August 3, 2017

Stanley G. Weinbaum, "A Martian Odyssey"

Stanley G. Weinbaum's, "A Martian Odyssey," published in Hugo Gersnbeck's Wonder Stories in 1934, treats the strange experiences of a surveyor, Jarvis, who, after crashing his rocket ship, has to hike his way back to his base ship, the Ares, over 800 miles of bizarre and inhospitable martian landscape. In the course of his difficult journey he encounters several strange creatures: a hypnotic tentacle monster that kills by projecting itself as the deepest desire of its selected prey, a bird-like intelligent creature named Tweel, a race of silicon-based mindless pyramid builders, and a barrel-shaped race of suicidal scavengers.

Much of the story focuses on the relationship between the protagonist and Tweel, who struggle to understand each other in spite of language and logic barriers. A general question posed throughout the story is whether or not Tweel is as intelligent as Jarvis. This dynamic reminds me of the movie, Enemy Mine (Wolgang Peterson, 1985), about how a human and an alien have to come to understand each other and trust each other to survive an inhospitable planet.

There are several memorable moments from this story, such as when the barrel-shaped creatures the protagonist and Tweel encounter parrot back the protagonist's English. There is another element near the end of the story, a strange crystal produced by the barrel-shaped creatures that possesses strong healing properties. Here is how it's described:

There was something [...] shining on a sort of low pedestal. I walked over; there was a little crystal about the size of an egg, fluorescing to the beat Tophet. The light from it stung my hands and face, almost like a static discharge, and then I noticed the funny thing.

After an exciting battle the protagonist is separated from Tweel and saved by his companions, other engineers on the Ares, but in the course of being saved, he steals the crystal. This is a common, enduring mythological and literary trope. Here the crystal is a kind of life-giving lotus, such as that sought by Gilgemesh, or the Holy Grail, sought by the Knights of the Round Table.