One of the great tragedies in the history of science fiction was the premature death of the writer Stanley Weinbaum. His death in 1935 at the age of just thirty-three cut short his writing career which had barely lasted for a year and a half. Even sadder still is that he is nearly forgotten today when in a just world he would continue to be remembered as one of its great authors. Although his first story, “A Martian Odyssey”, remains an oft-anthologized classic, the rest of his oeuvre remains largely inaccessible to contemporary readers. This is almost criminal, for while “Odyssey” is justifiably regarded as one the field’s greatest stories, Weinbaum’s other stories are no less outstanding. With them, he demonstrated a remarkably ability to intelligently handle sophisticated ideas far beyond the state of the genre at the time, and Weinbaum was continuing to grow as a writer and potentially push the boundaries of science fiction further before cancer cut short a promising career.
The Best of Stanley Weinbaum is not only a sadly comprehensive collection of the best stories of the greatest of all the pre-Golden Age pulp science fiction writers, but a crucial history lesson, pinpointing where the genre began to truly mature, when it was shown that not only could even pulp science fiction be well-written, but that it was an ideal vehicle for both communicating and engaging with ideas. Although John W. Campbell would be credited with introducing these notions years later as an editor, the writers he nurtured had grown up reading Weinbaum’s classics and they had left an indelible imprint that influenced their treatment of major sf themes and premises. Re-reading Weinbaum’s stories today, one is struck not just by the elegance of the author’s prose, but by how remarkably modern many of his ideas are. While there were other writers who were obviously strongly and directly influenced by his writings (Frederic Brown, Theodore Sturgeon and Eric Frank Russell, especially), it may not be too far-fetched to say that all contemporary science fiction will find a conceptual antecedent in either Weinbaum or Heinlein.
It is for his alien encounter stories that Weinbaum is best known, and in each of them, it is us Earthlings who are the alien visitors to our neighbors in the Solar System. Although clearly astronomically dated, good science fiction cannot help but to date itself on certain levels if it does not take certain conceptual risks. It is this combination of conceptual daring with first-rate writing that makes Weinbaum stand out from John W. Campbell (a far better editor than he ever was a writer) and would help encourage contemporaries such as Jack Williamson and Murray Leinster, both of whom had started writing a few years earlier, to hone their talents and improve their writing skills as well. And while assessments of the revolutionary nature of these stories often begin and end with Weinbaum creating “aliens that were truly alien,” he actually went far beyond that. Weinbaum was among the first to seriously investigate the biology and psychology of the extraterrestrial in his fiction, and to do so through a subtle use of the scientific method, applying analogy and induction in his explanations and descriptions and making their alien nature an integral part of the storylines. Furthermore, his view of the planets was just as unique and refreshing; instead of viewing them as stand-ins for the Amazon or the Sahara or the Tundra, he endowed them with their own unique landscapes and environments, as was appropriate for the organisms he populated them with. No other author would be re-conceptualize science fiction’s view of the extraterrestrial or interplanetary again as well or as comprehensively until Hal Clement would when he insisted that they be rigorously subjected to the known laws of physics and chemistry, and in the case of the former, evolution as well.
Weinbaum’s best known story, “A Martian Odyssey” is justifiably famous for its revolutionary impact on the field but the complexity and sophistication of Weinbaum’s ideas have not really been sufficiently addressed. Tweel, the “Martian ostrich” that remains the most famous Weinbaum’s creations was not just another friendly neighbor. He was not a human in a bird suit or even just a supersmart bird who happened to live on another planet. He was completely alien in both physiology and psychology, for whom the comparison to a bird was a mere analogy. He may have been sufficiently intelligent and empathetic to be able to communicate with Jarvis, the human narrator of the story, yet at the same time it is made clear that there exists a barrier far greater than the puny cultural or linguistic obstacles here on Earth. The Cook’s Tour of Mars that Tweel takes Jarvis and Weinbaum takes us on introduces to even more creatures, and the other great sophisticated shift that the story makes is not just to view them in a non-judgmental fashion but to view them from the standpoint of the scientific method. The story’s protagonist is a chemist, working in the field Weinbaum himself was trained in, and he relays his adventure back to his fellow scientists on his ship (One of them is named Putz. It’s a good thing Weinbaum’s editor didn’t know Yiddish, because otherwise we wouldn’t get such delightful puns in the story as “Putz ejaculated.”). The “Dream Creature” may be terrifying, yet, as it is made clear, it is not evil, just doing what it needs to do in order to survive in a harsh and barren environment. My favorite creature in the story consists little more of a mound of clay for a body, tapering down to an arm to one end and a mouth/cloaca at the other, from which it literally excretes bricks. Yet this seemingly nondescript creature becomes fascinating through Weinbaum’s descriptions, as the narrator relays how the creature seemingly has no purpose in life beyond building brick pyramids and reproducing and theorizes about the possibility of silicon-based life (later a cliché, but then quite new). A frequent misunderstanding about Weinbaum’s writing is that in creating aliens who were genuinely lifelike and had their own purposes for existing beyond the advancement of plot, he was stating that it was impossible for us to understand them. It is more apparent in both “A Martian Odyssey” and elsewhere that understanding was possible, if we apply the scientific method properly, and learn to think outside the box when it is necessary and where it is appropriate, a message that continues to turn up in much of the best science fiction.
Weinbaum’s subsequent jaunts through the Solar System aren’t as well known, but they should be, for not only do many of them equal or in some cases excel “A Martian Odyssey” in terms of overall writing and entertainment value, but he continued to develop the same themes and build on them in terms of intellectual complexity and sophistication. Whereas in his first story, he gently criticized the human hubris that our way of thinking is superior to all others, his later ones can be seen as a critique of “biological chauvinism,” the notion that life will evolve the same way on other worlds and that we easily make assumptions about what is “out there” based on life here on Earth. Both “Parasite Planet” and its sequel “The Lotus Eaters” are gripping tales set on a Venus divided into hemispheres and an equatorial “twilight zone (possibly the first use of that now-iconic term in science fiction) where all forms of life live sycophantically off one another. The most notable of these being the doughpot, described as a “nauseous creature” and “twenty tons of mushy filth” a formless blob that crashes down and devours everything in its path (and in yet another bit of sly humor on Weinbaum’s part, he notes that “the Dutch are not prudish and they call the horror just what they think it warrants.”). My personal favorite of Weinbaum’s stories in this collection is “The Mad Moon,” reminiscent of Frederic Brown’s “Placet is a Crazy Place,” set on an Io where the aliens-the long-necked, balloon-headed, seemingly moronic loonies, intelligent yet devious ratlike slinkers, and the intelligent, outwardly friendly yet impossible to penetrate parcats- all operate on a logic of their own. Of course, not all of Weinbaum’s stories are successful. “The Valley of Dreams,” the sequel to “A Martian Odyssey,” is not as well known and for good reason. It suffers from the same affliction of too many unnecessary sequels in science fiction, of revealing too much when the mystery was part of original story’s greatness, and worse yet, Tweel winds up being humanized in this story (for that matter, the story’s big revelation is ruined on the cover of the paperback edition). Although the bladder birds of Europa featured in “Redemption Cairn” are memorable, there are no other interesting aliens to satisfy Weinbaum fans in what turns out be a talky and routine adventure story made only slightly more interesting by its Jovian lunar setting. But these are exceptions to the rule, fortunately.
Weinbaum also stayed Earthbound for some of his stories, but his imagination roamed no less freely and his thoughts probed no less deeper for them. In his second-best known short story, “The Adaptive Ultimate,” which has been the subject of one film and at least two television adaptations, Weinbaum does for the mutant superhuman what he did for the extraterrestrial, suggesting that, contrary to well-held tenets of the time, evolutionary advancement does not constitute moral or social advancement, and demonstrating a sophisticated approach to genetic engineering, long before fellow science fiction author Jack Williamson coined the term. Even more fascinating in its handling of evolutionary biology is “Proteus Island,” where the hero is stranded on the titular land mass off the coast of Australia, and finds that it goes beyond mere biodiversity to the point where every individual organism is its own genus. On the lighter side are two delightful tales of marvelous inventions featured in this collection, the “Pygmalion’s Spectacles” that function much akin to virtual reality, transporting their wearer to a dream world based on their sensory impressions, and “The Worlds of If,” where a device provides glimpses of possible futures. The latter story introduces Weinbaum’s second most famous character, Hans van Manderpootz, a brilliant but blustering Dutch scientist and inventor, as well as Wells Dixon, the beleaguered playboy who serves as the foil for his gadgets, and would turn up in two more short stories (although a “Karl Ludwig” and “Dan Burke” turn up in “Pygmalion’s Spectacle’s,” it is for all intents and purposes a van Manderpootz and Dixon story as well). It is not surprising to find out that in each of these stories, van Manderpootz invents a new device that enables the user to see things from a different perspective, as this is what Weinbaum himself did throughout his brief career, and advocated that his fellow science fiction writers try to do as well.
In spite of the whimsy and delightful verbal exchanges that characterize most of these stories, there is still an element of sadness in many of them. Like too many a writer, Weinbaum’s premature death was due to a drug addiction, not opium or alcohol in his case, but tobacco, and a melancholy thread runs throughout his stories, with a running theme of opportunities lost and chances missed, all of which could have been prevented had the characters only applied themselves. Dixon in the van Manderpootz stories is always a victim of procrastination, losing his every chance at true love. In his many of his alien stories, such as “Valley of Dreams,” “The Mad Moon” and “The Lotus Eaters.” Weinbaum gives us beings who were once members of great civilizations and now only have distant memories of past glories, or who have the potential for greatness, yet for whatever reason, are somehow incapable of achieving it. One wonders if Weinbaum was commenting on his own life, having spent years trying to find an area where he could excel, and only to have his life cut short by his own habits after finding it.
It has often been speculated on what would have happened had Weinbaum not died, and had lived a long and full life and been able to fulfill the promise of his writing career. Isaac Asimov believed that Weinbaum would have, in all likelihood, left the pulps for a more lucrative and respectable career in the mainstream press, and it appears, based on the remaining manuscripts that he had been working on at the time of his passing, that this indeed would have been the case. Robert Bloch, a personal friend of Weinbaum, states in the afterward that Weinbaum had begun outlines of two stories, a romantic tragedy, Three Who Danced, and an allegorical fantasy, Faustine, both intended for the “slicks”. Had Weinbaum stayed in science fiction, Asimov states, he probably would have gone down as the greatest SF writer who ever lived, surpassing Heinlein, Bradbury, even Wells. But the background Bloch provided on his friend makes one imagine an even more tantalizing possibility. According to Bloch, after being unable to find employment as chemical engineer, Weinbaum had accepted a job as a manager of a movie theater (as his middle name indicated, he was related to the Sid Grauman of the famed Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood, so perhaps it came naturally). Weinbaum had become enamored of this new medium of narrative expression, and apparently, it was all those hours spent watching stories unfold on the screen that had inspired him to write his own….
So who knows? Maybe in some alternate world, Weinbaum successfully kicked his smoking habit, and continued to write, until Hollywood took notice. And this world, Frank Capra directs Jimmy Stewart opposite a Willis O’Brien-animated Tweel in an adaptation of A Martian Odyssey, Bogie and Bacall star in the Howard Hawks production of Parasite Planet, featuring doughpots, triops and Jack Ketch trees brought to life by Ray Harryhausen, and a George Pal production of The Mad Moon features Charlton Heston starring alongside Puppetoon loonies and slinkers. Sam Jaffee is van Manderpootz and Cary Grant is Dixon Wells in a movie by Preston Sturges, Pygmalion’s Spectacles is the fourth segment of Jules Duvivier’s Flesh and Fantasy, Max Ophuls directs Three Who Danced, and either William Dieterle or Rene Clair directs Faustine…. and all of these adaptations are written by Weinbaum himself.
But alas, this is just another World of If….