Friday, February 19, 2016

Omnilingual by H. Beam Piper

Archaeologists on Mars
H. Beam Piper’s novella Omnilingual was first published in the February 1957 issue of Astounding Science Fiction magazine. The story takes place in 1996 on the planet Mars. An expedition of archaeologists from Earth has set up camp and is in the process of exploring the ruins of a mighty civilization that died out around 50,000 years ago. As yet, the reason for the Martian culture’s demise remains a mystery. The team has discovered written records, yet there is no way of reading them. Without some sort of Rosetta Stone—a means of connecting the long-dead language to our own­—translation seems impossible. That doesn’t stop Martha Dane from trying, however. She dreams of being the epigrapher who cracks this ancient extraterrestrial code. Among the members of her team, her efforts are met with supportive encouragement by some and caustic derision by others. Undeterred, Martha persists in accumulating linguistic evidence as more ruins are explored, more artifacts uncovered, and more details are revealed about this mysterious civilization.

Omnilingual is considered a part of Piper’s Terro-Human Future History series, a multi-work epic that chronicles an alternative vision of Earth’s future. One of the characters briefly mentions the “Thirty Days’ War,” an event which took place two decades earlier and serves as the World War III of that fictional universe. On the other hand, the story also seems connected to Piper’s other major series, the Paratime stories, which mentions an alternate timeline in which human life originally developed on Mars before migrating to Earth tens of thousand of years ago. Regardless to which series it belongs, the connection is tangential at best, and no prior knowledge of either series is required to enjoy Omnilingual. It stands alone as a great sci-fi novella in its own right.

In addition to being a fan of vintage science fiction, I also have a personal interest in archaeology, linguistics, and ancient manuscripts, and this story was like a perfect storm of all those elements, so I absolutely loved it. That said, if you’re approaching the story from the Martian angle, hoping for a typical story of space exploration, you might end up being disappointed. One thing that I enjoy about Piper’s writing is that despite all the bizarre worlds he comes up with, his storytelling is always grounded in a procedural realism. The scientists in this story behave like actual scientists. There’s a major subplot about academic rivalry, and each of the feuding scholars hopes that this Martian expedition will advance their careers by leaps and bounds. Although he did not attend college, Piper demonstrates a thorough understanding of academia and its institutional politics, not only here in Omnilingual but also in another Terro-Human Future History story, The Edge of the Knife. Piper realized that science fiction can be about more than just the glamour fields of space or time travel; the scientific method itself is often the subject of his fiction, no matter to which discipline it’s applied. In Omnilingual, Piper tries his hand at archaeology and succeeds in delivering an exhilarating intellectual adventure.
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