Wouldn’t it be cool if Mars once held a civilization similar to our own? That is the premise of H. Beam Piper’s 1957 science fiction novelette “Omnilingual” where a group of specially trained scientists travel to the Red Planet to uncover an ancient Martian city. The scientists find themselves stumped by the aliens’ language until one dedicated and tenacious archaeologist finds a “Rosetta Stone” that opens the proverbial floodgates.
Non-Spoiler Summary In A Nutshell:
“Omnilingual” follows the story of Martha Dane, an archaeologist working with a team of the first explorers on Mars. While other scientists are busy exploring the red landscape, excavating buried skyscrapers and classifying the local fauna, Martha is working hard to crack the Martian language. How hard? Well, some of her esteemed colleagues are accusing her of being narrow minded and risking too much of her scholarly reputation. They may very well be right, because she has nothing to show for all her long hours spent pouring over Martian books – not even one word! But when the expedition stumbles into a well preserved university she finally gets her chance to prove the others wrong – as long as their own amazing discoveries don’t steal the show!
One of the civilian volunteers, a woman professor of natural ecology from Penn State University, was looking up and down the hall.
“You know,” she said, “I feel at home here. I think this was a college of some sort, and these were classrooms. That word, up there; that was the subject taught, or the department. And those electronic devices, all where the class would face them; audio-visual teaching aids.”
“A twenty-five-story university?” Lattimer scoffed. “Why, a building like this would handle thirty thousand students.”
“Maybe there were that many. This was a big city, in its prime,”
My Two Cents:
• The good:
- This is a well written and fascinating story about the discovery of an ancient culture. If you have any interest in archeology, or linguistics, or anthropology then you will most likely enjoy this story.
- Another in the long line of great short stories that are about (or take place on) Mars.
- This is a rather famous short story. Best to read it now so that you can keep up with intellectual conversations about science fiction!
• The bad:
- This is not an action story. It is about the careful process of discovering an ancient alien culture. If you are the kind of person who has to have lasers and car chases in a story then you may want to skip this one.
• Page Count: 30
• Word Count: 16,420
• “Omnilingual” garnered the following awards:
- It placed 30th in the 1971 Astounding/Analog All-Time Poll for short fiction.
Where you can find “Omnilingual”:
- This novelette first appeared in the February 1957 issue of Astounding Science Fiction.
- “Omnilingual” is included in the excellent collection of classic science fiction stories The World Turned Upside Down.
- You can read a nice HTML or plain text version of “Omnilingual” (complete with illustrations) at Project Gutenberg.
Some Interesting Links:
- You may enjoy this story more if you know a little bit about the real Rosetta Stone.
- Did you know that H. Beam Piper, the author of “Omnilingual”, never attended college but instead went to work on the Pennsylvania Railroad? Yep. You can learn more about this science fiction author at Wikipedia.
- Do you like my title for this post? It is part of a group writing project about “killer titles”.
Craving More Stories?
If you enjoyed this story then you might also like A Rose for Ecclesiastes, about a gifted linguist who is the first human allowed to read sacred Martian texts, by Roger Zelazny.