Mar 5 2012 12:00pm

Scientific Language: H. Beam Piper’s “Omnilingual”

Re-reading “Omnilingual,” an H. Beam Piper short story published in Analog in 1957 and collected in Federation, I decided it was the classic SF short story, the one everyone ought to read if they’re only going to read one, because it’s both typical and excellent.

You’ve probably read it already, because it’s been anthologised all over, and if you haven’t it’s on Project Gutenberg, so what are you waiting for?

Old fashioned SF tends to be about scientists who make a discovery that changes everything. Ideally, and this is certainly true of “Omnilingual,” the story will raise a philosophical question which will thereafter be something that SF has to deal with. Questions like “How alien can somebody be and still be a person?” and “What are the moral implications of being able to duplicate somebody exactly?” and “If there are aliens why aren’t they here?” aren’t scientific; though science and technology are needed to be able to make the thought experiment real, they are definitely philosophical questions. 

One of the things SF does is to raise this kind of question and make the reader think. Sometimes SF finds an answer it really likes and uses it thereafter — and this is why we now have “SF furniture,” and SF that builds on SF without having to go back through all the arguments. Because SF is in dialogue with other SF, once a question has been raised it can’t thereafter just be ignored — and this can be good or bad; sometimes we go haring off down unproductive rabbitholes like Cyberpunk and the Singularity as if there were something in real science requiring cyberimplants and grunge or merged post-human minds.

“Omnilingual” raises a question that everyone who has dealt with the subject since has had to either accept or find a way around. Some of those ways around have been awesome.

The philosophical question raised in “Omnilingual” is “If scientific truths are true for everyone, will we therefore be able to communicate with all scientifically literate cultures using science?” The Ophiuchi Hotline has an answer for this, Ted Chiang’s “The Story of Your Life” has a different answer for this. I can think of lots of SF that just accepts that it is true, that we will be able to achieve translation this way. It’s a story and a question that have undoubtedly been influential.

The other reason I’d suggest it as everyone’s one classic SF story is because it has nothing to be ashamed of or make allowances for. Piper was always a writer who could draw the reader in, and he does that here.

“Omnilingual” is about archaologists excavating Martian ruins, and it does pretty well with showing us obsessed scientists, scientists who care about fame more than their profession, and making future archaeological details feel right. It also has a central character who makes a great discovery. Typically for classic SF, she decides to pursue a line of investigation others shun, and is utterly vindicated.

The pronoun isn’t so typical, in 1957, and one of the things that makes “Omnilingual” notable. Not only does it have a central character who is a female scientist, but she isn’t the only female scientist in the team, and Martha’s gender isn’t unnaturally belaboured. She’s female, she’s a scientist, so are lots of people, this is the future. She’s obsessed with her subject and worried about her career exactly as anybody would be. She’s a female scientist making great discoveries, and the text takes that for granted. In addition, the crew and scientists consist of people of many different ethnicities and nationalities, including Europeans from Europe and Japanese from Japan, and again, this is taken for granted. And the Cold War isn’t still rumbling on in the background, as it so often seems to be in old SF. Indeed, the only thing that made me raise my eyebrows was the way everyone was lighting cigarettes and drinking cocktails.

The rest of Federation doesn’t hold up quite so well and is probably mostly of interest to dedicated Piper fans, and while I always enjoy reading these stories there are things to wince at here and there. But not in “Omnilingual”!

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently Among Others, and if you liked this post you will like it. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

1. CarlosSkullsplitter
Omnilingual also has a "Turco-German" as a significant character, although the chronology of the story provides a different background for that character than that of most modern Turkish Germans. Still, interesting.
john mullen
2. johntheirishmongol
Omnilingual didn't stick out for me like it did you. I have read it but it isn't currently in my library. I am a huge H. Beam Piper fan, and read everything I could find from him. The tragedy of Piper was how early we lost him and how he died.
3. wiredog
This was the first Piper story I read, in 8th grade in 78 or 9. The local library had an old hardcover anthology with this in it. As soon as his stuff started being re-issued I started buying it. I have that copy of Federation pictured above, in about the same condition.
Chris Palmer
4. cmpalmer
Hey, it passes the Bechdel Test in the second scene.
Jo Walton
5. bluejo
CMPalmer: I know! I'm used to making excuses for older stories because it was a different time, but it's really nice to notice one where there's nothing whatsoever to excuse.
6. Ingrid
I remember reading this story many years ago and thinking it was far too simplistic. Why would the Martians have our system of a symbol for a sound? Even on earth people have used other solutions: a symbol for a word, or a symbol for a syllable. And most of us communicate through sound. Martians might well have had a totally different mode of communication, and a different system of notation to match.
7. Zvi
It shows the default sexism of the time with women referred to as 'girls' (men aren't referred to as 'boys'); even the main character is so described. "The girl ordnance officer"... "A couple of girl lieutenants".... as opposed to the unmarked (male) lieutenants and ordnance officers. Still, at least they're there.
8. AlBrown
A classic story from one of the greatest SF authors of its golden age, whose premature death was a great loss for the field. He could write a thoughtful story along with the best of them, and was top notch at spinning an adventure yarn as well.
9. rmtodd
re #6: "And most of us communicate through sound. Martians might well have had a totally different mode of communcation, and a different system of notation to match.". This isn't made terribly explicit in "Omnilingual", and it's not clear how much of it the characters in the story themselves know, but in Piper's world, Martians are actually 100% Homo Sapiens, and humans on Earth are descended from a few Martians who escaped the downfall of their planetary ecology. You learn a bit more about this in the Paratime stories, where there's a wide continuum of alternate timelines ranging from the First Level (fully successful transplantation of advanced technology civilization from Mars to Earth) to the Second, Third, Fourth Level (just barely surviving colony, e.g., our timeline) to the Fifth Level (no civilization on Earth at all). And yes, it helps in reading these stories to not know what modern science knows about how our genome is closely related to that of every other lifeform on Earth. :-)

If you want to look at an interesting take on the possibility of a "different mode of communication", though, you might wanna take a look at Piper's story "Naudsonce".
Kristen Templet
10. SF_Fangirl
Indeed, the only thing that made me raise my eyebrows was the way everyone was lighting cigarettes and drinking cocktails.

I find this line pretty funny because I am in the middle of reading my first Piper, Little Fuzzy, right now, and all the smoking is the thing that dates the story most of all. There are pipes, cigarettes, and a man lighting his date's cigarette all over. It's actually jarring.

Thanks for the review, Jo. I already downloaded Omnilingual and am looking forward to reading it soon.
11. ofostlic

I don't think the alphabet is that strange an assumption. The story would work almost unchanged with a syllabary -- and Linear B is actually mentioned. Even for a system like Chinese it would be feasible as long as words like April and metallurgy have compositional meaning, which they more or less do in Chinese. Piper had to pick one, and alphabets are a reasonable choice.

Assuming sound and writing in the first place might be more of a stretch, but I don't see that it's a really unreasonable thing for Piper to assume, and the characters have fairly good reasons for believing it.
12. James Davis Nicoll
Sorry to barge in but if like me others greatly enjoyed Jo's Revisiting the Hugos series, note that it would be eligible for a Best Related Work Hugo.

The nominating period closes on Sunday, March 11, 2012, at 11:59 p.m. PDT.
13. James Davis Nicoll
I'm pretty sure my first Piper was Little Fuzzy, the 1976 Ace MMPB edition with the Michael Whelan cover. I wonder who red-lit that? Wasn't Baen, he didn't return to Ace until 1977.
James Goetsch
14. Jedikalos
Thanks for the link: I read that story long, long ago and was glad to re-read it. It was odd how all the smoking made it seem dated more than anything else! And I loved the way women scientists and officers were a natural part of the story.
Pamela Adams
15. PamAdams
For years, I had forgotten all bits of the story except 'periodic table = Rosetta Stone,' and was glad to re-read it in Federation. (I think I had the same problem with The Man Who Walked Around the Horses!)

I also like that the third archaeologist is complaining because he sees her as competition- but that her gender doesn't seem to be part of the problem.

Indeed, the only thing that made me raise my eyebrows was the way everyone was lighting cigarettes and drinking cocktails.
Especially on Mars- where they're having to make their own air to breathe.
16. All_Day_SCI-fi
Actually one curious thing about this story is that it talks of CLIMATE CHANGE destroying a civilization and wiping out an intelligent species. In 1957 that was no a very significant point. But now that we are arguing about whether or not humans are affecting the climate it is of greater significance.

The story does not say anything about the cause of the change in the climate of Mars.
17. All_Day_SCI-fi
Of course the odd thing about the story is that there is never any mention of the Martian gravity.
18. Anton Sherwood
I like to imagine a bitter feud over whether the Martians wrote in phonemes or in syllables. (Most human scripts began as syllabaries; the triumph of the alphabet resulted indirectly from a quirk of Semitic morphology.)

John Cowan wrote an 'updated' version of Omnilingual, purged of the smoking and residual sexism. One hopes he enjoyed the exercise.

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