Wonder Stories: Early Science Fiction

“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.”

Stanley G. WeinbaumA Martian Odyssey (1934) (full text)

By all accounts Stanley Weinbaum’s short story revolutionised Science Fiction.

Asimov apparently regarded it as “one of only three stories that changed the way all subsequent ones in the science fiction genre were written.” He wrote of its publication that “With this single story, Weinbaum was instantly recognized as the world’s best living science fiction writer, and at once almost every writer in the field tried to imitate him.”

The story received the second most votes (after Asimov’s Nightfall) when the Science Fiction Writers of America (a who’s who of sci-fi greats) voted on the greatest science fiction stories written before the Nebula awards started in 1966.

The thing people talk about is the ostrich-like Martian character Tweel, seen as the first successful depiction of an intelligent alien with its own (non-human) motivations.

Its influence was huge. It’s a good story.

And yet… it’s not that good. The plot is ploddy; the characterisation flat. I don’t know that you’d read it to the end if it wasn’t a classic.

And yet… it was ‘best in class’ in its day, and it turned the genre upside down.

Conclusions

The same things are true of several of the stories in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume One, 1929–1964. Like early westerns and the first animated cartoons (and the first steam engines, cars, computer programs…) they seem crude by today’s standards and received mixed reviews in their own day, but they were, in a manner of speaking, the MVPs that built the market.

Go and do likewise.

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