Plan for the Day
- Pre-job advice from EAB
- Let’s cover William Tenn’s “The Liberation of Earth” (1953)
- We’ll switch the order from the syllabus:
- Weinbaum’s “A Martian Odyssey”
- Kelly’s “Think Like a Dinosaur”
The Alien Other and Worlds Beyond
Both stories for today deal with the alien other: a being or beings that aren’t of our world. We’ve already met aliens in our readings, but these two stories–although different–share a common theme related to the alien other. Although this could be argued about any sci fi alien encounter, today’s stories ask readers to consider what it means to be human in contrast to alien behavior. Weinbaum’s story has the main character, Jarvis, explaining Tweel’s extraterrestrial logic in contrast to human tendencies for generalizations. Kelly’s story has the main character reconsider what many would claim is a “universal” human ethical concern–preserving life–because he is influenced by his alien employers.
When confronting the alien other, humanity is relative.
Stanley G. Weinbaum’s “A Martian Odyssey” (1934)
This story is one of the many that editor John W. Campbell helped coach the author on. Asimov’s early career in science fiction would have gotten nowhere (well, most likely not as early a start) without the support of Campbell. He was important for Asimov’s thinking on the Three Laws of Robotics.
Let’s consider some surface features of the story before going under the surface and interpreting between the lines (yes, this parallels the narrative where Jarvis and Tweel walk on the Martian surface then go underground and find the cure-all egg). We’ll move from this to an analysis based on Weinbaum’s life and then on to a cultural-historical interpretation.
The Excitement of a Desolate Martian Surface
Mars doesn’t seem all that exciting, does it? It’s practically a barren wasteland with dangerous and goofy creatures, an environment with severe temperature fluctuations much like deserts on Earth. But, just like the Mojave Desert, you can find an oasis. Jarvis and Tweel don’t find Las Vegas,* but they do find creatures that defy explanation and survive on different chemical composition needs. What could we say about the brick-laying silica creature building pyramids forever (pp. 149-150)?
*Speaking of Las Vegas, at the Treasure Island, there used to be a show called Sirens of TI, and, on the surface of Mars, there are these siren-like creatures that lure unsuspecting hikers to them and then eat them. Jarvis called them dream beasts and he was shown a vision of Fancy Long–a New York dancer (c.f. Jean Harlow “The Sex Siren”). Even in the future, there are female go-go dancers entertaining men. What can we say about the role of women here in conjunction with last class’s discussion on female roles in Clarke’s “The Sentinel”?
Common images from Science Fiction Magazines
- Avon Fantasy Reader
- Fantastic Adventures
- Analog Science Fiction and Fact (went through name changes over the years)
- Space Science Fiction
- Weird Tales
Humans have always been fascinated by the tales of exploration. Long before our mass media technologies that beam “instant” news to us and even long before the printing press, humans told stories about explorers going to distant lands–some were based on actual exploration like Marco Polo’s travels to Asia, and some were based on mythology like Homer’s Odyssey about Odysseus’s (Ulysses in Roman mythology) journey back from the Trojan Wars to Ithaca (in upstate New York–just kidding). Weinbaum’s story contains all the components for an exciting adventure story:
- A sidekick he saves and who travels with him
- Bizarre creatures unknown to the adventurer
- New civilizations and battle–need to fight to get home safely
- Treasure or products of value
Because it’s a short story, we’re able to get through it much quicker than Lord of the Rings and The Odyssey. The characters make reference to the public’s assumed excitement about their journey when Harrison laments “I wish you’d saved the films, though. They’d have paid the cost of this junket; remember how the public mobbed the first moon pictures?” (p. 138). The American public consumed video and audio of the actual moon landing, but they had been consuming tales of adventure throughout its history: Lewis & Clarke’s Expedition, Cook & Peary’s North Pole excursion, and Admundsen’s trip to the South Pole.
The Desire to Transcend One’s Time
Even though we can’t assume the author’s point of view is the only factor for interpretation, we shouldn’t ignore connections to the author’s life. Weinbaum, like many sci fi or creative writers generally, might have been writing to indulge in other worlds and situations because he had a longing for something incomplete in his life. AGAIN, THIS ISN’T THE INTERPRETATION OF ALL HIS WORKS, but it is a plausible one. Weinbaum also wrote romance stories and a collection of stories about a scientist looking for a lover, who is ultimately lost. The theme of searching is apparent in his work and possibly drove his imagination and, therefore, his writing. A series of stories he wrote dealt with Dixon Wells, who was a student and later assistant to the great Haskel Van Manderpootz (they have a Sherlock Holmes and Watson-type relationship): “The Worlds of If” (1935), “The Ideal” (1935), and “The Point of View” (1936-posthumusly published). In the beginning of “The Point of View” Dixon Wells laments the trials and tribulations of finding the woman of his dreams:
There was the affair of the subjunctivisor, for instance, and also that of the idealizator; in the first of these episodes I had suffered the indignity of falling in love with a girl two weeks after she was apparently dead, and in the second, the equal or greater indignity of falling in love with a girl who didn’t exist, never had existed, and never would exist–in other words, with an ideal. Perhaps I’m a little susceptible to feminine charms, or rather, perhaps I used to be, for since the disaster of the idealizator, I have grimly relegated such follies to the past, much to the disgust of various vision entertainers, singers, dancers, and the like. (para. 6)
We learn at the end of “The Point of View” that Dixon Wells eventually falls in love with another man’s wife, an unattainable love. Interestingly, Jarvis calls Fancy Long “a vision entertainer” in “A Martian Odyssey” (p. 151). The implication is that she, too, is unattainable and acts as a fantasy for the character (and men in general).
Also, Weinbaum died of throat (or lung) cancer shortly after this story was published. He was born and died in Louisville, KY…home of the 2013 NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Champions. Again, I caution you against reading authors’ works as a lead up to their final moments (even authors who committed suicide didn’t write incessantly about their eventual suicides), but the fact that the characters mention the possibility to cure cancer with the egg (p. 159) is important. That’s not just Weinbaum’s concern in 1934-1935; even today, groups raise money and awareness on cancer in hopes that one day a cure will be found.
Here’s a rundown of the characters on this 21st-Century Martian expedition:
- Jarvis–possibly the American, reminiscent of a frontiersman
- Harrison–American or British Captain, incredulous to Jarvis’s tale
- Putz–definitely German, the engineer
- Leroy–definitely French, the biologist
- Tweel (Tweerl)–Jarvis’s alien sidekick he saves
- p. 144: Jarvis on Tweel–“Our minds simply looked at the world from different viewpoints, and perhaps his viewpoint is as true as ours.”
- In Weinbaum’s story “Valley of Dreams”–the sequel to this one–readers learn that Tweel’s race is the Thoth, who visited the ancient Egyptians and brought the gift of writing.
- Cover of The Best of Stanley G. Weinbaum (1974)
This crew of Europeans and, presumably, Americans reflects the colonial aspirations Western nations had in the first half of the 20th Century. Of course, other nations had (and still have) these aspirations. Additionally, connecting the adventure aspects of the story to European conquistadors, we can read how for quite some time Western culture assumed that riches could be found in far away lands. Whether it’s Aztec/Inca gold or the fabled Fountain of Youth, the culturally held assumption (or fascination) is that discoveries in other lands could be of value. It’s no surprise that we call scientific and technological breakthroughs “discoveries” even though they aren’t found. Jarvis stealing the cure-all Martian “egg” alludes to colonial patterns of exploitation.
More Questions to consider:
- Which is the most mythical character? Consider the title of the short story…and I mean the word “Odyssey” in the title.
- Which character is the most traditionally science fiction? Fantasy character?
- What does the return home suggest?
Specific passages to discuss:
- p. 137: “The Ares expedition, first human beings to set foot on the…planet Mars.”
- p. 137: Mad scientists and Atomic Power (history of nuclear power)
- “the mad American Doheny perfected the atomic blast at the cost of his life”
- “only a decade after the equally mad Cardoza rode on it to the moon”
- p. 139: “[Jarvis]…took a cartridge belt and revolver…”
- Theoretically, you can shoot a gun on Mars, and it will travel farther than on Earth.
- There’s too little oxygen, however, to build a fire.
- p. 143: Language barriers
- Tweel used a version of addition to compare like and unlike and similar things
- pp. 143-144: Jarvis says, “Well, there we were. We could exchange ideas up to a certain point, and then–blooey! Something in us was different, unrelated; I don’t doubt that Tweel thought me just as screwy as I thought him.”
- p. 153: Tweel’s weapon “did hold as many shots as a cowboy’s gun in a Western movie.”
- p. 157: Those pushcart creatures really live (and die) for their work…
James Patrick Kelly’s “Think Like a Dinosaur” (1995)
For this story, I assumed we might run out of time, so, instead of trying to put up lots about interpretation, I figured I’d ask questions and see where the conversation goes. I’ll give a brief synopsis and then see what you think. Even though this short story was published 60 years after Weinbaum’s, Michael references that this pursuit of science has “potential spin-offs that could” cure diseases (p. 702). Remember, these narratives stem, in part, from the underlying assumption that pursuit of knowledge leads to advances that improve life.
Below are some questions about the short story to help us consider ways of interpreting the text:
- What might Michael’s job at Tuulen Station be analogous to today? In other words, what other technician-type job requires discarding superfluous, redundant material?
- What does “balancing the equation” mean in the context of this story? What process comes to mind when you think of the marble slab that converts humans and sends them into space?
- This story is about ethical choice. Are the alien Hanen correct to conclude that “there is no identity in dead meat” (p. 704), so that it does not matter which version of Kamala Shastri continues to exist and which is killed? Has the narrator committed murder or has he no choice but to act according to the logic of “the cold equations” of the physical universe? Why doesn’t he refuse?
- p. 698: the Anthology editors claim Kelly is a humanist.
- So what can we say about our relationships and rituals with the dead?
- Bob Dylan tells us to “Forget the dead you’ve left, they will not follow you”
- That could mean don’t be held back by past wants, desires, thinking that might stifle your ability to move on.
- Then again, always remember the past evil you’ve let into your life and don’t make that mistake again…hypothetically speaking.
- To “think like a dinosaur” conventionally means to think in ways that are no longer useful. Is this what the story seems to imply about the alien “dinos”? What else might “to think like a dinosaur” mean in this story? What does Michael mean when, after disposing of Kamala, he proudly concludes that he “could think like a dinosaur”?
- If this story is a parable, is thinking like a dinosaur the only way to get to the stars, or is there another dinosaur reference?
- The “secret” stories that Kamala and Michael tell each other parallel the issues surrounding “balancing the equation” and respecting life. Does the story finally support or critique “thinking like a dinosaur”?
- Consider Michael’s assertion that he was a coward (p. 704)…and that got him this job. And he’s a sapientologist…a scientist studying just another animal–us!
- Consider Kamala’s worry that her parents would find out she was selling her time to the elderly lady.
These stories about Aliens are supposed to make us think about what it means to be human.
We’ll focus on gender and gendered messages in our next two short stories for Wednesday (9/25).