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Omnilingual by H. Beam Piper

Omnilingual (edition 2011)

by H. Beam Piper

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625191,731 (3.6)5
Authors:H. Beam Piper
Info:CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (2011), Paperback, 94 pages
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Omnilingual [short story] by H. Beam Piper (Author)



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*** This review contains spoilers ***

This is a short sf story dealing with the discovery of extinct civilizations on a dead Mars and focusing on the efforts to translate the Martian language (the only one, apparently) without a Rosetta stone equivalent. The story was written in the 1950s, and while that clearly shows throughout, the resolution features a neat little idea that redeems much of its failings.

The central conceit is typical of a "science can solve EVERYTHING" attitude: the key to decrypting the Martian language is the periodic table of elements. By figuring out how the Martians named their elements and how they represented the atomic weights, enough words and structural features can be deciphered to start attacking other texts. Furthermore, since the table is universal, its discovery serves as a Rosetta stone for any alien language we might encounter -- an omnilingual text, as it were. That's a clever idea to base an sf short around.

The story's greatest failing, in my view, is that the extinct Martians are so utterly un-alien. They are essentially carbon copies of 1950s Americans: they were humanoid, breathed an oxygen-infused atmosphere, built houses with windows, printed books, used electricity (but had no nuclear energy), used a decimal number system, divided the year in ten months, had universities with libraries, reading rooms, lecture halls and audiovisual teaching aids (here the protagonists discuss how students changed classes in narrow corridors), used an alphabet, their "vocal organs [are] identical with our own", and so on. Piper is very limited and uncreative in how he imagines this alien society. The Western blueprint is even clearer in how this Martian society progressed from a bow-and-spear stone age to a technological society: as evidenced by murals, this process went through the the steps of agriculture, priests and warriors with swords, cannon and guns, galleys, ships "without visible means of propulsion" and finally aircraft.

And despite all this, one of the characters comments that they want to heavily publicize the discovery that the Martians published monthly journals on Chemistry and Physics, in order to "make the Martians seem more real. More human."

The linguistics in this story is so-so. For this story Piper was inspired by the translation of ancient languages, frequently referencing Linear B and especially Hittite, and he deserves props for that. The actual methodology -- figure out a few items, use them to decipher others, and repeat until done -- is ok, too. But again Piper is very uncreative in how he portrays the (sole) Martian language: it's essentially an English-type language. It appears he has no real idea of morphology and how language works, structurally, or of the ways in which it can be represented in writing. For instance, the Martian language "must be something like German; when the Martians had needed a new word, they had just pasted a couple of existing words together."

It also irked me that characters were constantly said to be smoking casually, especially while pouring over brittle documents or while exploring freshly excavated rooms and buildings. And of course, all of the smoking takes place in habitations constructed by making Martian buildings airtight and then pressurizing them with an earth-like atmosphere.

In all, though, this was definitely worth a read. It shows its age and its era, but the optimistic resolution more than makes up for that.

"Omnilingual" is available through Project Gutenberg. ( )
  Petroglyph | Apr 26, 2013 |
Nice short story set on Mars. Human archaeologists and soldiers are excavating the ruins of Martian civilization. We see the story through the character of the woman linguist-archaeologist. The team is opening buildings and looking for artefacts and information about the lost world. There is the usual tension between the need to cooperate between the scientists and the desire to achieve individual fame. Our protagonist is on an obsessive quest to translate Martian texts. All other members of the team believe she is on a fools errand. They keep telling her there is no way to translate a new language without some key matching it to another known language. So, of course, since Martian is isolated and foreign from human languages, she can never succeed. I was very entertained by the development of the story. I even liked the old fashion touches like cigarette smoking. I enjoyed the role of science and the quest for knowledge contained in the story. It held my attention and would be fun for most readers who can take a story with no violence. This short book is available for free from Gutenberg.

mars ( )
  superant | Feb 25, 2013 |
This short story was written in the 1950s, and set on Mars in the 1990s. The Martians have all been dead for thousands of years. There's lots of Martian writing, but how can it be translated if there's no bilingual document like the Rosetta stone?

The archaeology seems a bit unorthodox: smoking in newly discovered rooms, and using explosives to get into abandoned buildings. You can tell that nuclear power was the new thing in the 1950s as well. ( )
  Pondlife | Oct 14, 2012 |
This is a novella originally published in Astounding Science Fiction in 1957. I discovered it on a free audio book site and finished reading it on my Kindle (it's available free from both Amazon and Gutenberg).

An advance group of scientists, military, and civilians begins uncovering a Martian city which died out 50,000 years ago. One archaeologist believes she has a (very long) shot at deciphering Martian writing but needs a big find: a Rosetta stone which gives humans even a few words they can be sure of for building a vocabulary. Her colleagues are generally discouraging, but she perseveres - and has good luck. Typical 50s SF, with women called "girls" and smoking allowed in the rooms being excavated. Still, neat to read, and certainly a quick one for a sci fi category. ( )
1 vote auntmarge64 | Aug 16, 2011 |
This is a quick, fairly enjoyable read about a group of archaeologists, linguists, and other scientists excavating 50,000 year old ruins on Mars in the hopes of discovered what happened to the Martians and, ideally, deciphering their language.

This book seemed fairly accurate in terms of the characters methodology (I can really only speak to the linguistic aspect, however). My one (petty) complaint is that it seems unlikely that Martian morphology would be so similar to English morphology.

This story presented an interesting premise that could have been longer. As the book went on, I was trying to guess what did happen to the Martians; maybe they migrated to Earth! ( )
  Lin-Z | Jun 1, 2011 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Piper, H. BeamAuthorprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Nelson, Mark DouglasNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Martha Dane paused, looking up at the purple-tinged copper sky.
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