Thursday, November 16, 2006

Stanley G. Weinbaum Remembered

Science Fiction has long been regarded as providing a window into the future, although this may be more wishful thinking than anything else. Yet many of the earliest writers were scientists. Ray Cummings, for example, worked with Thomas A. Edison for a number of years before he began his writing career, but one of the best of the early writers dropped out of college. Stanley G. Weinbaum (1902-1935) created the most alien of aliens in his story A Martian Odyssey (1934). His alien acted and thought in a way different from humans and the story has been considered a classic since it was first published.

Weinbaum's story Pygmalion's Spectacles appeared in the June, 1935, issue of Wonder Stories (pictured). In it a scientist has created a new form of motion picture in which the viewer dons a pair of spectacles that allow him to intract with the filmed drama. In other words, Weinbaum predicted Virtual Reality! The story's protagonist is asked to try the spectacles and shortly finds himself in a garden world where he encounters a young woman and her guardian. He is able to hear, smell and touch this world. He becomes a part of the world for the duration of the "motion picture". Of course Weinbaum doesn't use computers; his methods are chemistry and electricity. "I photograph the story in a liquid with light-sensative chromates. I build up a complex solution...I add taste chemically and sound electrically. And when the story is recorded, then I put the solution in my spectacles--my movie projector.I electrolyze the solution, break it down; the older chromates go first, and out comes the story, sight, sound, smell, taste--all." Still, what he describes in the story is Virtual Reality.

Weinbaum wrote 24 short stories and several novels before his death from throat cancer at the age of 33. It is indeed sad to contemplate his loss at such a young age. The stories he had yet to tell are lost forever, but he left behind some excellent works. Every now and then some get reprinted and he is discovered by another generation. If you have not read any of his works, seek them out.

As a final note, in 1973 Stanley G. Weinbaum was honored by having a crater on Mars named after him. It is a fitting tribute for a very creative writer.


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