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.


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