By H. Beam Piper
Published by Librivox
Read by Mark Nelson
I do not normally listen to so many by the same author in a row, but this one and another Piper classic story (Oomphel in the Sky) queued up and so I listened to them. I’ll review Oomphel in a couple of weeks, since I have a Christmas special in mind for next week.
For now, however… Omniligual was first published in the February, 1957 edition of “Astounding Science Fiction.” It involves a group of scientists who are exploring the ruins of a Martian civilization. We’ve learned a lot about our neighbors in this solar system since 1957, but let’s keep in mind that at the time this was written there had been no manned space flight nor had we yet sent probes to the Moon, never mind Venus or Mars. There was a lot we did not yet know about the other planets. For example we did not yet realize that the surface of Venus was hot enough to melt lead, nor that the atmosphere of Mars is primarily carbon dioxide. Piper was not the only prominent author who speculated about native life on Mars or Venus. Ray Bradbury and Robert Heinlein did as well as did quite a few others.
The concept of intelligent life on Mars was not as far-fetched as it suddenly became when the Soviet Mars probes landed and then even more so a few years later when the Viking probes visited. Even now, recent samplings on Mars have revealed traces of methane in the atmosphere that might indicate some form of life, although there are other processes that produce methane.
In Piper’s Terro-Human future history, the Martian civilization died out some fifty thousand years ago. As we learn in Omnilingual, they had a fairly advanced civilization, although had not yet achieved atomic power, although they did know how to generate electricity via wind power. The Mars of this story, however, can barely support life although it does have a few lizard-like mammals crawling along near the ground and some bird-like creatures in the very deep valleys and so forth. The idea is that Mars gradually lost its atmosphere and the canals dried up etc. Well, that’s not too bad as recent discoveries seem to indicate there may once have been liquid water on the surface of that planet and ice has been found.
There are quite a few scientists on the team exploring Mars in this story, along with members of the military, but the story centers on the archaeologists, one of whom has decided she wants to decipher the ancient Martian language. The problem is that without a document of some sort that translates the unknown Martian language into one that is known, it is nearly impossible to build up a vocabulary. What they need is something like the Rosetta Stone which has identical texts in Greek, Hieratic and Hieroglyphics or the vast sum of coinciding data that eventually proved that Mycenaean Linear B was, in fact, Greek, but written in syllabic script. The skeptics in the story point out that such a bilingual key will never exist since the Martians were never in contact with Earth, but our heroine persists in spite of the raging egoistic rants of her antagonist.
As the story progresses they find a vast library (still in good shape because the Martians printed on a silicone substance that does not degrade) and even the mummified remains of a few Martians. Finally they find a periodic table and that proves to be the key to the Martian language since this is not just the periodic table of Mars, but of the universe.
I need to pick a couple nits here. I agree that the elements are the elements and will have the same properties on Mars they do on Earth or in the Andromeda Galaxy, for that matter, but why is it so obvious that the Martian scientists would arrange their periodic table in the same manner that Earthly scientists did? For that matter the classic Mendeleevian Periodic Table form is hardly the only one that has been known – there have been hundreds of them and even if the Martians classified the elements in the same manner as those charts we grew up with in high school chemistry, why should Hydrogen and Helium, be at the top? Why can’t the lightest elements be at the bottom? Or on the left or right side? Why not tilt the whole thing on the diagonal? I think our heroes would have eventually figured it out (they did find that chart in a chemistry department) but to think that there is only one layout for the periodic table just seems a bit simplistic to me.
Piper also did not know the limits of radiocarbon dating when he says the archaeologists can date everything in their finds that way. The simple fact of the matter is that, under most circumstances, you just cannot get a reliable date older than fifty thousand years using the decay of the Carbon 14 isotope. There have been a few special circumstances that with special preparation the limit was pushed back a bit, but in this story the Martian civilization died about the time radiocarbon dating becomes unreliable. You also need some form of organic matter in obvious association with your find to date, so if you find silicone-paged books or something made of metal you cannot date them directly, but we can let that pass as they do find some organic matter in correct and obvious association later in the story. However, to establish a chronology of Martian civilization by C14 dating? No… not going to work.
That aside, I enjoyed the story very much. In some ways the archaeologists were having too easy a time of it, cutting their ways through blocked doors of buildings that after fifty thousand years were still intact, but this was a novelette (I think) so for the sake of the story some stuff had to be rushed. I found it amazing that guesses were almost always right and if wrong, someone else got it right at the same time. Generally archaeologists just dig and catalog everything they find (complete with noting the context of each find with descriptions and pictures and maps) and do the actual interpretation later on – sometimes years later.
The whole notion of finding something in the ground and being able to instantly identify it and what it means is definitely fiction, but this story is fiction so I can accept it. At least it is not a case of Indiana Jones stumbling into a situation and instantly reading the inscriptions (of some culture he has never specialized in – seriously, folks, successful archaeologists specialize. As careers progress they might move to another part of the world, but most often to a related site. It would be very unusual for an Egypotologist to suddenly turn to the study of Incan civilization for example.) and instantly figuring out not only how to get out of whatever trap he fell into but how to grab the “treasure” on the way. Finding a snake in the back seat of the plane, is par for the course, however. J This story is much closer than that to an actual scientific archaeological study and I appreciate it for what it is.
Once again, Mark Nelson turns in an excellent reading. His polished tones are completely professional and pull the listener into the story. Each character has a subtly different voice and he rarely chooses an annoying voice unless that is how the author describes the character. I always enjoy Mister Nelson’s readings.
Summing it up, this not just a classic science fiction story, but one that has inspired later authors as well and Mark Nelson reads it perfectly. If the story itself has flaws they are only in the fact that we have learned so much since Piper wrote it. It is important to keep in mind that when written, not only had no probes successfully landed on Mars, even the first Sputnik had not yet launched so all we knew of the planets, or even the Moon was what we could see through a telescope. A writer these days would likely set the story on an extra-solar planet and if you imagine this happening on some other planet, it helps.