2009-10-22

"Omnilingual"

This is to announce my edited version of H. Beam Piper's classic story of linguistic archaeology on Mars, "Omnilingual". Why edit a classic? Here's my Editor's Introduction:

H. Beam Piper's 1956 story "Omnilingual" is one of the few, and still one of the best, science fiction stories in which the science is linguistic archaeology. While the meat of the story holds up marvelously fifty years later, the particulars are firmly rooted in the 1950s. Everyone smokes like a chimney — on Mars! The women are called girls, and their gender is mentioned at every conceivable opportunity. All the work is still done with pencil and paper and sketching boards and looseleaf notebooks.

My edits, then, are intended to modernize the work, to help the 2009 reader not stumble over the details. Notebooks are computerized; sketchbooks have been replaced by tablets. Gender equality and the metric system are taken for granted. Smoking isn't even mentioned. I wedged in a mention of the Classic Maya decipherment of the 1980s (a counterexample to the story's thesis!), but let one of the characters dismiss it as irrelevant. I set the story, as Piper did, forty years in the future, but that is now 2049 rather than 1996. There are fewer This Is Science Fiction flags, so "Earth" instead of "Terra", "U.N." instead of "Federation Government".

Piper's Mars and his Martians are completely impossible based on what we know of Mars today. Rather than trying to change all that, which would have involved wholesale destruction and re-invention, I have changed the planet's name to Ares after the Greek rather than the Roman god of war. The intention is to suggest someplace analogous to Mars as we know it in 2009, but different in detail. The atmosphere on Ares is thin, but breathable with supplementary oxygen; the humidity, while low, supports plenty of life forms. As for the too-human Martians (or Areans), I have made them an offshoot of Homo sapiens whose presence on the fourth planet from the sun remains a mystery.

However, the characters, the plot, the underlying logic remain the same. Hopefully I haven't damaged the story too much in trying to adjust it to modern taste. Those who prefer the original form can easily find it at Project Gutenberg, who provided the public-domain base text from which this revision was made. They also have the original Frank Kelly Freas drawings, which I didn't feel right about using -- they were made in the 1950s, too, and no longer seemed to fit the revised text.

Read and enjoy!

4 comments:

Andrew West said...

If only real life decipherment of unknown scripts were so simple! And why did everyone happily agree that the word "Doma" must be the name of a month when Mars does not have a Moon-like satellite, so presumably doesn't have months?

John Cowan said...

Well, really they are just decimal divisions of the year, but then again months don't have much to do with the Moon any more, unless you're using a Jewish, Islamic, or traditional Chinese calendar.

Anyhow, the plot only tells us about the first few breakthroughs, kind of the ""nu BREAD-an ezzateni, wadar-ma ekuteni" moment.

be_slayed said...

Why can't people smoke on Mars/Ares? Too little oxygen to support combustion? Or Martian/martial law?

jcowan said...

On the real Mars, living spaces would use a low-pressure atmosphere consisting mainly of oxygen, so any kind of open fire would be an intolerable risk, just as it is around supplemental oxygen today.