When last we saw Dick Jarvis – shipwrecked member of the first manned expedition to Mars – he was accompanied by a strange, ostrich-like alien companion named Tweel; Dick had been traveling across the Martian desert in an effort to reach the expedition’s main base prior to the crews’ return to Earth. During the course of their travels, Jarvis and Tweel investigate a mud city erected beside one of Mars’ famous canals. The city is inhabited by scurrying, bustling barrel-creatures, all of whom are ignoring Jarvis and his companion.
So Jarvis – always the man of action – determines to conduct a practical experiment and steps into the path of one of the barrel creatures.
The results are amusing and confusing; again, Weinbaum gives us just enough detail to keep us moving along, waiting to find out what will happen next and, in a fashion now typical for this story, he introduces even more mystery at the same time:
I planted myself in the way–ready to jump, of course, if the thing didn’t stop.
“But it did. It stopped and set up a sort of drumming from the diaphragm on top. And I held out both hands and said, ‘We are friends!’ And what do you suppose the thing did?”
“Said, ‘Pleased to meet you,’ I’ll bet!” suggested Harrison.
“I couldn’t have been more surprised if it had! It drummed on its diaphragm, and then suddenly boomed out, ‘We are v-r-r-riends!’ and gave its pushcart a vicious poke at me! I jumped aside, and away it went while I stared dumbly after it.
“A minute later another one came hurrying along. This one didn’t pause, but simply drummed out, ‘We are v-r-r-riends!’ and scurried by. How did it learn the phrase? Were all of the creatures in some sort of communication with each other? Were they all parts of some central organism? I don’t know, though I think Tweel does.”
Jarvis is just as puzzled by the barrel creature’s behavior as we are. He looks to his Martian guide and receives the following by way of explanation:
“Anyway, the creatures went sailing past us, every one greeting us with the same statement. It got to be funny; I never thought to find so many friends on this God-forsaken ball! Finally I made a puzzled gesture to Tweel; I guess he understood, for he said, ‘One-one-two—yes!—two-two-four—no!’ Get it?”
“Sure,” said Harrison, “It’s a Martian nursery rhyme.”
“Yeah! Well, I was getting used to Tweel’s symbolism, and I figured it out this way. ‘One-one-two—yes!’ The creatures were intelligent. ‘Two-two-four—no!’ Their intelligence was not of our order, but something different and beyond the logic of two and two is four. Maybe I missed his meaning. Perhaps he meant that their minds were of low degree, able to figure out the simple things—’One-one-two—yes!’—but not more difficult things—’Two-two-four—no!’ But I think from what we saw later that he meant the other.
Jarvis and Tweel watch as the train of barrel creatures and carts rushes by them; it then shortly returns but this time the carts are full of stone and sand, plants and detritus. Jarvis tries his experiment again, this time refusing to move out of the way:
The third one I assumed to be my first acquaintance and I decided to have another chat with him. I stepped into his path again and waited.
“Up he came, booming out his ‘We are v-r-r-riends’ and stopped. I looked at him; four or five of his eyes looked at me. He tried his password again and gave a shove on his cart, but I stood firm. And then the—the dashed creature reached out one of his arms, and two finger-like nippers tweaked my nose!”
“Haw!” roared Harrison. “Maybe the things have a sense of beauty!”
“Laugh!” grumbled Jarvis. “I’d already had a nasty bump and a mean frostbite on that nose. Anyway, I yelled ‘Ouch!’ and jumped aside and the creature dashed away; but from then on, their greeting was ‘We are v-r-r-riends! Ouch!’ Queer beasts!
Jarvis puzzles over this and decides to follow the train of barrel creatures, which leads to an opening in one of the mud city buildings. Tweel and Jarvis enter and are soon lost in a maze of underground tunnels, occupied by the barrel creatures performing incomprehensible actions.
They soon realize they are lost and their quest switches from that of exploration to trying to find a way out of the mud city warren. Jarvis suspects that they spent several days underground.
In one of the queerest scenes in the story, Jarvis and Tweel come across a grinder – a great drum set perpendicular to the floor of a tunnel. Barrel creatures regularly appear with their pushcarts, and dump the contents under the drum, where it is crushed. Jarvis is astonished when one of the barrel creatures dumps his load and then follows it under the wheel. He observes this several times, confirming that the original action was not an accident.
“There was a—a sort of machine in the chamber, just an enormous wheel that turned slowly, and one of the creatures was in the act of dumping his rubbish below it. The wheel ground it with a crunch—sand, stones, plants, all into powder that sifted away somewhere. While we watched, others filed in, repeating the process, and that seemed to be all. No rhyme nor reason to the whole thing—but that’s characteristic of this crazy planet. And there was another fact that’s almost too bizarre to believe.
“One of the creatures, having dumped his load, pushed his cart aside with a crash and calmly shoved himself under the wheel! I watched him being crushed, too stupefied to make a sound, and a moment later, another followed him! They were perfectly methodical about it, too; one of the cartless creatures took the abandoned pushcart.
“Tweel didn’t seem surprised; I pointed out the next suicide to him, and he just gave the most human-like shrug imaginable, as much as to say, ‘What can I do about it?’ He must have known more or less about these creatures.
“Then I saw something else. There was something beyond the wheel, something shining on a sort of low pedestal. I walked over; there was a little crystal about the size of an egg, fluorescing to beat Tophet. The light from it stung my hands and face, almost like a static discharge, and then I noticed another funny thing. Remember that wart I had on my left thumb? Look!” Jarvis extended his hand. “It dried up and fell off—just like that! And my abused nose—say, the pain went out of it like magic! The thing had the property of hard x-rays or gamma radiations, only more so; it destroyed diseased tissue and left healthy tissue unharmed!
Weinbaum never explains the barrel creature’s actions. We’re left only with the fact that Tweel seems to be familiar with the creatures and dismissive of their actions.
Suddenly, in one of the most hectic scenes in the story, the barrel creatures go into a frenzy, threatening Tweel and Jarvis (and incidentally providing a good example of Wenbaum’s use of the comedic:
A crowd of them advanced toward us; we backed out of what I thought was the passage we’d entered by, and they came rumbling after us, some pushing carts and some not. Crazy brutes! There was a whole chorus of ‘We are v-r-r-riends! Ouch!’ I didn’t like the ‘ouch’; it was rather suggestive.
The two get trapped and are desperately making a last stand: Jarvis realizes that Tweel can leave at any time, but Tweel sticks with him:
“Man! We were through and I knew it! Then I realized that Tweel wasn’t. He could have leaped the mound behind us as easily as not. He was staying for me!
“Say, I could have cried if there’d been time! I’d liked Tweel from the first, but whether I’d have had gratitude to do what he was doing—suppose I had saved him from the first dream-beast—he’d done as much for me, hadn’t he? I grabbed his arm, and said ‘Tweel,’ and pointed up, and he understood. He said, ‘No—no—no, Tick!’ and popped away with his glass pistol.
“What could I do? I’d be a goner anyway when the sun set, but I couldn’t explain that to him. I said, ‘Thanks, Tweel. You’re a man!’ and felt that I wasn’t paying him any compliment at all. A man! There are mighty few men who’d do that.
“So I went ‘bang’ with my gun and Tweel went ‘puff’ with his, and the barrels were throwing darts and getting ready to rush us, and booming about being friends. I had given up hope. Then suddenly an angel dropped right down from Heaven in the shape of Putz, with his under-jets blasting the barrels into very small pieces!
Action then shifts back to the cabin of the Ares; Jarvis explains that Tweel left and they couldn’t follow him in the rocket and it is revealed that Jarvis stole the crystal (the wart & frostbite cure) which was what started the fight with the barrel people. The end.
So what can we say about this most revered tale?
The ending leaves a bit to be desired: after a moment or two of reflection, one has to wonder at Tweel’s motivations and his morals as he is complicit in the theft of the barrel creature’s crystal. Perhaps he has no respect for the barrel creatures; perhaps his race’s relation to property is different than our own; perhaps he already knew of the crystal’s healing powers, knows the barrel creatures can get more and figures that letting the human have one will be a spur to good relations in the future. We will never know, of course (though more insight into Tweel and his species can be gained by reading the sequel – Valley of Dreams).
The ending is also a bit awkward as Weinbaum skips over the taking of the crystal by Jarvis in order to end with a surprise; it’s not a bad ending, but it is weak.
And what about the rest?
Well, for one thing, Weinbaum taught everyone how to “do aliens” with this one story. There was no looking back for any serious – or even half serious – author of science fiction after this story. A new standard had been established and it quickly became the new norm; aliens had to be inscrutable, motivated by incomprehensible goals, different.
Weinbaum also furthered the technique of pulling the reader through the story by offering interesting tidbits of detail – but never enough. It’s a technique that works very well with this story.
Characterization? I’d say that Weinbaum did a very good job with Tweel and a good job with Jarvis; that the rest of the Ares crew are nothing more than quick brushstrokes, just enough to serve as narrative foils. Weinbaum’s method of characterization is to reveal Jarvis through dialogue and actions, rather than internal monologue or long disquisitions on his childhood fetishes. I personally prefer this method as it allows me to get to know a character in the same manner I would get to know a person – through their words and their actions, and incompletely.
The technology presented in the story may give some a bit of a pause (even after we get past the presentation of a Mars that no longer exists) – but consider the Mars 1 project that plans to drop four colonists on Mars by 2024: they’ll be going in a “backyard spaceship” (one not funded by government).
True, we see no mention of computers (how often does a mechanic talk about his wrench?) and it would have been smart of the Ares expedition to plant communications satellites in orbit before landing so that the crew could use cell phones to communicate, but the reader ought not really be bothered by such as the panoply of Martian life and landscape presented in the rest of the story is more than enough compensation.
I’d say that A Martian Odyssey is still well worth reading, has few disconnects that will really take the reader out of the story (if they just relax a little bit) and that the opportunity to read and explore one of the most influential SF stories of all time is well worth the effort.