H. Beam Piper
Omnilingual Cover



Spposedly set in "1996," but actually some time well into the future.

Spoiler Alert

The story features terrans, martians (archaeology, corpses), the planet Mars and interplanetary travel.

This novelette concerns a team of archaeologists studying the remains of a buried Martian city, where all of the Martians died 50,000 years before. The heroine of the story is a woman who believes that she will be able to translate the text of the Martian books and magazines which have been discovered, despite the misgivings of most of the rest of the team.

Eventually, they discover a building which formerly housed a university, with murals and entire libraries of books. The key to deciphering the language turns out to be a representation of the periodic table of the elements, which the author considered to be an "omnilingual" artifact (hence the title of the story). Since the data on the table was easy to read in English, they could use it as a scientific "rosetta stone" for learning the language.

The story is very well told, and generates considerable interest in the work of the archaeologists.

In his commentary, Isaac Asimov notes that there was a period of about 50 years when Mars was believed to have canals and to be the home of a dead or dying race of highly civilized Martians. This story is apparently fairly typical of the genre. The Mariner missions ended the hopes for [advanced?] life.

This story was included in Isaac Asimov's excellent anthology Where do We Go From Here?, in which he examines the science behind some selected SF stories. I would very highly recommend this collection.

My rating system: I begin with one star being equivalent to a rating of "C -". Progressing upwards, I add ½ star for each step, up to the maximum 5 stars, which is equivalent to a rating of "A"+. I reserve ½ star for BOMBS, there being no option of zero or negative stars.