Omnilingual, novelette (16,000 words) originally published in Astounding Science Fiction, Vol. LVIII, No. 6, February 1957, pp. 8-46, with cover and interior illustration by Kelly Freas.
The first human expedition to Mars has discovered an ancient Martian civilization, extinct for 50,000 years. Archaeologist Martha Dane is trying to decipher the Martian language as the expedition excavates what seems to be one of the last inhabited cities, buried stories-deep in Martian dust. Dane has been unsuccessful due to the absence of a "bilingual," a translation of the new language into a known language, the traditional method used by linguists to decipher "lost" languages. Martians having died out before encountering any human society, no such bilingual exists for their language. Several expedition members, including the other archaeologists, are skeptical of Dane's likelihood of success, though others support her.
The team discovers the ruins of a university, perhaps the best possible location from which to make sense of a lost civilization. Eventually, a dozen and a half Martian corpses are discovered, remains of the final inhabitants of the university who seem to have committed mass suicide after a catastrophic accident. This seems to be the greatest discovery of the expedition as Dane continues to have very little success in translating the Martian language. But then she stumbles upon a periodic table in a physical science classroom. With the help of an expedition scientist, Dane begins to translate the terms on the table, realizing that she has found her "omnilingual."
Archaeologist Martha Dane is the protagonist here, one of Piper's few major female characters in an unusual role for a woman in this sort of yarn at the time it was written. Dane is the character which best demonstrates Piper was able to write something other than the female caricatures which appear in many of the yarns he was selling to editors from the late '40s to the early '60s.
Other primary characters included the archaeologists, Selim von Ohlmhorst, the Hittitologist near the end of his career, who is generally sympathetic to Dane, and the younger Tony Lattimer, eager to make a name for himself, often at the expense of Dane. The expedition Space Force commander, Colonel Hubert Penrose, is also sympathetic to Dane. (There are hints at a potential romance between them.)
Secondary characters include Sachiko Koremitsu, ordnance lieutenant, who helps with Dane's work and develops a friendship with her. Major Ivan Fitzgerald, the medic, also helps Dane. Two reporters, Sid Chamberlain of Trans-Space News Service and Gloria Standish of the Pan-Federation Telecast System, are among the expedition civilians. Bill Chandler, a zoologist whose efforts are reported by others, discovers a mammal species and air dense enough to breathe in Martian lowlands. Mort Trantor, a physical scientist, and Space Force captain Jeff Miles are assisting Dane when she discovers the periodic table.
As is often the case in Piper's yarns, a host of other characters are mentioned: Captain Field, the intelligence officer, Geoffrey and Rosita, make photostats, Finchley, a woman ("girl") who falls ill, and Major Lindemann and Captain Laurent Gicquel, military engineers.
Set in 1996 CE (54 A.E.), "Omnilingual" is the second yarn in the Future History chronology. Showing the first expedition to Mars—and the discovery of the ancient Martian civilization—this is the first yarn set after the Thirty Days' War and the formation of the Terran Federation.
The expedition is led by the Terran Federation Space Force and in addition to presumably American military and civilian personnel there are also French-Canadian (Gicquel) and Japanese (Koremitsu) officers, suggesting both Canada and Japan are Federation members. (Canada as a Federation member fits with the description of Canada seceding from the British Commonwealth in the earlier yarn "The Edge of the Knife.") It's not clear whether the Turco-German von Ohlmhorst is an immigrant—he admits to a Turkish accent—but his presence suggests that Turkey or perhaps Germany is also a Federation member. (Turkey as a Federation member aligns with the implication in "The Edge of the Knife" that it was a U.S. ally during the Thirty Days' War.)
Dane worked previously at archaeological sites in Pakistan. Given her apparent age Dane's time in Pakistan must have occurred sometime after the Thirty Days' War, suggesting that Pakistan did not suffer substantial nuclear devastation in the War. (There is no information suggesting whether or not Pakistan might be a Federation member.)
Penrose is a veteran of the Thirty Days' War two decades earlier, though there are no specific details of that conflict nor of any recovery efforts or geopolitical circumstances since. The first Mars expedition is a Federation undertaking and there is no mention of any sort of "competition" to get to Mars. (Potential expeditions leading to the colonies on Venus, described in "The Edge of the Knife," go unmentioned here.) A second, larger Federation expedition will supplement this one two years after its initial arrival. Ultimately, is it expected that humans will settle permanently on Mars.
The Federation Space Force seems to be a "combined service," comprised of planet-bound soldiers, aviators and spacecraft personnel. There is no mention of the Space Force in subsequent Future History yarns and by Uller Uprising Federation military forces are divided into separate Army—planet-bound soldiers—and Navy—spacecraft crewmembers—services.
The discovery of the extinct Martian civilization is one of the key events in the Future History, preparing Terro-humans for their subsequent encounters with other extraterrestrial sentients. There are no indications that the Martians had space travel—despite Piper's yarn "Genesis" which depicts a small band of ancient Martians fleeing their dying world only to crash-land catastrophically on Terra—and the Martians remain the most advanced extraterrestrial civilization encountered throughout the Future History.
Also important here are the apparent similarities between Martians and humans, which largely go unremarked upon by the Terran explorers. The lack of interest in the similarity seems unusual—though the idea that "Martians" might be "like humans" was somewhat less unusual at the time the yarn was written—and contrasts sharply with the controversy over the "humanness" of the Freyans in "When in the Course—." Subsequent Future History yarns make it clear that Terro-humans never consider there to be any specific relationship between themselves and the ancient Martians.
Many artifacts in "Omnilingual" differ little from those of the 1950s. Dane uses mechanical drafting tools and board and paper notebooks and sketchbooks. Recording cameras used by the reporters "whir." Document copies are reproduced by photostat. Typical for Piper, smoking is ubiquitous.
Terrans traveled to Mars in a spaceship, Cyrano, which stays in orbit. "Landing-rockets" shuttle between the ship and the planet's surface and "jetticopters" and "wingless airdyne reconnaissance fighters" are flown in the thin Martian air. "Nuclear-electric" batteries and "energy converters" power equipment and tools. Communication with Terra uses a Lunar relay.
And Other People:
The ancient, extinct Martians are central here. To Dane the Martians depicted in murals at the university are "so human in appearance as to seem members of her own race." Fitzgerald, the medic, concludes from depictions of Martians that their "vocal organs were identical with our own." Yet when Martian corpses are discovered there is no specific discussion of their similarities to—or differences from—humans.
On the Viewscreen:
Kelly Freas' cover illustration for the original Astounding publication features Dane, with von Ohlmhorst and Penrose in the background. In the far background is an illustration of a Martian from a mural in the university ruins. Perhaps Freas' portrayal of the Martian as humanoid but apparently not human reflects Piper's intention that the ancient Martians are unrelated to Future History humans.
Freas Astounding interior illustrations open with a two-page spread showing Dane outside the ruined Martian city, with oxygen mask and raised goggles. Two landing-rockets are visible in the distance. Others show Koremitsu and Fitzgerald assisting with book restoration, the blasting of an entrance into the university building, Dane and her colleagues entering the basement of the university building, and Penrose and von Ohlmhorst conversing.
Freas' artwork is excellent, the best illustrations of any of Piper's work before Michael Whelan's Ace reprint covers. No other illustrations appeared before "Omnilingual" transitioned into the public domain.
Piper's sales notebook shows that "Omnilingual" sold on October 15, 1956, shortly before its publication in Astounding.* The second Future History yarn to be published, it was Piper's eighteenth professionally published work. It is perhaps Piper's most anthologized yarn, appearing in over a dozen anthologies—and more than a half dozen more in various translations—before transitioning to the public domain.
"Omnilingual" stands as a classic science-fiction yarn, solving a concrete problem—translating the language of an extinct-yet-scientific alien civilization—in an innovative and scientifically-rigorous manner. It is also simply a fun read. This isn't swashbuckling space opera but a yarn about scientists in an exotic locale doing dull, meticulous work. At the same time Piper deals with timeless issues such as academic politics and journalistic behavior. If one dropped the cigarettes—and the antiquated gender roles—and added a few electronic gadgets—and moved the locale from Mars to some world orbiting another star—"Omnilingual" would be every bit as compelling today as it was more than half a century ago.
The central drama in the yarn, essentially a scientific puzzle made more contentious by the academic ambitions of one of Dane colleagues, archaeologist Tony Lattimer, is well-crafted (though one is left wondering at times why Dane seems so certain she will solve what seems to be an intractable problem). Dane's sympathetic supporters among the expedition members is more a product of their personal affinity for her than due to any concrete sense that there is an actual solution to the puzzle. A bit more back story, perhaps explaining a similar belief in her ultimate success during Dane's work in Pakistan—or maybe a childhood dream of translating an alien language, would have made the yarn stronger.
The final solution, the discovery of the Martian periodic table and the realization that it can serve as an effective "bilingual" is an elegant bit of science-fiction. Not only is some sort of "omnilingual" required to translate an alien language but finding a periodic table to do so only works if it's the language of a scientific civilization. (There is no Fuzzy periodic table of elements, for example.)
Piper tells the yarn well, with Dane quickly realizing she doesn't quite understand enough about physical science to make sense of the periodic table. (Von Ohlmhorst, an expert in his own scientific field, demonstrating that he doesn't even have adequate understanding of the physical sciences to realize that the periodic table captures "universal" phenomena is priceless.) Fortunately there is a handy physical scientist available to help with the initial translation.
There are many ideas in Piper's yarn which were radical at the time it was written yet seem commonsensical today: a scientist protagonist who also happens to be a woman, an "international" crew operating under the auspices of a trans-national government, a combined military service tasked with space exploration, the autonomy required for space explorers to operate at great distances from Earth. These elements make the yarn good science-fiction too. And while there may not be breathable air and primitive fauna in the lowlands of Mars—or the ruins of any Martian civilization—the thin air and the layers of fine dust described by Piper fit well with our understanding of the Martian surface decades after the time when Piper was writing.
This yarn also fits well with the larger Future History. The Terran Federation expedition, comprised solely of people from nations which seemed to be aligned with the United States when it was founded in the run-up to the Thirty Days' War, suggest a great deal about the aftermath of that conflict. Nevertheless, there are some key "missing pieces" that might have been touched on. What about Venus? Was there—or are there plans for—another Terran Federation expedition to Earth's closest neighborning planet? And though it makes sense that the vanquished side in the Thirty Days' War—the "Eastern Axis"—plays no role in the exploration of Mars where are the future adversaries which must be the combatants in the coming Fourth World War? It's possible, of course, that Beam may have included tidbits like this in an early draft that were subsequently excised by his Astounding editor but regardless of the reasons these are some of the questions we are left with for the period between "Omnilingual" and the next Future History yarn, "When in the Course—," set in the era when the global "second" Terran Federation is sending expeditions out to the stars.
Out of 10 rating:
Nine. This is one of Piper's best yarns, with a key, science-fictional central idea which withstands the test of time and characterized by a forward-looking perspective, represented chiefly by the female protagonist, Martha Dane, which places it among the best of science-fiction yarn spinning.
* Excerpts from Piper's sales notebook were first published in Elwanda Holland, "H. Beam Piper in Paperback (1957-1965)," in Books Are Everything (fanzine), No. 8, R.C. & Elwanda Holland, eds., Vol. 2, No. 2, March 1989, pp. 14-21.