Friday, November 23, 2007

H Beam Piper's "Omnilingual": A technique to decode unknown written language of an industrial society

Quote from the novella titled Omnilingual by H Beam PiperImagine a replica of European culture at roughly the level of its development in early twentieth century. Assume the people of this replica had died out thousands of years ago. And archaeologists of about mid twentieth century Europe discover their long lost city.

This is a novella length story of archeology field-work of this nature. Running through the narrative is the apparently central thread about how to make sense of their books found during the digging - of which a large quantity is available. Their scripts appears to follow the general principles of European written languages, but the problem is - there is no Rosetta Stone to establish a reference for translation.

The story poses this problem in a very colorful but ridiculous way - the digging is really happening on Mars. Sentient Martians apparently died out 50,000 years ago, leaving behind buried cities at about the level of development of Europe in early twentieth century. Also, they look very human, have customs rather similar to Europeans of the era, etc.

In spite of this, I never got bored. It's action packed - something or the other is always happening.

Story summary.

Martha Dane is part of a large contingent of archaeological diggers on Mars; the team includes a lot of military staff too. Martha is spending a lot of time trying to figure out the ancients' written script, & is generally tolerated or ridiculed by others because there is no Rosetta Stone for reference.

That is when they end up digging a multi-story tower that apparently was a university. While Martha will work out a few words while looking at murals at the walls in the university, real breakthrough will come when a group that includes her comes across the equivalent of Dmitri Mendeleev's Periodic Table of elements on a chemistry classroom wall. Table includes several pieces of information about elements including their atomic weight & their name in local script.

That's the Eureka moment. To decode the text of a culture that has discovered physical sciences familiar to us, you look for their scientific tables of physical facts - properties of elements, astronomical facts, ... That is the Rosetta Stone.

Throughout the story, I was somewhat bothered with the attitude that it's ok to defile the environment in science's cause - e.g., on a planet with few animals, the moment you see one, you have to shoot it down so you can analyze its tissue in lab!!

May be it was the attitude of Piper's times, may be it is still widespread in places I've not been to. Michael Crichton discusses this attitude at some length in his "Jurassic Park". Arthur Clarke also highlighted the issue of defiling environment in the cause of "development" briefly in his "Islands in the Sky"; but he didn't seem to see anything wrong with it.

See also.

  1. Ted Chiang's "The Story of Your Life": A much more realistic example of difficulties & issues in decoding a truly alien language.

Collected in.

  1. David Drake, Jim Baen, & Eric Flint (Ed)'s "The World Turned Upside Down".
  2. Isaac Asimov & Martin H Greenberg (Eds)' "Isaac Asimov Presents the Great SF Stories 19 (1957)".

Fact sheet.

First published: Astoundin Science Fiction, February 1957.
Rating: A
Download full text from Project Gutenberg, Manybooks, or Feedbooks. Or LibriVox audio read by Mark Nelson.