Print culture on Mars

I think I’ve mentioned my fondness for Librivox‘s audio books, both because they’re made in the open-source spirit and because they’re introducing me to a lot of unfamiliar books. Lately I’ve been branching out from their ghost story collections and P. G. Wodehouse novels into science fiction section.

My latest train-listening download was Omnilingual, a 1950s novella by H. Beam Piper about archaeologists investigating a long-dead civilization on Mars. Martha Dane, the heroine, wants to decode the completely alien Martian language; her efforts finally pay off when the team finds what proves to be a Martian university, with a huge library of books. Even more useful is a Martian version of the periodic table, which supplies the beginnings of a solution to the language puzzle.

There’s a nice post on the linguistics of it at Tenser, said the Tensor.* The language question is a key part of the book, but part of what intrigued me was the question of print culture. The first chapter has Martha poring over a Martian periodical (complete with volume and issue number, and table of contents). The Martians in this book are basically humanoid, and the archaeologists recognize what various buildings and artifacts are for with ease, because they’re so much like the earth equivalents. It turns out that the Martians not only had scholarly journals, they also had books in codex format, and libraries with stacks and reading rooms and reference desks and even dumbwaiters for transporting books between different floors.**

I can’t decide whether to be tickled by the idea of aliens developing a print culture in exactly the same ways western European culture did (with silicon-based paper the one exception), or consider it a too-easy solution to the characters’ chief problem, i.e. reconstructing the civilization with no live Martians to explain anything. For most of the first couple of chapters I was hoping there’d be a plot twist where all of the archaeologists’ assumptions turned out to be wrong.

But in the end, I rather enjoyed it. And I think it’s interesting in itself that the whole apparatus of both a print culture and a university system — both of which could, after all, have developed in many different ways, or not at all — was so transparent to Piper that when he thought about his Martians leaving behind a written record, libraries full of books and periodicals seemed like the most logical and likely outcome.

I’d still like to see a science fiction novel about aliens with a completely different way of preserving the written record, or without a written record at all. Those of you who read more SF than I do, do you have any recommendations?

* Who also has a great post about that episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation with the aliens who communicate only in literary and mythological allusions.

** I found the detail of the dumbwaiter unaccountably charming. It seems so retro now, in the way so many technologies once considered cutting-edge tend to do. Although I have seen a book dumbwaiter in a very new special collections library, so they’re not completely obsolete. (Actually, if I ever design and build my own house, I think it would be fun to have a dumbwaiter of my very own.)

2 Responses to “Print culture on Mars”

  1. Kevin says:

    Cool post! Never thought of Martian print culture before. I’d like to check out these books.

  2. Amanda says:

    Omnilingual is in Project Gutenberg: here’s the link. Enjoy!