by SFWA say in 1969, that means this story was only 35 years old at the time. That’s comparable to selecting a story today that was written around 1987, so maybe a good analogy would be Neuromancer (from 1984) which in retrospect seems obvious and even dated but back then was definitely a bomb thrown into the establishment, at least of what was allowed to be published. Credit Hugo Gernsback himself for buying Weinbaum’s manuscript and putting it in the same issue of Wonder Stories as Eando Binder’s first installment of “Enslaved Brains” and forgettable work by the unlamented Laurence Manning and Chester Cuthbert.

In the story itself Weinbaum chose to have all the action already taken place, and starts after the rescue of the viewpoint character Jarvis, who is telling his fellow Mars explorers what happened. Their only reactions seem to be to disbelieve his claims of the alien’s intelligence and to poke fun at his decisions, so it’s curious why he framed it that way. Weinbaum comes up with several alien Martian species hitherto undetected by these first travelers from Earth, including one based on silicon rather than carbon, who have evolved not only to exist in the hostile Mars landscape and environment but to antagonize one another. Only Tweel, who teams up with Jarvis after saving his life, seems to belong to any sort of civilization, the rest are higher order animals, including a “dream beast” that can somehow cause hallucinations in humans.

The story ends rather abruptly once Jarvis gets to the present. Weinbaum reused elements of the setting and races in later stories which have been collected and are said to be worth reading, but this is the one everyone remembers, unfortunately he didn’t live long enough to really live up to it. By the standards of that 1969 SFWA hall of fame ballot this story on its own terms would be fairly pedestrian but it holds its unique place of importance for moving the field forward.

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