Stanley G. Weinbaum, according to Isaac Asimov, existed before the "Golden Age" of science fiction (which according to him was before the path-breaking editor John W. Campbell appeared on the scene). In those "dark ages", science fiction was mostly composed of the stories of the "space opera" style: adventure stories of the type H. Rider Haggard produced, only they were transplanted to Mars and Venus instead of Africa. Indeed, it is maybe no coincidence that Edgar Rice Burroughs created both Tarzan and John Carter of Mars.
Stanley Weinbaum was a short-lived meteor who blazed brilliantly across the SF night sky for a very short duration. After producing a handful of brilliant and innovative short-stories, Weinbaum succumbed to cancer at the very young age of thirty-three, leaving his best stories unwritten, according to his friends.
My first introduction to Weinbaum came through Asimov’s compilation of SF before John W. Campbell, Before the Golden Age
, through the short story The Parasite Planet
, where Weibaum has imagined a brilliant Venus full of deadly life-forms. Ever since, I have been waiting to get hold of more of his work, and when I came across the current volume (A Martian Odyssey
), I was overjoyed.
After going through the whole book, my enthusiasm has come down a notch. These stories have not aged well: they were written the 1930’s, between the wars. Most of the world was under the thumb of the Western colonial superpowers, and the U.S.A was just starting its career as an economic power. The concept of Western supremacy permeates the stories (even though I am sure that the author never intended it), and in some cases, becomes downright objectionable. Consider the following passage from Proteus Island
:…he could, he supposed, tie her wrists and ankles; but somehow the idea appealed to him not at all. She was too naïve, too trusting, too awe-struck and worshipful. And besides, savage or not, she was a white girl over whom he had no conceivable rightful authority.
Captain Carver is here musing over what to do with the girl he has “captured” on Austin Island. Ultimately, the fact that she is white saves the girl from bondage!
However, one can pardon such attitudes which are more a product of the age than the person. Even though I found Weinbaum rather wanting as a storyteller on many occasions (many of his stories follow the formula of the boy winning the girl after rescuing her in an alien environment – and the girl is invariable beautiful), as a creator of extraterrestrial life he has no competition. The alien landscapes he creates are so original and the flora and fauna so enthralling (if a trifle frightening), that you will find yourself following the story at breakneck speed. Apart from Parasite Planet
, this tome contains A Martian Odyssey
, The Valley of Dreams
, The Mad Moon
, Redemption Cairn
and Proteus Island
, all choc-a-bloc full of E.T.’s to satisfy even the most finicky connoisseur. I will not detail them here, not only because I am unable to justice to his imagination in a mere book review: I do not want to take away anybody’s delight on encountering them for the first time! Also, Weinbaum has explored non-traditional areas and seminal ideas (for his time, at least) in stories like The Adaptive Ultimate
In the afterword, Robert Bloch talks about Weinbaum’s ideas for future projects and his intention to enter into the field of fantasy – intentions which remained unfulfilled, alas, due to his untimely exit from the world stage. One sometimes feels the truth of what the M.T. Vasudevan Nair (the famous Malayalam writer) said: “Death is a clown who has no sense of the stage.”
A must-read for all SF addicts.