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Literature / A Martian Odyssey

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We are v-r-r-r-iends! Ouch!
The barrel creatures, mindlessly parroting the main character

"A Martian Odyssey" is a Science Fiction Novelette by writer Stanley G. Weinbaum that was published in the July, 1934 issue of Wonder Stories magazine. It is famous as one of the first "planetary romances" as well as having one of the first extraterrestrial characters who was more than just a "human with a few differences". Not to mention being friendly rather than a fearsome monster.

The story is set in the early 21st century and features an American scientist, Dick Jarvis, who is part of the first international expedition to the planet Mars. Jarvis sets out to explore the planet on his own when his flying vehicle malfunctions, leaving him stranded miles away from the landing site. He decides to walk back to the camp.

Along the way, Jarvis encounters a plant-like monster about to devour a creature resembling an ibis. Noticing that the creature is carrying a pouch, he concludes that it's a sentient being and saves it from the monster. The creature, named Tweel, is obviously grateful, though they cannot speak directly since their languages are too different. However they manage to communicate by a combination of body language and basic mathematical concepts. Tweel decides to accompany Jarvis as he makes it to safety.

Along the way they encounter an amazing selection of lifeforms, most notably a race of barrel-shaped creatures, whose bizarre behavior even Tweel cannot figure out. Jarvis finds out that the creatures own a crystal with healing properties and tries to take it, but is attacked by them; he escapes with Tweel's help and is rescued by the rest of the expedition. Once Jarvis is reunited with them, Tweel departs without meeting the others.

The story was followed by a sequel, "Valley of Dreams" (November, 1934) where Jarvis is reunited with Tweel and discovers that the Martian's race had visited Earth in ancient times (the Egyptian god Thoth was apparently based on them.) Weinbaum later wrote similar stories set in other planets.

Tropes in "A Martian Odyssey":

  • America Saves the Day: Of the international crew, it's the American scientist who has the adventure. The others are also described somewhat comically. (Though they do end up saving his life at the end.)
  • Deus ex Machina: When Jarvis and Tweel are surrounded by the barrel creatures, Putz's ship comes out of nowhere and rescues him just in time.
  • Everyone Has Standards: Captain Harrison is abrasive and rude to Jarvis, but even he falls silent when Jarvis laments not being able to see his friend Tweel again.
  • First-Contact Math: Tweel manages to use basic math to explain to Jarvis which Martian creatures are sentient and which ones aren't.
  • Getting Crap Past the Radar: The German is named Putz, which happens to be a Yiddish insult.
  • Idiot Hero: Despite being a scientist, Jarvis makes some very foolish decisions, like wandering too far or thinking he could just take the barrel-creatures' treasure. The author even gives him a cowboy accent, as if suggesting this trope intentionally.
  • Interactive Narrator: The whole story is told by Jarvis to his fellow spacemen after the fact. They ask questions and rib him a bit.
  • Kleptomaniac Hero: Jarvis doesn't have any moral issue with stealing the crystal.
  • Martians: Tweel is a very alien but ultimately sympathetic example. It's not really clear if the "barrel creatures" are examples or not—they're alive, they're from the planet Mars, but are they truly "sapient" life from Mars?
  • Multinational Team: The crew of the Ares. There are as usual no women.
  • Repeat After Me: "We are v-r-r-riends! Ouch!"
  • Running Gag: Poor Jarvis's nose is abused three separate times throughout the story, but luckily for him it gets healed at the end.
  • Silicon-Based Life: One of the life forms encountered was a creature that ate sand and excreted bricks that it used to build pyramids.
  • Starfish Aliens: A lot of the fun comes from Jarvis encountering one species of these after another, each more bizarre than the last.
  • You Got Guts: When the barrel creatures attack and Jarvis thinks he's doomed, he gestures for Tweel to flee and save himself. Tweel refuses to leave, and Jarvis declares, "You're a man!"... and feels that the compliment is a bit hollow, considering how few men would stand firm in such a Last Stand situation.
  • Your Heart's Desire: The plant monster captures prey by putting them in a trance where they see the thing they want most; Jarvis is affected by a second monster but Tweel saves him.