Stanley G. Weinbaum was born on this date, April 4, in the year 1902. He had a brief career as a science fiction writer in the mid-1930s before dying of lung cancer. While he is to a large degree forgotten today, he still casts a long shadow over the field.
His first story was “A Martian Odyssey”, in which he introduced aliens that were truly alien and not simply bug eyed monsters. We’ll take a look at that story in more depth at a later date.
For now, suffice to say that the impact of that tale was significant. Weinbaum followed it up with a sequel and then went on to write about a solar system populated with interesting and unique aliens. Weinbaum had a unique voice. I think in part that was because the tropes of the field hadn’t solidified, some would say ossified, into the more rigid standards they are now.
I first encountered Weinbaum’s fiction in the Del Rey collection The Best of Stanley G. Weinbaum. Years later, when I came across a hardcover collection of all his short stories, I grabbed. That’s the paperback version on the left.
In honor of Weinbaum’s birthday, I read one of his stories that isn’t set in space but in what was contemporary society of the time. “Pygmalion’s Spectacles”was first published in the June 1935 issue of Wonder Stories. It is more fantasy than science fiction. That wasn’t so uncommon in those days. Like I said, the genre tropes hadn’t calcified.
The story opens with Dan, a young man visiting New York, in conversation with a man he has encountered on the street. Dan has been at a party and has stepped outside to get a bit of fresh air after having a bit too much to drink. The man tells Dan he can make dreams real. Dan accompanies the man back to his hotel, where the man fits Dan with a mask.
Dan soon finds himself in an Eden-like land where he meets a gorgeous young woman named Galatea. She lives alone with her grandfather. There are no insects, no dangerous animals. The flowers sing, and there’s plenty of fruit around to eat.
Galatea tells Dan that according to the law, one day her mate will show up. It’s not going to be Dan, who is rapidly falling in love with the girl. Galatea is falling for him as well. You know things in Eden, or any place like it, can’t stay idyllic for long.
The problem is that Dan is from what Galatea and her grandfather consider to be a shadow world, one that isn’t entirely real. It’s not lawful for her to love him, or him to love her. Galatea’s mother loved a man from Dan’s world, and when her appointed mate arrived, she had already given her heart to another and was banished.
Of course things don’t end well for Dan and Galatea. That part of the story is pretty standard. But who is really the illusion and who is the reality? Is Dan really from a shadow world, or has the man Dan encountered really done what he claims, and made a dream real? How much of what Dan experiences is due to too much alcohol?
Those questions are answered. There’s a coda to the story. Weinbaum doesn’t leave us with Dan coming to his senses in an empty hotel room. And while the ending could be viewed as something of a cop-out, Weinbaum goes beyond the paradise lost motif to at least give the possibility of paradise regained. “Pygmalion’s Spectacles” isn’t Weinbaum’s greatest work, but it’s not his worst, either.
I’ll be looking at more Weinbaum later this year.